Last year, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly established December 9th as the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. This date was chosen because on December 9, 1948. the newly created United Nations adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide — the first piece of international human rights law adopted by the world body.
Today, as we mark this important day, the South Sudanese people are facing the specter of genocide.
Last month, after returning from a visit to South Sudan, Adama Dieng, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide said, “I saw all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it.”
Last week, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan stated: “There is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages. Many told us it’s already reached a point of no return.”
The Commission also highlighted the unconscionable level of rape that is occurring in South Sudan.
“The scale of rape of women and girls perpetrated by all armed groups in South Sudan is utterly unacceptable and is frankly mind boggling. Aid workers describe gang rape as so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal’ in this warped environment but what does that say about us that we accept this and thereby condemn these women to this unspeakable fate?”
As the UN, governments, NGOs, journalists, and activists alike continue parsing the word “genocide,” and use language such as “ethnic cleansing,” one cannot help but recall the United States government’s dance around the use of the word genocide to describe what was happening in Rwanda in 1994.
In a now infamous exchange (see video clip below) during a press briefing in April 1994, US State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly states that “acts of genocide have occurred” in Rwanda. Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner then asks Shelly, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?” Shelly responds that she is not in a position to answer that question.
The fact of the matter is there is no such thing as “acts of genocide”: there is only genocide. Genocide is defined as: acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. That there is even a discussion as to whether genocide is on the brink or is occurring in South Sudan, to borrow a phrase from the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, is quite frankly mind boggling.
Since the beginning of the conflict in December 2013, targeted killings of civilians of specific ethnic groups have occurred, and continue en masse today. There is no debate as to whether mass atrocities in the form of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing have occurred in South Sudan. One can only debate the “intent” of the actors; potentially the only factor that stands in the way of calling what has been happening in South Sudan “genocide.” So then why is there a debate as to whether “genocide” may be underway, or around the corner? What does it matter? How does it affect the South Sudanese people who are being slaughtered every day?
Some believe that labeling a situation as genocide comes with some form of international response. But, unfortunately, as Rebecca Hamilton pointed out in Foreign Policy earlier this year, “the idea that the ‘g-word’ is a true game-changer is the stuff of urban legend.”
Instead of wasting time debating the semantics, the international community must act!
As the conflict continues, more lives will be lost. Different ethnic groups fear violence and in turn act violently to preempt and react to violence perpetrated against their group. This will only perpetuate the cycle of violence, making it more difficult to bring peace to South Sudan. Since no one is counting the dead, there is no way of knowing how many have been killed since 2013. Estimates range from 50,000 to as high as 300,000, “a figure comparable to the number killed in Syria during five years of fighting.” Meanwhile 2.3 million South Sudanese have been displaced by the fighting and 3.6 million people are severely food insecure.
Sadly, it does not seem like anything constructive will be done in the near-term to halt the violence.
The US government’s disparate and disorganized policy has been replete with empty threats and slow action. The US delayed, for more than two years, to impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions, missing a crucial window of opportunity to halt violence. Now that the US is finally calling for an arms embargo, the effort may fail due to the US’s inability to get the necessary Security Council votes to pass the measure.
While an embargo implemented earlier on would have been much more impactful, passing the embargo now would still have some impact on the procurement of heavy weapons and attack helicopters; even if it is likely to have no effect on the flow of small arms and ammunition across South Sudan’s porous borders.
Separate calls by the United States to bolster the current peacekeeping effort in Juba, through a 4,000 strong regional protection force, without a clearly stated proposal for their role, have also been thwarted. Without any effort to solve the political issues, and without a robust peacekeeping effort, peacekeepers will not be able to halt the violence. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has even said, “United Nations peacekeeping operations do not have the appropriate manpower or capabilities to stop mass atrocities.”
Many South Sudan watchers feel as though the current policy proposals are empty actions that are being undertaken to do something rather than nothing, even if that something will not be effective. As Richard Gowan, an expert on peacekeeping, stated, efforts undertaken by the US and the Security Council are “more like symbolic diplomacy than anything real.”
What Can Be Done?
The only proactive proposal that may have a chance to bring peace to South Sudan is for the international community to temporarily establish transitional authority over South Sudan. JWW first made this proposal immediately following the return to violence in July 2016, and this plan has been proposed by other South Sudan experts including former United States Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, and the Director of the African Center for Strategic Studies and former director of USAID in South Sudan, Kate Almquist Knopf.
Knopf recently authored a special report published by the Council on Foreign Relations entitled, “Ending South Sudan’s Civil War,” in which she states: “Given the extreme degree of South Sudan’s state failure, the only remaining path to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, restore its legitimacy, and politically empower its citizens is through an international transitional administration, established by the United Nations and the African Union (AU), to run the country for a finite period.”
Knopf’s report outlines a clear roadmap on how to establish transitional authority, and cites numerous precedents of external administrations in countries emerging from conflict.
With little to no other clear or actionable proposals that have a real chance of creating a durable peace in South Sudan, temporary transitional authority must be considered. In order for this plan to have any hope of succeeding, regional states and international partners would have to be fully vested in the plan’s success.
As the Obama administration comes to an end, and as South Sudan enters its third year of conflict, it must be a top priority for the Trump administration to exert strong diplomatic pressure and incentives to get national, regional, and international actors on board with the prospect of transitional authority.
The international community must act to bring peace to the world’s newest nation. The South Sudanese people deserve more than a day of commemoration, they deserve peace. Millions of South Sudanese lives are on the line.