Albert González Farran, UNAMID

Will A Massacre in South Sudan Actually Change Anything?

Toby Lanzer, a top UN official in South Sudan, has been one of the most vocal people on the planet calling for greater international action in South Sudan. His Twitter feed is a constant stream of warnings about how things are about to get much, much worse in South Sudan. He’s even posted to UN Dispatch about a strategy for resolving the conflict.

Lanzer visited the town of Benitu shortly after it was overrun by rebel forces where he saw stacks of bodies and evidence of a massacre in which people were systematically targeted based on their ethnicity and nationality. As many as 500 people may have been killed in this slaughter.

Yesterday, he called this massacre a “game changer” because of the use of radio to broadcast hate speech and incite attacks, a tactic reminiscent of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

According to the UN, rebels slaughtered hundreds of people when they seized Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, hunting down men, women and children who had sought refuge in a hospital, a mosque and a Catholic church. The victims included Sudanese traders, especially from the Darfur region.

The rebels issued a statement boasting of “mopping- and cleaning-up operations”, the UN alleged, and fighters took to the radio to broadcast hate speech, urging men to rape women of specific ethnicities and demanding that rival groups be expelled from the town.

“Use of hate speech via a public radio station to incite violence is a game-changer,” said Lanzer, who was in Bentiu on Sunday and Monday.

He said thousands of civilians were now streaming to the UN base in Bentiu fearing that more violence was imminent. The cramped base holds 25,000 people and has very little water and only one latrine per 350 people.

To be sure, there has been a vocal response to this massacre among the voices that matter the most.  The White House said it was “horrified” by the reports and called the acts of violence an “abomination.”

These are appropriately strong words, but they have so far not translated to any specific policy changes.

The USA has a special relationship to South Sudan. It helped midwife the country, backing negotiations with Sudan that lead to the South’s independence in 2011. Some of the American activists who championed South Sudan’s birth now hold top positions in the Obama administration. (Washington’s support for Juba crosses party lines. The 2005 peace accord that lead to the South’s independence was spearheaded by the Bush administration; South Sudan’s president even wears a cowboy hat gifted to him from President Bush.)

The point is, the USA has a unique responsibility in South Sudan. But the halting the country’s fast descent into ethnic conflict and averting a looming famine does not seem to be among the administration’s top foreign policy priorities at the moment. It’s a secondary priority at best — and certainly far behind Ukraine, where Joe Biden is currently visiting.

Aid agencies need $230 million in the next month to avert a catastrophic famine. UN peacekeeping needs more troops and equipment to do their job. (There are currently 8,500 UN Peacekeepers who are protecting 75,000 civilians huddled in their camps, but don’t have capacity to sufficiently patrol outside their bases.) Most importantly, the people of South Sudan need a concerted international diplomatic effort that leads to a cessation of fighting.

The money, troops, and diplomatic engagement are simply not there at the moment.

The massacre in Benitu may presage a brutal new tactic in South Sudan’s civil war. But so far it hasn’t been much of a game changer in Washington.