Will South Sudan Become Another Rwanda?
By Celia Garrett
The international system to protect human rights presumes legitimacy and necessity of countries being concerned about the treatment of the inhabitants of another state. The deplorable human rights situation in South Sudan always caused international alarm among leaders. However, many countries arguably had several self-promoting reasons to become initially involved in South Sudan, notably the United States’ dependence on foreign oil from Sudan. Increasingly, the UN has analyzed South Sudan according to a human rights framework, where UN discussions and the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) respond to ongoing mass abuses and violations. In recent months, the escalation of conflict and disrespect for human rights forced the UN and the international community to respond more aggressively to the human rights violations. The UN launched UNMISS in the new country in 2011, however the mission has been heavily criticized due to the peacekeepers’ failure to protect not only civilians within the camps but also civilians and international aid workers beyond their base. Largely driven by the US, the mission extended its mandate in August to increase the duration of the peacekeeping mission as well as the authority of UN troops. The increasing instability and human rights abuse occurring in South Sudan propels intervention forward not only according to states’ self-interest, but also due to the moral imperative to prevent genocidal violence.
The UN’s policy in South Sudan frames the problems in terms of ongoing rights violations against citizens and the governments slow progress towards implementing the 2015 peace agreement (which was largely in part a response to governmental human rights abuses). The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council established in March of 2016 a separate UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan to monitor and report on the human rights standards and abuses in the country as well as to make recommendations for improvement. The Commission reported widespread human rights violations. The South Sudanese suffer from systematic violations – killings, abductions, the looting and burning of homes, detainment and torture of journalists, government officials impeding aid workers, forced recruitment – and appalling levels of sexual violence in the country, replicating the scale of violations during the Bosnian War. A UN survey found 70% of women in the camps had been raped since the conflict erupted – the vast majority of them by police or soldiers – and a staggering 78% had been forced to watch someone else being sexually violated. One member of the new commission, Kenneth Scott, said that “above all, we are concerned about the ongoing impunity and lack of accountability for serious crimes and human rights violations in South Sudan, without which lasting peace cannot be achieved.” In recent months, the escalation of targeted brutality against citizens, especially women and girls, and ethnic cleansing has driven the UN to label the South Sudanese conflict with the rarely used word ‘genocide’.
In focusing on South Sudan within a human rights framework, the UN emphasizes a moral duty to act and prevent further abuse. Yasmin Sooka, the Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, recently said that “the stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it.” The Convention on the Prevention of Genocide of 1948 legally requires contracting parties (including the United States) to undertake actions to prevent or punish genocide as an international crime, although what that means practically is contested. UN experts list several steps the international community should follow to prevent mass human rights abuses. These include expediting the immediate arrival of the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force (RPF) in South Sudan, expanding the force beyond the capital of Juba, freezing assets, enacting targeted sanctions, and implementing an arms embargo (which the US has done). While several steps may not be in states’ self-interest, the UN’s rights-based framework and the grave conflict in South Sudan call for states to respond to improve the human rights situation.
Not all states agree with the UN framing and its policies on South Sudan. The US proposed an extended mandate to the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in August that passed 11-0, however four countries abstained from the vote. The resolution would significantly increase the UN’s authority in South Sudan, contribute thousands more troops and authorize lethal force if necessary to protect civilians, and demanded the South Sudanese government comply with international obligations and cease obstructing UNMISS and humanitarian actors.. The representatives from the US argued that the ongoing humanitarian, political and security crises require a UN mandate to help protect civilians from the increasing violence, saying “more time means more suffering.”
However, several delegates to the Security Council whose countries’ abstained from the vote highlighted the basic principle of peacekeeping – the consent of the State must be observed. The international human rights regime fundamentally challenges traditional notions of sovereignty. The international system is built on foundational understandings where states are the sole determinants of sovereignty and government action regarding its own citizens isn’t anyone else’s business and therefore not any business for international law. Delegates critical of the resolution emphasized increasing diplomacy rather than increasing troops in an already unstable and violent country, and abstained from the vote in opposition to further infringing on South Sudan’s sovereignty.
Supporters of international intervention argue that “sovereignty is not a given right; it is a legal status that has to be earned through protecting citizens and upholding the international conventions on humanitarian law and human rights.” The South Sudanese government has already violated the principles of sovereignty and therefore has forfeited its right to claim it as a basis for resisting increased international intervention. The High Commissioner at the Human Rights Council Special Session on South Sudan urged the Council to “use all possible means within its remit to discourage violence and push for peaceful dialogue,” saying that “the highest priority must urgently be given to protection for those most at risk from killings, sexual violence and other serious human rights violations.”
While the UN evaluates South Sudan within a human rights framework, its intervention proposal has yet to become an action plan endorsed across the entire international community. However, it is unclear whether new responses will make any effective change in South Sudan. It is possible that they will simply mirror international inaction during the Rwandan genocide and fail to ensure the safety of the South Sudanese.