February 22 is the latest deadline set by the international community, including the leading sponsors of peace in South Sudan – the United States, United Kingdom, Norway and Italy –for both the government and the opposition to reach an agreement and resolve the conflict in the war-torn country.
This deadline to form a unity government and cease hostilities came after other deadlines in May and November of 2019, respectively, were extended. Other attempts to return to peace, including agreements negotiated in 2015, 2017 and 2018, failed, thus prolonging the conflict.
Since it gained independence from the Republic of Sudan in 2011, hopes for a unified, peaceful and fledging democratic South Sudanese nation were quickly dashed when war broke out between the government and opposition party forces.
Now in its sixth year, the civil war began in December of 2013 after a period of disagreements between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader and then vice-President, Riek Machar, about how best to share power and resources in the ethnically diverse and oil rich country of 13 million people.
The ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement -In Government (SPLM-IG), led by Kiir and the main opposition party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO), led by Machar, who is in exile, are the dominant forces. But an array of a dozen armed groups and opposition parties have since emerged or morphed, causing what Abigail Van Buren of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations calls “political splintering.” She says the disparate agendas of all these groups has contributed in making the conflict resolution process much more difficult.
In tracing the origins of the conflict, Jennifer Williams of Vox says all hell broke loose in 2013 when forces loyal to Machar clashed with forces loyal to Kiir. The precursor to conflict and the results included the dismissal of the vice-president, his cabinet members, and public accusations by Kiir of an attempted coup by Machar to overthrow his government.
“More than 1,000 people were killed and another 100,000 were displaced in the just first week of fighting alone. Machar fled the capital city of Juba, and the Nuer elements of the army broke away and fled with him.”
With this backdrop, recent news on South Sudan is filled with reports of a humanitarian catastrophe, with civilians fleeing into neighboring countries, refugees encamped in shelters, pollution from unsafe oil wells, and disease, including a 2018 measles outbreak which killed dozens.
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), the protracted conflict is the largest refugee situation in the African continent since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The agency says there is an estimated 1.3 million South Sudanese refugees, many of them in neighboring countries of the Great Lakes region of Eastern Africa, including Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.
The crisis is a top priority for the so-called Troika nations; the United States, United Kingdom and Norway, as well as the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the U.N., and the African Union (AU) which says the issue remains a top priority in 2020.
Just as the AU met for its 33rd ordinary session of heads of states and governments in Ethiopia on February 10, educators and human rights activists in Denver were holding a discussion on the matter at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
Convener, Peter Van Arsdale, a professor of African studies at Korbel and a long-time advocate for South Sudan’s independence, is leading an effort to resolve differences among South Sudanese peoples in America.
He says favoritism and bias is at the root of the problem the young nation faces today. Dreams have not been fulfilled for the people of South Sudan, he told the audience made up of students, professors, human rights activists and the community.
“Bureaucrats have turned the situation into kleptocracy and corruption has weakened essential institutions,” he said.
Van Arsdale is the author of a book about human rights called The Tree of Rights: A Metaphor for Engaging Human Rights’ Development and Debate. Explaining the potential of a resolution to the matter, he used a concept he terms “the tree of rights,” which he said has been adopted by Oxford University, to show how the South Sudan peoples could claim their rights peacefully.
In this effort to highlight the situation, Van Arsdale is working with Anita Sanborn, a former president of the Colorado Episcopal Foundation, as well as with the Sudanese community in Denver to bridge differences.
Since she became involved with the Sudanese community in Colorado, Sanborn and her fellow Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other faith-based and non-governmental organizations have resettled many Sudanese refugees in the state. She said she was excited when the new nation of South Sudan was born in 2011. Now, she says she is shocked to learn about what was going on with chronic underdevelopment, a state of famine, suffering children and the floods that have made things worse.
With the conflict unresolved, many more people are fleeing South Sudan, she said. She became involved because of the humanitarian issues emanating from the conflict.
Sanborn said an estimated 7.5 million South Sudanese citizens are currently suffering, with estimated 4.5 million who are displaced.
The event included testimony from David Mayen, a former soldier with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and former spokesperson for Taban Den Gai, one of South Sudan’s vice-presidents. Mayen has been in exile in Colorado since 2018. He said he fled the conflict, first to Uganda, and then to the U.S., because “I could not take it anymore.” He says many of his colleagues in the media were killed because of their criticism of the government. Many people have been abducted, targeted and killed based on their ethnic group, he said.
“I can’t defend the indefensible,” Mayen said.
For Ken Scott, a human rights specialist and prosecutor who worked at the Haque, “there has been a lot of deference to Africans to figure things out and solve problems, even while the international community tries to get involved.”
“In 60-years of massive violence, no one has ever been held accountable,” he said.
Asked to shed light on what may be a possible court system to bring justice to perpetrators to crime in the conflict, he said this may be difficult since the country is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. He said there have been a small number of cases tried, all in special or military courts, but since the system is dominated by the government, “there is no real accountability.” he said.
“South Sudan is not currently subject to the jurisdiction of any international criminal court,” Scott said.