South Sudan: A Road to Hell Paved with Good Intentions?

The youngest country in the world, born in 2011, has fallen into a cycle of violence that could lead to a civil war. The consequences would be devastating for the country and region. A fragile ceasefire agreement has been reached between the government and opposition forces that could (if respected) provide time for negotiations in Ethiopia. There are daunting problems ahead and the prospects are not good, but this may be a good moment for reflection on the past and the way ahead.

In short, the crisis erupted by mid-December as political rivalry and tensions at the highest levels of government and the South People Liberation Movement (SPLM). The dispute overlapped with previous ethnic and political grievances and evolved with armed clashes and target ethnic killings.

South Sudan faces a security and humanitarian emergency. Waves of violence throughout the country have left thousands dead. More than half a million people are fleeing violence as internally displaced and more than 80,000 are refugees. Nearly a half remain without humanitarian aid due to looting, fighting and lack of access.

How could this happen in such a short period? How in a country that fought a decades long civil war with Sudan to gain independence, and which received widespread international support to build a state and long-term peace?

Without the intention of being exhaustive, here are some the reasons that explain the descent into violence.

Internal and well-rooted fault lines and divisions

The immediate trigger of violence was the offensive launched by President Salva Kiir Mayardit against political rivals last December, after an episode of violence among members of the Presidential Guard. Last summer, Kiir had undertaken a cabinet change and Vice President Machar and other key officials were removed from office. After his incident, he ordered arrests.

Political infighting is not new. Deep divisions and splits affected the South People Liberation Army / Movement (SPLA/M) since the 90s. Prominent leaders mobilized constituencies and supporters along ethnic lines in their power competition (sometimes with support from the government of Khartoum), resulting in atrocities and human rights violations.

As a result of internal factionalism, the SPLM never developed cohesive institutions nor a social or political agenda for areas under its control. It was also prevented from transforming into a professional military army.

Reconciliation took place in the early 2000s but tensions remained, both among leadership and supporters. The rhetoric of external oppression contributed to conceal those facts.  But acute underdevelopment, limited institutional and human capacity and paramount pressures furthered stress after independence.

Political struggle in advance of the 2015 elections is now playing a role and making visible the fractures, divisions and grievances unaddressed during the liberation war. Ongoing is a political battle for control of the SPLM and power in South Sudan. Ethnic arguments are used to mobilize and gain political and military advantage, but this war is political more than ethnic.

Suffering a gun shot wound to his ankle, Diel, 28, is one of 144 Lou Nuer who were evacuated from Manya Bol to Bor hospital in Bor town, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Monday July 15, 2013. Fierce clashes between rival ethnic groups have again exploded in eastern Jonglei with aid agencies fearing more to come  © Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/IRIN

Suffering a gun shot wound to his ankle, Diel, 28, is one of 144 Lou Nuer who were evacuated from Manya Bol to Bor hospital in Bor town, Jonglei state, South Sudan, Monday July 15, 2013. Fierce clashes between rival ethnic groups have again exploded in eastern Jonglei with aid agencies fearing more to come
© Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/IRIN

International narratives… and actions

A widespread vision outside the region presented South Sudan simply as a victim of the Government (which is part of the true but not all the true). This narrative, promoted by international campaigns, celebrities and some NGO, helped to conceal social and political internal problems.

The US was a prime sponsor of the new state and a case in point. Supporters for an independent South Sudan included (for different reasons) an improbable coalition of human rights activists, celebrities, Democrats, Republicans, religious conservatives and African-American lobbyists around a simplistic narrative. There was also a post 9/11 component: Sudan is an Arab led regime that had harboured Osama Bin Laden.

To what extent international institutions (and donors) were influenced by those images is a question that remains open.

But there were warning signs. International donors made a great effort in South Sudan, taken as a test of international engagement in fragile states. But engagement was largely based in the assumption that delivery of basic services and development aid was the best contribution to conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The dominant ‘theory of change’ implied that the lack of development was a major cause of conflict.

