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The May 9 peace deal for South Sudan, signed between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, has already been violated. But there is an important upside to the agreement: it calls for including civil society in the peace process. Three South Sudanese civic leaders discussed civil society’s role in the peace process at USIP with Jon Temin, the Institute’s director of Africa programs.

panel of speakers

Too often, public debates and negotiations about a peace process give voice only to the belligerents with guns, Temin said in the May 15 forum. It’s important to hear from “those without the guns, whose voices are as -- or perhaps more -- important in bringing a more sustainable peace to South Sudan,” he said.

Conflict in South Sudan did not end with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2005. David Deng, the research director at the South Sudan Law Society, said during the panel discussion that, in Jonglei state, nearly a third of households reported having a member killed in the past two years. When the conflict broke out in December 2013, South Sudanese in the country and among the diaspora were not surprised, but they were shocked and saddened by how quickly the entire nation was engulfed in civil war.

All three panelists noted many underlying problems that contributed to the violence, including a lack of institutions and no investment in the citizens of South Sudan.  Anyieth D’Awol, the founder and director of The Roots Project in South Sudan, did not blame only the government for the conflict.

“Everybody at all levels has to look at the role that they played at either contributing, being silent, or the role they should have played to avoid what happened,” D’Awol said.

Deng and D’Awol are both members of Citizens for Peace and Justice (CPJ), which represents 40 civil society organizations and has come together to present a common message. Immediate concerns include stopping the violence, protecting civilians and ensuring humanitarian access. South Sudan is facing a grave humanitarian crisis; if more crops are not planted before the rainy season starts in earnest in the next few weeks, South Sudan will face a massive food shortage, according to the United Nations.

Views on including civil society

For the last five months, the warring parties in the South Sudan negotiation have not been receptive to civil society’s pleas for inclusion, to the point of being indifferent or even hostile. Deng says this is unsurprising, as “our part of the world is not known for creating an enabling environment for independent voices to speak in the public interest.”

Both the government and opposition fear that if they include others, they will lose control of the process, according to the panelists. Isaac Gang, director of international affairs for the Alliance for South Sudanese in Diaspora (ASSD), warns that failure to include civil society will only hinder efforts to resolve the crisis.

“If the country belongs to the people and you do not allow the people to participate, no good can come out of that,” Gang said. The typical pattern of excluding civil society is slowly beginning to change, as evidenced in the recent peace deal. The U.S., the U.N. and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have been very receptive to civil society’s desire to be included in the process. IGAD, the regional organization that is mediating in the talks, in March invited civil society to convene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the negotiations are being held. Citizens for Peace and Justice has since established a team there and another in Juba with the goal of providing updates on the talks and feeding in civil society views.

Is civil society divided?

Civil society does not always speak with one voice.

“The very nature of civil society wherever you are in the world is that it has a huge diversity of viewpoints and comes from all different places, and that’s something that needs to be recognized,” Deng said.

People are further divided by their losses, and everyone feels as if they have suffered more than their neighbors, D’Awol said. One solution might be to de-personalize discussions as much as possible, she said.

“If we stick to the issues, then we will protect ourselves,” D’Awol said.

Groups like CPJ and the Coalition of Advocates for South Sudan (CASS), a diaspora group that Gang founded, are attempting to bring these disparate voices together and expand the conversations past the Nuer and Dinka tribes.

Deng, D’Awol, and Gang emphasized that most ordinary South Sudanese citizens want the same thing: peace, development and inclusiveness. They want to contribute, not as members of Dinka, Nuer or Murle tribes, but as doctors, lawyers and teachers.

Questions of justice

Justice and accountability are of particular importance to civil society. The tendency, the panelists said, has been to sideline these issues in past peace agreements, but that is precisely why those agreements have not resulted in sustainable peace.

Blanket amnesties would likely be unacceptable to many people, they said. Rather than rewarding those who used their political and military positions to commit violence, a minimum standard of accountability must be applied in any agreement.

If citizens have some hope of justice, that also might  help stop the cycle of revenge and further violence, one of the drivers of the current conflict, according to panelists. Citizens do not have confidence in the courts or traditional justice mechanisms, so they seek retribution themselves and on behalf of their communities. Building an independent judicial system will be challenging and will require support from international mechanisms and partners, at least at first.

Prosecution through the International Criminal Court (ICC) may be an option, but only if South Sudan cannot or will not prosecute cases of war crimes or crimes against humanity.  Deng suggested before going to the ICC, South Sudan should allow the African Commission of Inquiry to finish its work. The commission was established by the African Union (AU) to investigate human rights violations and other abuses, identify the causes of violations and make recommendations on truth, justice and accountability.

This is an opportunity to show that the AU will not stand for impunity and that there are African solutions to African problems, Deng said. If the ICC does end up having a role, he says, it should be complementary to local processes.

Moving forward

Building consensus on the shape of a transitional government, and particularly the role of the current leaders, will be difficult. Civil society has been discussing four different scenarios. The favored situation is a technocratic government that would run the country with a limited role for political leaders for a defined period and that would prepare for elections. The panelists agreed that South Sudan cannot return to the status quo before the outbreak of fighting in December, because it would result in further protracted, simmering conflict.

No matter what scenario South Sudan finds itself in, civil society needs to be informed of what is happening during the peace talks and needs to help relay information to the citizenry. The vast majority of citizens don’t understand how the conflict developed in the first place, the panelists said. Countless stories of people from one tribe protecting those of another demonstrate that hope for unity in South Sudan is not lost. Deng, D’Awol, and Gang all emphasized the need to amplify these voices so they can more powerfully influence the future of the country.

“The country should be bigger than two people,” D’Awol said. “It should be bigger than two tribes. It should be bigger than one party. And the sooner we accept that, the [sooner] we can be on the road to peace.”

Emily Fornof is a program assistant for USIP’s Africa programs.

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