On the third anniversary of South Sudanese independence, the country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Will Canada step up and help?
By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. Originally published in the Toronto Star.
JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
“There is nothing to celebrate; because you are not independent if you are not free” — that was the understandable response when I asked Peter Koang recently what he felt about upcoming third anniversary, on July 9, of the independence of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation. Peter has been living in an overcrowded site for internally displaced persons on a corner of UN peacekeeping base in Juba, South Sudan for seven months.
He does not feel free or independent. Because the site is still prone to harassment and attacks from hostile outside forces, the UN keeps the gate closed and locked. And because of fear, most of the residents of the camp, including Peter, never dare venture out. The sad irony is that a site offered up by the UN for protection to civilians fleeing massacres in December 2013 has, for many, become a virtual prison camp.
It was the right decision to open the gates to women, men and children escaping a terrifying wave of ethnic and political violence in the capital, Juba, and other UN bases around the country. But seven months on, the “protection of civilians” sites on UN bases are but one of the many grave challenges amid a staggering human rights and humanitarian crisis that has betrayed the exhilaration and hope that accompanied independence just three years ago.
There was a time when Canada was actively engaged with respect to peace diplomacy and human rights advocacy in Sudan. Towards the end of decades of civil war that eventually led to the birth of South Sudan, Canada played a helpful role. It was in part motivated by recognition that there was a special responsibility to do so linked to the presence of Calgary-based oil giant Talisman Energy in Sudan’s conflict-ridden oilfields at the time.
But that was then. More recently Canada has all but walked away from Sudan and South Sudan. A high-level task force that integrated Canada’s engagement with the two countries across government departments was quietly disbanded last year.
That can change. Significantly boosting diplomatic efforts to help end South Sudan’s deepening human rights crisis is exactly the right place to start.
And it is a crisis — by any measure.
Fighting within the country’s Presidential Guard erupted between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and those backing former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer, late at night on Dec. 15, 2013. Within hours the fighting had spilled out of the barracks, across Juba and then throughout the country. Whatever political dispute had provoked the outbreak of violence, it quickly descended into ethnic conflict.
The toll has been devastating. No one has been able to accurately tally the numbers killed. In January the International Crisis Group suggested it had been 10,000 in the first few weeks. That was six months ago and no other estimates have been offered up since. Close to 400,000 South Sudanese have fled into neighbouring countries as refugees; while 1.1 million remain internally displaced and extremely vulnerable within the country. Some 100,000 South Sudanese are protected (and essentially trapped) on UN bases — an unprecedented move in decades of UN peacekeeping around the world.
Both sides have deliberately killed civilians; executed captured fighters; abducted and sexually assaulted women and girls; arbitrarily detained civilians, some of whose whereabouts remain unknown; burned down homes; stolen public and private property; and looted food stores and humanitarian aid. Médecins Sans Frontières has condemned systematic attacks against health care by both sides, including killings of patients and health care workers in hospitals and other health care facilities.
A crisis indeed.
The UN Security Council is engaged — responsible for the peacekeeping mission. The African Union is engaged — looking at options for justice and accountability. And a regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, is engaged — taking the lead on peace talks.
But progress is stalled.
Instead, I’ve heard fear at every turn. Earlier this week a woman described watching her 14-year-old son, fleeing just ahead of her, be struck down by bullets and then hacked to death with a machete. She said that she could not imagine what would ever make her feel safe again.
It is time for some more concrete steps in that direction — to restore safety.
Despite all of the attention at every level of the international community, there is no arms embargo in place against South Sudan. Given the scale of war crimes and crimes against humanity carried out with small arms and other weapons that most certainly do not originate inside the country, it is time to cut off the flow of arms into South Sudan. Canada could lead that effort, working closely with other countries to push the Security Council to impose a comprehensive ban on arms transfers to either side of the conflict.
Sadly, an arms embargo would be one of the best anniversary gifts we could offer to the people of South Sudan. A step toward feeling safe again.