Impressions, 24 December

Some impressions, incomplete, on developments in South Sudan:

1. To talk or not to talk?

Both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are playing that game beloved of diplomacy: talking about how they might talk if they ever agreed to talk.  While Salva Kiir has said he is ready for ‘unconditional’ negotiations, this does appear to be qualified: his proviso is that Riek also not have any preconditions. Salva’s condition is not to have any conditions. Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 07.05.47

Since Riek Machar does have conditions before he will negotiate – principally the release of the senior SPLM figures detained in Juba – no negotiations will happen just yet.  I fear the existence of this obstacle may suit both sides, as it allows each to pursue the objective of improving his military position before an eventual ceasefire.  All wars end; the question is when.  In Riek’s case, it appears that controlling the oil fields is part of his strategy; continuing the conflict to allow full capture and control of the fields in Unity and Upper Nile would be the only way that could occur. 

2. Many fronts, very quickly – a deliberate strategy?

The outbreak of so much violence in so many places in such a short period of time appears to be at least in part a deliberate military strategy.  While there are many motivations for the violence, the scale and distribution of incidents suggests that the mutineers are trying to weaken the government in Juba as much as possible but stretching their capacity to respond to insurrection.  That said, there are incidents that seem spontaneous, motivated mostly by hatred or revenge.  This has implications for any possible external military response (discussed below), which will need to consider how to protect civilians across the country rather than in only a few hot spots.

3. More peacekeepers, more protection?

Later today the UN Security Council is expected to approve the Secretary-General’s request to increase the number of troops and police available to UNMISS, bringing the mission’s total force to just under 14,000.  It’s an open question how quickly additional forces will be able to deploy.  There should be no illusions that even a more robust international force will be able to restore peace.  In a matter of days, the mission has moved from the paradigm of ‘peace keeping’ to one of possible ‘peace enforcement.’  But if UNMISS+ is still only able to provide protection for civilians at big UNMISS bases and smaller team sites, the increase in strength will be unsatisfactory.  Safe havens in civilian areas are needed, too.  While the tragic loss of civilians and peacekeepers in Akobo demonstrates that UNMISS must find a way to protect itself as well as South Sudanese, horrors beyond the peacekeepers’ fence must also be confronted and deterred.  UNMISS+ will not work with a siege mentality.

4. Remembering the past history of humanitarian interventions

UN humanitarian coordinator Toby Lanzer, understandably under enormous pressure, told Al Jazeera:

“Never has there been a greater time of need in South Sudan,” he added.

Now is not the time for academic arguments about whether there have been moments of greater need.  Those who lived through either or both of Sudan’s civil wars will have their pick of dire episodes over the past half century.  Rather, the point is that South Sudan has a long history of humanitarian intervention, and the UN (and other international actors) would do well to reflect on that past experience, even if current circumstances are chaotic and confusing.  The time for applying lessons learned is now, not once the emergency is over.


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