Stemming Ethnic Violence in South Sudan

Ed note. This is a special guest post from Peter Orr of Refugees International

One year ago today, southern Sudanese cast their ballots in a historic referendum to separate from Sudan. Six months ago today, the country officially became an independent nation. But the world’s newest country is struggling to find its footing, as internal and external conflict continues to force tens of thousands of South Sudanese from their homes.

Witness the tragic events in Jonglei State, where the tit-for-tat ethnic violence of 2011 has erupted again. Thousands were displaced and hundreds died after an attack earlier this month by thousands of Lou Nuer fighters on the Murle area of Pibor town. Revenge raids have now begun in areas like Akobo town, continuing the cycle of violence.

This fighting has been well covered in major news outlets, demonstrating ongoing robust interest in the young country. But this coverage doesn’t always explain the wider context of these clashes – and it’s the context that shows why these tragic events persist.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), for example, was criticized for failing to protect Pibor’s civilian population. In many ways though, the UN’s response has improved since it was first deployed: the mission warned of the attack early on, and it attempted to inform Pibor’s residents that the marauders were on their way. UNMISS helicopters were used both to track the movement of the fighters and to repel their attack.

In previous attacks in Jonglei, the UN had gradually scaled up its response but failed to pre-position troops. This time it did so, albeit in very limited numbers. The idea that 400 blue helmets and roughly 400 South Sudanese soldiers could turn back a fighting force of 6,000 was unrealistic. To make matters worse, about 30% of the soldiers authorized for UNMISS are still not deployed.

The ethnic tensions that persist in South Sudan make destructive raids a fact of life. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has called out politicians for exacerbating ethnic tensions, and comments on local news sites demonstrate the virulence of inter-ethnic hatred. Some call for eradicating the Murle ethnic group. Others blame the Lou Nuer and hint at the potential involvement of South Sudan’s vice president, himself a Nuer.

So while the UN and South Sudan’s military must respond more effectively to future attacks, more systemic changes are clearly needed. All civilian parties must be disarmed, and this will require a greater permanent security presence. That includes a well-trained South Sudanese army, but also a police force that can prevent and deter future clashes. There must also be economic incentives to draw potential young fighters away from such violent activity.

Finally, South Sudan’s leaders must stop inciting ethnic violence and get to work on the real problems facing their country. That won’t be easy; but without such a cultural shift, this tit-for-tat raiding will continue and thousands more lives will be lost.

–Peter Orr is Senior Advocate at Refugees International