In the coming weeks South Sudan’s leadership, the opposition, and a cadre of armed groups are expected to come together to reignite peace talks. For the first time in months, an air of possibility floats over the war-ravaged nation.
But many critical questions remain unanswered about who will be included in the talks and exactly what will be negotiated. It is vital that smart and effective external pressure is placed on the men with guns and power. Now, more than ever, neighbours and influential nations must spare no effort to help end this horrific man-made catastrophe.
The east African regional body, IGAD, is meant to lead the process to end the war. The rest of us must do everything in our power to support them. Previous talks have been led by the “Troika”, an alliance of the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway. They helped end the Sudanese civil war and ensure independence for South Sudan in 2011. They also supported the talks that led to this young and troubled nation’s peace agreement in 2015.
But the international players on the peace field have changed drastically, and support for South Sudan has waned.
President Donald Trump’s America first policy has left the United States yet to outline a policy for South Sudan, or even to appoint a special envoy. This leaves the remaining two Troika members – Norway and the United Kingdom – with a big responsibility in supporting IGAD. They have a unique opportunity to guide international efforts toward a sustainable peace for the nation they helped create. Not stepping up now will have deadly consequences.
Africa’s largest refugee crisis
The past 12 months has driven South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis to new lows. Armed conflict has spread. Militia groups have fragmented and multiplied. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated. Some 7.6 million South Sudanese – about two in every three people – depend on aid to survive. Famine has been declared in two regions this year, and the number of people on the brink of mass starvation is climbing. Nearly four million people have fled their homes and across borders to Uganda and elsewhere, making it Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
For ordinary South Sudanese, continued conflict will incite even more suffering. The repercussions of failure will reach far beyond South Sudan’s borders, as refugees will continue to flood out of the country and place ever greater strain on their neighbours, already buckling under the pressure of hosting two million refugees.
A chance for lasting peace
This human suffering is untenable.
Concerted multilateral action is needed to stop the fighting and deliver a peace process accepted by all. The forum created to resuscitate the peace agreement, known as the High Level Revitalisation Forum, will bring conflict parties together under the regional bloc’s leadership. Within this forum, the UK and Norway can lobby for three concrete things to facilitate a real chance of lasting peace.
Firstly, they should advocate that the broad state-building ambitions of the 2015 peace deal not be abandoned. The original agreement was not ideal, but it was a compromise agreed by all sides. It contained mechanisms and institutions that can still be the foundation of good governance: Something the South Sudanese desperately need.
Secondly, the UK and Norway must enable IGAD to deliver a process that is inclusive. This means recognising the fragmentation that has occurred within the armed opposition groups, and bringing all of today’s warring factions to the table – not just the original signatories of the 2015 agreement.
Finally, the peace forum must involve a real inclusion of civil society and civilian opposition figures. The UK and Norway should push the talks beyond merely replicating the elite power-sharing model of the original peace deal. It must include measures to address marginalisation and grievances within communities that are fuelling the conflict.
Time to toss the lifeline
The merry-go-round of peace initiatives over the years have failed. This next attempt must not.
Aid agencies like my own, the Norwegian Refugee Council, have been on the ground, band-aiding where we can. But saving lives with food, water, and medicine is only temporary respite. What we humanitarians cannot offer is a lifeline of peace. The international community has a moral responsibility to support IGAD’s efforts to see this happen.
On 9 July 2011, the United Kingdom and Norway stood in a dusty football stadium in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, as the nation celebrated independence. The international community vowed to stand by the new country to help build it. A credible chance of peace is within grasp.
It is time to step up, not step away.
TOP PHOTO: Children play on a tank in Leer, Unity State