An East African initiative to revive the stalled peace agreement in South Sudan, where the civil war’s death toll continues to rise, must urgently develop criteria for which groups should be represented, to ensure a more durable outcome. Several steps could help define those criteria.

A young antigovernment militant in Bentiu, South Sudan, May 3, 2014. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Lynsey Addario
A young antigovernment militant in Bentiu, South Sudan, May 3, 2014. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Lynsey Addario

The South Sudan High Level Revitalization Forum, established in June to revive the 2015 peace agreement, has begun consultations with South Sudanese civil society on how to include their views. The discussions are taking place in advance of formal Forum sessions later this year.

But it remains unclear who will participate in the Forum because no criteria have been proposed, risking the success of the new effort.  The challenge is how to involve three different categories of participants: parties and signatories to the 2015 agreement, armed groups that have emerged since 2015 and are not parties to that accord, and civilians.

There is no single model for inclusion and participation in a peace process.  But the format chosen ought to consider current conflict dynamics. As USIP’s Payton Knopf argued in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there are at least five theatres of conflict in South Sudan:

  • a war of resistance in the Greater Equatoria region;
  • a contest between the Dinka and the Shilluk ethnic groups in Upper Nile state;
  • a war within the Nuer ethnic group in Unity state;
  • a drive to establish Dinka primacy in the Greater Bahr el Ghazal region;
  • ongoing violence in Lakes and Jonglei states. 

To achieve a ceasefire or cessations of hostilities across most of South Sudan, the Forum would need to involve the most militarily and politically significant actors from most, if not all, of these theatres. At the same time, some conflicts may best be addressed within South Sudan. The Forum facilitators should communicate to the parties and the South Sudanese public the rationale for including these groups, and ensure the media can comprehensively report on the talks.

Evidence from other peace processes also shows that meaningfully involving civilians leads to more durable outcomes.  There are at least nine models for how civil society can be included, formally and informally.  Civil society can play a non-binding advisory role, or assist in confidence-building between the warring sides, or engage in formal, parallel talks.

The peace process that led to the 2015 agreement attempted to include civil society but faced disputes over representation. Today’s South Sudanese civil society advocates can help the Forum facilitators by proposing alternative means to ensure their meaningful involvement.  This requires urgent dialogue and coalition-building within civil society, which will be particularly difficult if the government continues to restrict freedom of assembly and expression.  On Aug. 30, the government security agency refused a civil society coalition permission to meet to discuss these issues in Juba.

The sequencing of inclusion is critical, too. Not all aspects of South Sudan’s conflict can be addressed simultaneously, so it is vital to determine-and, again, explain to those involved and the public—who should be included, when, and how, in any talks.

How the broad array of South Sudan’s civilian and armed groups are included will be pivotal to the success of the Forum and its first goal: restoring peace across South Sudan.  A creative – but realistic – approach to inclusivity is desperately needed.

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