Those assumptions were fundamentally flawed, as shown in the report Aiding the peace: a multi-donor evaluation of support to conflict prevention and peacebuilding activities in Southern Sudan 2005-2010, a multi-donor evaluation on external assistance 2005-2010.

Between 2005 and 2009, the donors analysed in this study provided 4.2 billion dollars (including humanitarian aid). Adding the budget of the UN mission to South Sudan (UNMIS), the total is above 8 billion. Between 65-85% was directed to economic development. Issues like government and civil society only reached a 27% peak at 2009, once the absence of government capacity was fully appreciated.

Security problems remained, including proliferation of small arms. The disarmament of civilians largely failed. Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programs were promoted but did not address fear and mistrust. The incorporation of former militia members into the armed forces oversized a military with no professional training or command and control.

The component of resources was not addressed, with violent cattle raids affecting agro-pastoralist communities, and tensions over the management and consequences of oil extraction and large-scale land acquisitions.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) lacked a robust mandate and the necessary resources to carry it out. It is only authorized to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence ‘within its capabilities and in its areas of deployment”. Initially planned with 7,000 military personnel and 900 police (not enough even in the best circumstances), only now additional personnel and resources have been authorized. However it will take long until they can be deployed.

As the conflict North-South was seen as the main threat to peace, the divisions in the South and the role of ethnicity and patronage were largely ignored. The aforementioned evaluation stresses that “neither the Government of South Sudan nor donors produced a convincing nor consensual model of what Southern Sudan as a ‘state’ would look like in say, ten years. From the donors, the reticence… reflected the tendency to approach the challenge purely as a technical exercise in capacity building and service delivery.” Recently the head of the UN Development Program, Helen Clark, has recognized the misjudgement of the international community.

Some important elements to keep in mind

Civil society was a ‘missing factor’, set aside before and after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the North was signed. As the analyst John Prendergast has stated, “we already know what doesn’t work. Too many peace conferences that kept civil society, religious leaders, grass roots activists and women out of the room have failed. Partial and non-inclusive peace agreements that are negotiated among only those with the biggest guns don’t lead to lasting peace.”

Important civil society sectors have made relentless efforts for peace, including relevant and influential religious leaders with credibility and public support (irrespective of ethnic divides). They have elaborated a detailed action plan for dialogue and reconciliation and lead a National Reconciliation Committee that builds upon South African experiences. Set aside during negotiations for the CPA and after independence, their voices would be better heard now.

In terms of the neighbouring countries, much depends on Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), for brokering dialogue and potential ways forward with support from the African Union. In a worse scenario, those more likely to intervene would do so pursuing their own interests and maybe aggravating the situation. Uganda has already done so, while Kenya has abstained (although Kenyan companies are among the greater investors there).

The African Union Commission has taken steps to start a Commission of Inquiry expected to address the responsibilities for violence and victims, as well as to contribute to a comprehensive strategy of conflict resolution and nation building.

Other key external partners include the Troika (US, UK, Norway) and China (main oil investor) that could support African-led mediation efforts.

This case should encourage reflection on to how to engage peacebuilding as a political (not just technical) endeavour, based on a profound analysis of power relations, local grievances and drivers of conflict. The immediate priority, however, is stopping violence.

Check here the latest humanitarian snapshot by OCHA (UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Appeals)

The African Union as an emerging power in peace and security?

Apart from rising countries seeking to project their power and influence on issues of international peace and security, there are regional organization also worth have in mind. One remarkable in this regard is the African Union (AU). Born in 2002, the AU has managed to build an African Architecture of Peace and Security (APSA) designed to provide African solutions to African conflicts.

The African architecture is far more developed than any other in Latin America or Asia, to mention a few examples. Institutions, mechanisms and policies are in place. Some problems remain, but the AU has made significant improvements.

If you want to read more, you can access this article that I published on the 50th Anniversary. Here you can access it in the IECAH website in Spanish, and here you have it in English.

Drones for Peace?

As I commented at the beginning of this blog, the scope is wide and the issues to be covered many. Maybe too much! To address them, sometimes I write about complex and far reaching topics, while others try to segment them in smaller parts. Finally there are aspects that are both concrete and important, all related to violence and peacebuilding. This is one of those cases.

