South Sudan: Political Tensions Ignite Inter-Ethnic Clashes and Fears of Mass Atrocity CrimesIn December 2013, political divisions between President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka tribe, and former Vice President Riek Machar, a member of the Nuer tribe, sparked armed clashes, a humanitarian emergency, and the risk of civil war in a country with deeply-rooted ethnic tensions. The two leaders and their followers had previously competed for power during the Sudan People's Liberation Army’s (SPLA) fight for independence from Khartoum in the 1990’s. Though the factions of the SPLA had reconciled by the early 2000s, the infighting and human rights violations against civilians (committed by both sides) contributed to ethnic hatred and clashes between the Nuer and the Dinka.
When South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011, President Kiir sought reconciliation with various communities comprising the new country, which included steps such as granting amnesty to Machar and appointing him Vice President. Nevertheless, by 2013, members of the expanded Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party accused Kiir of dictatorial tendencies and allowing regional and ethnic lobbies to inform major party decisions. In response, President Kiir dismissedhis entire cabinet in July 2013 and stripped Machar of his Vice Presidency. Following a leadership meeting on 15 December 2013 of the SPLM, fighting broke out between Nuer and Dinka members of the presidential guard, who claimed loyalty to either Machar or Kiir. The fighting spread to military headquarters, subsequently igniting clashes throughout Juba and in Unity, Upper Nile, Lakes, Warrap, and Jonglei States.
The fighting has disproportionately affected civilians, with hundreds of civilian deaths being reported, including by rifle and artillery fire. The number of South Sudanese civilians seeking refuge at UN installations has climbed to 75,000, with the number of displaced reaching 180,000. Human Rights Watch has reported the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians based on ethnicity by both Nuer and Dinka soldiers, an account corroborated by Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who announced on 24 December 2013 that “mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days.” At the same time, others, including International Refugee Rights Initiative, have warned of the danger of "presenting this complex conflict through an exclusive lens of ethnicity", noting that "it would be a tragedy if the government allowed such ethnic configurations of conflict to become further entrenched."
In response to such reports, the UN Special Advisers for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect warned on 24 December 2013 that “targeted attacks against civilians and against United Nations personnel, such as those that have occurred in Juba and Jonglei, could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity.” The Special Advisers recalled that the Government of South Sudan has the responsibility to protect all South Sudanese populations, irrespective of their ethnicity or political affiliation, while reminding the international community that it also has a responsibility to assist South Sudan in preventing further abuses. President Kiir and former Vice President Machar, the Special Advisers stated, “should engage in peace talks, call an immediate end to the violence, and promote reconciliation between communities." Such an appeal was echoed by many civil society organizations, including International Crisis Group, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and the Sudan Consortium.
On 5 January 2014, representatives of Kiir and Machar began peace talks brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Ethiopia, which will focus on the cessation of hostilities and the question of detainees.
For more on the situation in South Sudan, please visit our crisis page.
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