The likelihood that South Sudan will descend into genocide and mass starvation is growing by the day, say diplomats, advocates and journalists familiar with the central African nation. Violence has spread to previously peaceful regions, propelled by a political breakdown that increasingly is becoming a clash of ethnic groups. Efforts to mediate between the government and the armed opposition have collapsed. Action by the U.S. and the international community is needed urgently to prevent further deterioration in overlapping humanitarian, political, economic and security crises, according to South Sudan experts speaking in a forum at the U.S. Institute of Peace that was co-hosted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

A camp for internally displaced people that started after a civil war broke out more than two years ago in Juba, South Sudan, March 3, 2016. With the nation still reeling from deadly clashes between rival South Sudanese factions over the weekend, the United Nations Security Council met on July 13 to discuss whether to send more troops and give them new orders. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A camp for internally displaced people that started after a civil war broke out more than two years ago in Juba, South Sudan. Photo Courtesy of the New York Times/Tyler Hicks

Behind the breakdown lies a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President—and now rebel leader—Riek Machar. A previous round of fighting that broke out three years ago paused with a peace agreement in August 2015. When combat resumed in July 2016, it extended to the capital, Juba, for the first time, ending last-ditch efforts to establish a transitional government. The government is yet to make progress on promises to bring in the political or armed opposition, or to improve the humanitarian situation.

“Time is now vital … History will not excuse inaction.” -- U.S. Representative Thomas Rooney

Instead, violence has widened over the past six months, including to the agriculture-rich Equatoria region, which had not been directly involved during the first 14 months of the war. Signs are mounting of imminent genocide against Dinka, Kiir’s ethnic group, in the Equatorias, and against Equatorians in Dinka areas, panelists said, concurring with a warning from the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. The U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan reported in November that atrocities and gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are taking place. Ethnic cleansing is underway in several areas through starvation, gang rape and arson, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights warned on December 1.

The resulting humanitarian crisis has reached a critical juncture, according to the speakers at USIP. Almost 3 million of South Sudan’s estimated 12 million people have fled their homes since the conflict began, with more than 1 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Violence that disrupts agriculture and obstructs humanitarian assistance has left 4.8 million people unsure how they will get their next meal, the U.N. reported. Famine has broken out in some areas and threatens many more. The collapsing economy is worsening food shortages—in October, South Sudan’s inflation rate peaked at 835 percent. Oil, which previously accounted for 98 percent of government revenue, fetches about half the price it did in 2011, when South Sudan gained independence.

To discuss the situation in South Sudan, USIP and the Holocaust Museum brought together:

Cameron Hudson, director of the museum’s Simon-Skodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and former chief of staff to the U.S. president’s Special Envoy for Sudan during the period of South Sudan’s separation from Sudan; Payton Knopf, a member of the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan; John Prendergast, the founding director of the Enough Project, a group promoting peacebuilding and better governance in Africa; Justin Lynch, a journalist expelled from South Sudan last week; Akshaya Kumar, the  deputy U.N. director for Human Rights Watch; and U.S. Representative Thomas Rooney, the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan. The discussion was moderated by Princeton Lyman, a senior USIP advisor and the special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan in 2011-2013.

The Gathering Storm in South Sudan

South Sudan is headed for a cataclysm because, above all, space for nonviolent politics has evaporated, Knopf said. For the past year-and-a-half the U.N. Panel of Experts he serves on has documented persistent, ominous trends:

  • The growing belief by all tribes that no political path exists to end the civil war or ensure their security;
  • The collapse of the government of national unity after it failed to implement its founding agreement or make any reforms;
  • The shutdown of communication between the warring sides; and
  • The coopting or suppression of groups that might be willing to negotiate.

“The leaders believe that their only salvation is violence against other communities,” Knopf said.

In the north-central Unity state, civilians told Lynch on reporting trips that soldiers burned villages and executed residents because of their ethnicity. Security in the southern Equatoria states has deteriorated at a pace shocking to him and local officials, he said.

The city of Yei, formerly among the most peaceful areas of South Sudan, is cordoned off by army and rebel roadblocks, Lynch said. Across the country, the government and the rebels are forcibly recruiting very young gunmen ahead of the dry season, when fighting typically intensifies. The government has boosted its weapons procurement, he said.