The question at the title may appear as a paradox, if we identify drones just as a weapon for targeted (and distant) killings. But there are many other issues related to drones that are already subject to debate and becoming a practical tool in different situations. So, let’s go ahead: Can drones make a contribution to peacebuilding?

Military Drone Predator

The technological advancements related to drones are setting the pace for a multiplicity of debates in international relations. The most known and controversial use of drones is that of the US in the ‘war on terror’: targeted killings of leaders and militants of Al Qaeda and other groups designated as enemies.

This use of drones has raised an array of legal and ethical debates. The use of drones for targeted killings, is legal or illegal according to International Humanitarian Law? What is the impact on the Law on human rights? And what the impact on the relations with local authorities? What happens when they cause civilian casualties?

The US has been the first in developing and adopting this technology in war. Those who defend it argument that drones are accurate and allow ‘clean’ operations, with no casualties in one’s side. But as technology develops, they will be cheaper and accesible for many. What will this mean when other countries use them in the same ways? And when non State armed groups (rebels, organized crime and the forth) own them? 

Let’s take another point. Although it is only at first steps, drones are becoming a tool for peacebuilding missions and humanitarian operations. Here also are positions for and against, and the questions and doubts at stake are different but critical. In peacebuilding missions, their main use is the gathering of information about potential threats, something that would allow a quicker response. Drones have also been proposed for the monitoring of human rights in conflict or unsafe areas.

The information gathered by drones in peacebuilding missions, can be used to build complaints in the International Criminal Court? What are the implications of this possibility for future operations? Who will be responsible if information about threats to civilians is available in real time but protection is not guaranteed? And a last questions: can technology be a substitute for the political will to reach peace?

At the beginning of this year, the UN approved drones as a tool for the Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), to gather real time information about potential threats to civilians and monitoring smuggling activities. It is a good case study since MONUSCO is by large the biggest UN peace mission; it has a new mandate including the potential use of force for the protection of civilians, and drone deployment is a new avenue to explore. It also raises many doubts, of course.

If you are interested in the use of drones in peacebuilding, maybe you with to read this article that I published recently.

What is your opinion? 

Protection of Civilians in the DRC: Steps and Dilemmas

Operations of search and seizure of unauthorized weapons have started in the East of the DRC. The UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) had given everyone in the city of Goma and surrounding area until August 1st to hand on their weapons, including members of rebel movements. The MONUSCO deployment includes now an Intervention Brigade of 3.000 members with a mandate to use lethal force if necessary to address disarmament and protect civilians. The security area includes the city, the airport, refugee camps and the military bases. Within that perimeter it is expected that everybody carrying a weapon will be disarmed.

The security zone is a preventive measure intended to put limits to the rebel group M23, although everyone in possession of a weapon will be disarmed and considered an imminent threat of physical violence. The new mandate and rules of engagement, as well as the presence of the Intervention Brigade, mark a new departure in UN peace operations. But it is not without risk.

Diverse groups and interests at stake

The M23 is one of the main rebel groups operating in the DRC. It is probably the most well-known, due to their 2012 offensive against Goma. They were able to capture the city for a whole week with no opposition from Congolese armed forces neither international troops. Their operations have caused the displacement of more than 100,000 persons. One of its leaders is under custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and both the UN and the DRC Government accuse Rwanda of providing steady support for this group (something that this country harshly denies). Last May the M23 started a new offensive in this area with indiscriminate attacks and civilian casualties, while the Intervention Brigade was completing its deployment.

There are around 25 armed groups operating in the East of the DRC, in the regions of Kivu North and Kivu South, according to Oxfam. This is a typical feature in modern wars, that may last for years if not decades and have many interests at stake. The DRC is not only a huge country but also immensely rich in natural resources, especially valuable and strategic minerals. Alliances among armed groups are shifting and unstable, but they usually try to control mines (of gold, coltan, tin and other minerals) and transportation routes. With this, they can control the mineral trade and ‘tax’ people travelling by those routes. As Oxfam said, civilians have become a commodity of war here.


Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Armed groups in East RDC, November 2012. Source: Oxfam

Although the DRC has a problematic colonial legacy, widespread violence started in 1994 after the Rwandan genocide. Years later this was called the ‘first African world war’, in which a number of countries of the continent took part representing different national, regional and international interests. Behind the war, political and economic interests merged, as all the groups took advantage of the situation to spoil natural resources and make money through a well established war economy (including, of course, DRC and neighbouring countries elites).

By 2003 a peace agreement gave place to a transition government, and a reconstruction process that never reached the East of the country. Here an array of local and foreign groups have operated and the interests at stake are multiple and complex. Last February 24th a new regional peace accord was signed with support of 11 countries, but it has no lasted. In this region the game at play involves the control of land with high potential for agriculture and cattle and important mines. The ethnic balances are fragile after massive population displacement, and there is continuous interference of external actors like Rwanda and (to a lesser extent nowadays) Uganda.

The humanitarian crisis is one of the gravest in the world, with around 2.6 million internal displaced people and more than 6 million persons dependent on emergency and food aid. An estimated number of 4 million have died in this war, as a result of direct violence or associated crises like displacement, malnutrition and diseases.

Protection of civilians and dilemmas of the potential use of lethal force

The new MONUSCO mandate including the use of lethal force if necessary to disarm combatants in the security area relies on the principle of protection of civilians in armed conflict. However it also involves risks and dilemmas. One of them is how to use force with maximum caution in order to avoid getting caught within the war dynamics, and become part of the problem and not of the solution (as happened in Somalia in 1992). Another one is for humanitarian organizations that must rely on protection and security provided by MONUSCO while safeguarding their independence and neutrality.

According to the Congolese think tank CRESA, the intervention force can have a positive impact on civilian protection and will probably be welcomed by the population. But in order to achieve success, they must establish open and honest communication channels with the population and their representatives. The Intervention Brigade operations would also have more possibilities of success if they were a step among many in an ambitious framework of State and security reform and of protection of civilians with different means.

The most pressing problem in the DRC is institutional fragility and scarce State capacity. The use of military means is necessary but probably not enough substitute for the political will to address root causes and grievances behind the conflict (including management of natural resources), improve security institutions and implement programs of good governance. Measures are also acutely needed at regional and international levels to curtail the flow of weapons, training and military support from outside, and the international trade of natural resources that enriches many (if not all) parts of this conflict while the population suffers the consequences. Natural resources, of course, end up in developed markets and international companies are not completely free of guilt.

The protection of civilians has been absent for a long time in the DRC, and the UN has faced important criticisms for its inability to undertake decisive action. The new step, if correctly implemented, could be welcomed by the population and civil society in the DRC. However, the risks associated to the pursued new military strategy are also evident.

My First Post: Welcome!

Well, here we are: my blog and me. This post in the first step in this project, undertaken after a long time thinking “I would like to have a blog where I could about all those issues I’m interested on!”

I want The Making of War and Peace to be a space of analysis and reflection about armed conflict and organized violence in the globalization era. With all their realities and complexities, without simplification. I’ll try to give insights about multi-faceted causes, and consequences, of violence in our contemporary world.

Therefore we’ll talk about wars, like those of Afghanistan, Colombia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. But also about situations of armed violence that do not qualify as war (like Mexico or Central America), and about political armed actors that finance themselves through global illegal economies (like narcotics in Colombia or Afghanistan).

But this is also a venue to talk about peace and peace-building, and about all those actors (many of them unknown) that work to achieve peace, from the local to the global arena.

Of course I don’t have all the arguments. But even if not knowing the answers, I would like to raise the questions. An example? What implications do the ‘wars’ on drugs and terrorism have in terms of peace-building? What about the proliferation of anti-terrorism laws and norms, both at national and international levels? What happens when a political armed group becomes heavily involved in illegal economies? What are the implications for peace-building?

In this blog I wish to analyse those issues and gather the most relevant positions and debates. Maybe we can do it together.

Today my first thought is: Welcome to this blog!