Genocide risk rising in South Sudan, U.S. group warns

U.N. Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng: "I am dismayed to report that what I have seen and heard here has confirmed my concerns that there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide." Nov. 18, 2016. (Credit: Sipa USA via AP)

South Sudan’s three-year-old civil war may descend into genocide, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum warned today.

Precursors to genocide including hate speech, the targeting of ethnic minorities by government-backed forces and the ethnic armed groups are all increasing. A peaceful solution to the conflict is needed immediately to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Earlier this month, Adama Dieng, the U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide, issued a similar warning following his visit to South Sudan.

“I am dismayed to report that what I have seen and heard here has confirmed my concerns that there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide. I do not say that lightly,” he told the media. “In place of the development of a South Sudanese national identity, I have seen that there is extreme polarization between some tribal groups, which has increased in certain places since the outbreak of violence in July this year.”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s concerns are based on Dieng’s statements and the recent report by the U.N. Panel of Experts for South Sudan. It reported that neither side not adhering to the permanent cease-fire signed by rivals Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir. The “catastrophic escalation of violence” is high between November and December, the report warned. It recommends a ban on travel on South Sudanese officials, freezing of their assets and an arms embargo.

Days later, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power announced that the U.S. will propose a set of sanctions on South Sudan including an arms embargo and travel restrictions. The U.S. is a long supporter of the South Sudanese government and was crucial to its independence victory. Power indicated that attitudes are shifting in the Obama administration, telling the U.N. Security Council that foreign weapons are being used to kill civilians.

“There is no good reason why we would not deprive those who have shown a willingness to commit mass atrocities of the means of doing it more efficiently,” said Power.  “And there is no good reason why we should not try to prevent at least some weapons from getting into the hands of people who have consistently used them to kill innocent men, women and children.”

Tens of thousands of people have died over the course of the nearly three years of fighting. Some 2 million people are displaced from their homes and 4.8 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the U.N. As a result, hunger is an increasing problem for a country where food security was not high before the war. Famine warnings were raised on numerous occasions and will return as families struggle to make ends meet in displacement and refugee camps.

A solution appeared possible when a peace deal was signed in August 2015 and the Transitional Government of National Unity was formed in April 2016. Machar returned to his post as vice president of the country and fighting mostly stopped. The reunion did not last long and fighting resumed in July. Machar fled the country and reports emerged of atrocities committed by South Sudanese forces against civilians and aid workers.

Civilians must be protected by the South Sudanese government, and not become victims of its army. That is the first step that the government must take, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It also recommends a transparent system for investigating and litigating cases of violence against citizens. Rebuilding trust with communities means showing that illegal acts will be punished.

“Given the accumulation of warnings, we have lost the right – individually and collectively – to act surprised in the face of even greater atrocities in South Sudan,” said Power in her statement. “None of us can say we did not see it coming.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.