“Both sides are gearing up for this offensive,” he said, speaking from Uganda by Skype a day after government security agents removed him from South Sudan.  

During approximately 18 months as a journalist in South Sudan, Lynch said he observed that the U.N. peacekeeping mission lacked sufficient equipment and personnel for its job. The force’s effectiveness weakened more when Kenya withdrew last month, after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon fired its Kenyan chief for failing to protect civilians, he said.

Signs of an Approaching Genocide

From every perspective, the precursors for genocide are lining up in South Sudan, said the Holocaust Museum’s Hudson.

Underlying factors include:

  • A history of ethnic-based violence;
  • Domination of one group by another;
  • Authoritarian rule;
  • A failing economy; and
  • An overfunded military for the size of the economy.

In the near term, he said, genocide signals include economic shocks, assassinations that test the waters for wider-scale violence, crimes hidden by expelling the press and denying visas to aid workers and the appearance of child soldiers. Dehumanizing rhetoric is essential, Hudson said.

“Genocide is a process,” Hudson said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

The inter-tribal dehumanization and incitement is taking place across the board, Knopf said, involving Dinka, Equatoria and Nuer tribes. Lyman highlighted a project initiated by the PeaceTech Lab, an organization created by USIP, to identify specific terminology, monitor hate speech and track its use in social media. Posters with images aimed at encouraging people to think of others as less than human are popping up near refugee centers, and similar incitement is spreading online, Lynch said.  

Finally, genocide needs a trigger, Hudson said. Political forces in South Sudan watch carefully what’s happening in the world, he said, and may take advantage of transitions that include those in the U.S. administration, a new chair of the African Union and a new commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Even the holiday season vacations of diplomats might send a “green light” signal that the international community “is not here and is not paying attention,” Hudson said.

“People need to know we are staying, passing this on and it’s a priority,” he concluded.

Strategies to Stop the Threatened Onslaught

The U.S., which played a key role in South Sudan’s independence, needs to launch an energetic diplomatic initiative backed by mechanisms that can put effective pressure on South Sudan’s leaders, said the Enough Project’s Prendergast.

The first step is to win U.N. Security Council approval for an international arms embargo after the U.S. last month decided to support one, he said. While that wouldn’t end the fighting or arms smuggling, it would likely prevent the government from acquiring more heavy weapons and force the foreigners who maintain and fly its attack helicopters to go home, said Human Rights Watch’s Kumar.

Next, the U.S. should impose targeted sanctions against South Sudanese leaders, Prendergast said. Penalties that would pinpoint their greatest vulnerabilities include freezing foreign bank accounts, locating laundered funds and restricting travel.

“This is the cocktail of choice when the U.S gets serious,” he said. “If it’s good enough for countering terrorism, why not genocide?”

A “diplomatic surge” also would involve naming an additional figure with bipartisan credibility to the U.S. government’s South Sudan team, he said. Any hope that the next administration will look the other way amid genocide must be dispelled immediately, Prendergast said. Once the warring parties believe the U.S. is serious, they will begin to communicate, even if not in direct talks, he said. A bipartistan visit of members of Congress also could signal to the government of South Sudan that the U.S. is watching, Hudson suggested.

The limitations on peacekeepers also need to be lifted by their capitals to encourage more aggressive responses to violence and to encourage engagement with local communities, Kumar said.

Speaking from the audience, Cameron Hume, chief of mission in Sudan from 2005 to 2007, said the U.S. has the satellite imagery and drones covering Africa to monitor mass atrocities and use the evidence to convince reluctant Security Council members to approve an arms embargo.

“Let’s set a spark that changes the dreary, soggy, worn-out nature of the international response,” he said.

South Sudan from Capitol Hill

The Sudan and South Sudan Caucus in Congress has been calling for an arms embargo on South Sudan for more than two years, said Rooney, a Republican from central Florida. While there is still bipartisan energy among some members to address the crisis, making it a congressional priority is no easy task, he said.

“I can tell you that there’s probably no constituent in my district who knows or cares about South Sudan,” said Rooney, whose concern for the country was sparked by his cousin, the actress Rooney Mara. And without support from congressional leadership, it’s difficult to argue at home that tax dollars directed at South Sudan are well spent, he said. Advocates for South Sudan’s people must be relentless in making their case in Congress through every available means, he said.

“Time is now vital,” Rooney said. “History will not excuse inaction.”

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