South Sudan became the world’s newest state in 2011, when it gained independence from Sudan after a 22-year civil war. Since the get-go the fledgling country has struggled with unity due to its large number of tribal and opposing groups. It’s a nation bred from conflict, which it cannot seem to shake.
In mid-December 2013, the state fell back into civil war when President Salva Kiir removed his vice president, Riek Machar, from his cabinet and accused him of a coup attempt.
The civil war has done well to split the nation on ethnic lines. Machar has since been a fugitive within the state leading a group of ethnically Nuer rebels, or the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – In Opposition. Kiir commands South Sudan’s army, the SPLA, which is of the Dinka ethnicity. Some civilian militias have also formed and joined the fighting causing chaos and finger-pointing in a game of war.
It’s hard to find the good guys to support in South Sudan — Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have cited both sides with war crimes. The latest numbers report 10,000 dead since December and between 1.5-1.8 million displaced. The U.N. Refugee Agency reports nearly 100,000 registered civilians in eight under funded protection of civilian sites within South Sudan. Another half million have fled the country as refugees.
In August, the U.N. and World Food Program began warning of the imminent threat of famine, which would have shaken the country and its displaced populations totally reliant on the UN and NGOs for food. Access issues due to fighting and flooding of the rainy season, and funding shortages worried the international community that famine could set in as early as December.
Last week, Bloomberg reported that the South Sudan country director for the WFP, Joyce Luma, said famine would thankfully be averted this year. “However, moving beyond December we are very, very concerned there could be another situation where people don’t have adequate access to food,” she added. Though the rainy season alleviated the threat of food insecurity and played a hand in decreasing fighting, it has caused already-congested camp conditions to worsen due to flooding.
The situation within the displacement camps of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan has been called “barely compatible with life and incompatible with human dignity,” by Médecins Sans Frontières. Not only has the rainy reason caused flooding of sleeping spaces and of sewage-contaminated water, but malnutrition, the spread of Cholera and the threat of violence outside the camp is causing alarm.
Furthermore, within the PoC sites women are facing the threats of sexual violence without proper security and social structures. The Guardian reported that only 1,300 U.N. police have been deployed in South Sudan for the over 100,000 displaced. Though the U.N. has developed a pilot project to improve security situations, it doesn’t seem like it would take much to simply install lights near latrines so that women can go to the restroom at night without fearing.
While the U.S. has taken a small approach to the crisis sending some funding to the U.N. and NGOs and sanctioning military officials on both sides, it is China who has most to lose, or to gain, from the civil war — China is South Sudan’s biggest oil investor.
In fact, many nations have been worried about China’s record in South Sudan during the civil war, especially as fighting broke out this weekend in the Upper Nile State responsible for 80 percent of South Sudan’s oil. China is deploying 700 peacekeeping soldiers to the U.N. force, its first battalion contribution to a peacekeeping mission, and many believe China has only deployed them to look out for their own interests. A spokesman for UNMISS, Joe Contreras, denied that these forces will be there to protect oil infrastructure and will be in accordance with the Security Council mandate.
On the other hand, VICE News reported that a shipment of $38 million worth of Chinese arms arrived in Sudan in June. While this order was placed before the civil war broke out, China had plenty of time and a responsibility to stop the shipment. Any weapons, even legally purchased by the government, can easily find themselves in the hands of rebels, civilians and militias.
Sudan, which lost great stake in oil after the south’s independence, has also been accused of playing a hand in the civil war. In an interview with VICE, Jonah Leff the director of operations at Conflict Armament Research had this to say on Sudanese motives in South Sudan: “There’s economic incentive, but also ideological one – by arming both sides, Sudan continues their policy of destabilization of the South.”
So what should the international response be to the South Sudanese civil war? The humanitarian situation and protection of civilians must be vital in the crisis. As the peace talks in Ethiopia continually fall flat and ceasefires are broken, the international community must rally around protecting those innocent lives displaced by conflict. Furthermore, the U.N. Security Council should set up an arms embargo that has a legal framework, and close allies of the nation should continue work to encourage diplomatic peace between involved parties. Unfortunately, these are idealistic fixes to a civil war that is so entangled by corruption and ethnic ties.