So far, there have been reports of mass graves, as well as one instance where rebel forces killed UN peacekeepers that would not let them get to the frightened civilians behind the gates of a UN compound.
These images are reminiscent of scenes from Hotel Rwanda. The conflict in South Sudan already shows patterns that we have seen in mass atrocities elsewhere: armed militias operating outside traditional military chains of command; forcible recruitment of civilians; and intimidation of the United Nations. It seems that the nation is falling apart, but what is actually behind the violence?
Timeline of events
Violence first broke out at the compound of South Sudanese president Salva Kiir on December 15 last year between soldiers loyal to him and those loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar, who attempted to overthrow Kiir.
Within hours, the United Nations Mission in Juba became a refugee camp and its head, Hilde Johnson, was forced to express grave concerns. By December 17, the UN Security Council already had something coherent to say. A week later, it agreed to a peacekeeping reinforcement, deployable within 48 hours.
The UN Security Council’s reaction has been appropriately swift as has that of South Sudan’s African neighbours – Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, which are currently mediating a ceasefire deal and a roadmap to end the conflict in Ethiopia.
Amid this rush to abate the violence and find a resolution, the United States, Kenya, Uganda, Britain and other countries’ armed forces are actively evacuating their citizens.
These evacuations have increased the fears among locals who interpret the move as a sign of things to come. It all paints the image of foreigners fleeing Rwanda while the Hutus were slaughtering local Tutsis nearly 20 years ago. Human Rights Watch reported a house-to-house killing of people based on their ethnicity as early as December 19.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect also made similar claims in a statement issued five days after the violence began. These international concerns about potential mass atrocities are well placed but must not fall into the trap of oversimplification of the conflict.
Is it ethnic conflict?
Reputable commentators and news outlets like The New York Times and the BBC have either used the ethnic identity of the key adversaries as descriptors to indicate the ethnic lines along which the conflict is being fought, or characterised the conflict as “tribalistic”. They say Machar has the backing of his Nuer people and Kiir of his Dinkas.
This is largely untrue. Despite its appearance, this conflict is not between the Dinka (South Sudan’s largest ethnic group) and the Nuer (its second largest).
In fact, the Nuer are doing most of the strategic and tactical work on both sides. The government’s armed forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), is led by a Nuer, General James Hoth. Many of the officers leading the operations in Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei states are also Nuer. The SPLA has always been an ethnic mix with significant Nuer numbers.
Some Nuer soldiers are loyal to commanders who have joined Riek Machar, and others have been with the SPLA since its formation in 1983. The suggestion that this is an ethnic conflict accounts for some facts but leaves out other contradictory ones. For instance, Machar has a lot of non-Nuer support in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party, where this conflict began as a political rivalry between him and president Kiir.
When allegations of the attempted coup emerged, those arrested included prominent Dinkas Majak D’Agoot and Chol Tong Mayay. Ethnicity was insignificant at the political level and it does not appear to feature prominently on the military agenda of either the SPLA or the rebels.
However, the march of the Nuer White Army rebels to Bor, a city on the Dinka territory, has raised alarm bells. As Sudan researcher Eric Reeves has pointed out, the “White Army” – an ethnic militia, which once threatened to wipe out another ethnic group, the Murle – is unpredictable and indiscriminate.
Preventing mass atrocities
Mass atrocities only happen when things have fallen apart: that is, when the state has lost the ability to protect its civilians or wants to harm them.
The concept of the responsibility to protect (R2P) – championed quite fittingly by South Sudan’s current ambassador to the UN, Francis Deng – arose because of this modern reality. R2P gives the international community the moral right to privilege people’s rights over the state’s rights.
While this principle ran into problems when it was invoked during the Libyan conflict, it remains, in theory, the best way to prevent mass atrocities. Libya’s case was based on the state’s unwillingness to protect its civilians. South Sudan’s problem has consistently been the inability to protect civilians: first from each other, and now from the rebel-backed White Army militia.
Perhaps, then, South Sudan presents an opportunity for the international community to intervene where the state is willing but unable to protect its civilians.
Peter Run is a PhD candidate and tutor at the University of Queensland. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.