Churches work to strengthen South Sudan’s fragile peace as insecurity persists

More than half the country’s 13M people now depend on humanitarian aid for their survival

by Dr. Doug Tilton, World Mission liaison for Southern Africa | Special to Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — With the many conflicts causing suffering around the world as well as the troublesome policies in the United States, our brothers and sisters in South Sudan are oftentimes forgotten. Church leaders there are working faithfully to shore up South Sudan’s fragile peace and head off new humanitarian crises, even as international agencies find evidence of continuing abuses.

More than 400,000 people are believed to have been killed in the civil war that has ravaged South Sudan since late 2013. Nearly four million people have been displaced and more than half of the country’s 13 million people now depend on humanitarian aid for their survival.

On 12 September 2018, most of the parties to the conflict signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS). Five months later, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan reported that there had been a general decline in fighting across the country. However, the Commission also documented ongoing attacks on civilian populations, particularly in Unity and Western Bahr el Ghazal States, as government forces attempt to establish control over areas previously held by opposition movements.

Church leaders have welcomed negotiations but have also voiced concern over the superficial impact of the agreement. “While the level of open conflict has reduced, the Cessation of Hostilities agreement is not holding, and all parties are involved either in active fighting or preparations for war,” the South Sudan Catholic Bishops said in a statement at the end of February. “The value of human life and dignity is forgotten as human rights abuses continue with impunity, including murder, rape, widespread sexual violence, looting and the occupation of civilian land and property.”

The UN Commission’s findings confirmed that state security forces and rebel militias continue to commit serious human rights abuses, including the detention and torture of opponents at secret locations, the indiscriminate killing of children and the pervasive use of rape and sexual violence.

“Sexual and gender-based violence remain a central characteristic of the conflict, used as a tactic of warfare by all parties to sow terror,” the Commission reported. It recorded incidents of rape and gang rape, sexual mutilation, forced marriage, and abduction perpetrated against women, girls, boys and elderly women. In some areas, the Commission found that 65 percent of females and 36 percent of males had been sexually abused or mutilated, noting that “sexual violence against men and boys … remains significantly under-reported due to social stigma.”

The Commission also found an increase in the pervasive practice of child marriage due to the importance of bride price in situations of economic and physical insecurity and a common misperception that marriage offers greater physical protection. In spite of policy reforms intended to eradicate gender-based violence and discrimination, the Commission noted: “Substantively, the lives of South Sudanese women and girls have not improved because of discriminatory traditional practices.”

The UN report cites the lack of trust among those participating in the negotiations as “a major impediment to the timely establishment of the various bodies intended to oversee implementation of the Agreement and has the potential to derail the fragile peace.”

“Many of the committees and commissions mandated by the R-ARCSS have not been set up at all, have been set up late, or have not begun their work,” the Catholic Bishops lament, mentioning a long list of commitments that have yet to be fulfilled.  “Parties are not creating conditions for sustainable peace which would thereby prevent the outbreak or relapse of violent conflict,” they conclude.

The Bishops questioned whether the lack of progress was intentional. “While there is a great deal of talk about peace, actions are not matching words, and we fear our leaders on all sides have hidden agendas,” they observed. “We fear that this peace agreement is fatally flawed in itself and cannot bring true peace; we fear also that the current leadership does not have the will to implement peace.”

Indeed, the fundamental question of South Sudan’s state and administrative boundaries, which the Bishops identify as a key source of conflict, remains unresolved. The UN Commission highlighted the importance of this matter not only for protecting the rights of ethnic minorities, but also for the control and use of income from natural resource exploitation. They found evidence that oil revenues had been channeled to government forces and militias linked to reported war crimes and recommended that this be investigated further.

Church leaders have consistently argued that agreements alone cannot address the root causes of conflict in South Sudan. “Ink on paper is not enough: there needs to be change at the grassroots level,” wrote Father James Oyet Latansio, General Secretary of the South Sudan Council of Churches, in a recent article. “We are working with traumatized, war-torn communities on peace-building and reconciliation. By bringing together Dinka and Nuer people across the main ethnic divide, and persuading perpetrators and victims to meet face to face, we can address the grievances that are fueling the conflict, including endemic violence against women. This is what the Churches Action Plan for Peace is doing, community by community.”

Currently, the South Sudan Catholic Bishops are urging further negotiations with General Thomas Cirillo Swaka, leader of the National Salvation Front, one of the groups that rejected the R-ARCSS. “Peace cannot be made by killing people,” they insist, “and we demand a nonviolent dialogue.” In addition, Pope Francis, Anglican Primate Justin Welby, and former Moderator of the Church of Scotland John Chalmers recently co-hosted an unprecedented ecumenical spiritual retreat at the Vatican for South Sudan’s leaders, including President Salva Kiir and Vice-President Riek Machar, in an effort to “build confidence and trust between parties and give them spiritual nourishment.”

There are also tensions in the Bentui area with the death of opposition General Peter Gatdet as well as in the discussions between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar regarding the time frame for forming the Transitional Government, which was scheduled to take place on May 12, and what arrangements need to be in place for Machar to be able to return to his position as Vice President.

What you can do

Please support the peace efforts of our partners in South Sudan and the larger ecumenical community. In particular, Presbyterian World Mission urges people of faith in the USA to:

PRAY

  • For the safety and well-being of all of South Sudan’s people, and particularly those who have been driven from their homes by conflict and hunger.
  • That all of the parties to South Sudan’s conflict will put the needs of the people above their own personal interests and will find genuine commitment to a peaceful future.
  • For the fruitfulness of ecumenical efforts to build trust and a spirit of cooperation for the public good among South Sudan’s leaders.
  • For the Bentiu area to remain stable and for the plans for a transitional government that provides peace and justice for all to move forward smoothly.

ACT

  1. Increase U.S. support for United Nations peacemaking efforts and specifically for the renewal of the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan
  2. Promote the establishment of the Hybrid Court and other transitional justice mechanisms in South Sudan to ensure accountability
  3. Lift up the continuing humanitarian crisis in the region and commit emergency funds to alleviate hunger through both U.S. government agencies (such as USAID) and through United Nations and other international organizations.

GIVE

  • Famine has been declared in South Sudan by the United Nations and is a result of violent conflict. The conditions of famine also cause further conflict in the region. With partners on the ground, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Presbyterian Hunger Program are working together to address famine in South Sudan. This is an urgent situation of dire need. Give at presbyterianmission.org/famine.

To learn more about contacting Members of Congress to support peacebuilding in South Sudan, click here.


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