South Sudan President Salva Kiir has signed a peace deal with rebels that could end the country's 20-month-long conflict, but questions remain about enforcement of the agreement and continued impunity for rebel and government forces accused of war crimes.
One week after he walked out of peace talks in Ethiopia, where rebel leader Riek Machar had signed the deal, Kiir agreed to it on Wednesday afternoon in Juba, South Sudan's capital. But the president also repeated, as he did in Addis Ababa, that the text was unfair. As part of the agreement, Juba will be demilitarized and control of the country's oilfields are to be split among both sides. Machar could also possibly take over the position of a second vice presidency that the text establishes.
"The current peace we are signing today has so many things we have to reject," said Kiir. "With all those reservations that we have, we will sign the document."
The president signed the document under intense pressure from the international community; last week the US circulated a draft of a UN Security Council resolution that would implement an arms embargo on South Sudan and further targeted sanctions on individuals in the country, in addition to six generals that were listed by the Council in July, if Kiir failed to comply. A copy of the draft text reviewed by VICE News did not include a list of names, and a senior American official last week did not say how high the new sanctions would go. Diplomats say that with the signing of the agreement on Wednesday, the fate of that resolution is now unclear.
Fighting broke out in the world's youngest country in December 2013. Machar, who had been booted that summer from Kiir's cabinet, where he served as vice president, soon took command of a large rebel force calling itself the South Sudan Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO). Machar is a member of the country's Nuer community; Kiir is a Dinka; and fighting in the 20 months since has largely, but not always, split the country along ethnic lines. Each side hardened their positions as the conflict evolved, and flouted no less than seven accords that were reached in Addis Ababa. Fighting only appeared to lull in the country's rainy seasons, which rendered much of South Sudan impassable.
Last fall, the Crisis Group, which monitors conflict, estimated at least 50,000 people had died in the war. The true death toll is unclear, as many civilians fled to the bush, and human rights investigators only had sporadic access to areas that witnessed some of the worst fighting. Of those who have been accounted for, the numbers are staggering: More than 2 million South Sudanese are either refugees or remain internally displaced. More than 200,000 have sought shelter with the UN's mission in the country, UNMISS.
Protecting so many people was never envisioned when UNMISS was first authorized by the Security Council, and peacekeepers have struggled to leave their bases as they care for those displaced. At no point during the conflict did peacekeepers move to prevent specific atrocities, something they are authorized to do under the protection of civilians language in their mandate.
Now, UNMISS personnel are expected to play a pivotal role in ensuring peace is maintained following the signing. But Kiir's hesitation and condemnation of the terms of the deal, and similar expressions from the rebels, mean even an end to fighting is not guaranteed. Adding to concerns are the various groups that used the SPLAO-IO as an umbrella label, and which may have interests divergent from Machar.
"Both sides contain hardline factions and interests that openly oppose the signing of the compromise agreement and continue to benefit financially from the misery of the South Sudanese people," Lindsey Hutchison, policy analyst at the Enough Project — a nonprofit that seeks to end genocide and crimes against humanity and is based in Washington — said in a statement. "There will be winners and losers as a result of this deal, and the losers could very well attempt to undermine the agreement, potentially through further violence."
Violence continued in the country right up until Kiir put pen to paper. On Tuesday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced that two South Sudanese aid workers had been killed in Unity State, the site of some of the most brutal fighting in recent months.
"We're deeply shocked and saddened by the killings of our colleagues," Tara Newell, MSF emergency manager, said in a statement sent to VICE News. "It's an indication of current level of violence that people living in Unity State today are exposed to."
Yesterday, a UN panel monitoring South Sudan confirmed earlier evidence, first reported by VICE News, that South Sudanese government soldiers had raped and burned children alive in the state earlier this year. Sexual violence has been employed by both sides.
For a country so young, there is little history of peace to fall back on.
Kiir and Machar both fought for decades against Sudan, until the oil-rich South attained independence in 2011. After great fanfare from many of the country's Western benefactors, the governing South Sudan People's Liberation Movement — made up almost entirely of former rebels — became overseer of what many observers termed a kleptocracy. Even before December 2013, various armed actors could expect to be rewarded with a modicum of money or power if they took up arms. Critics of the latest deal say that by keeping Machar and Kiir as the focal points of representation in South Sudan, the cycle will remain unbroken.
"The premise of this approach is really that South Sudan was more or less OK before the war broke out, so putting the same elite back together with a varied version of the distribution of power, wealth, and guns will not solve the problem," Alex de Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, told VICE News before Kiir's signing.
An African Union commission of Inquiry on the conflict remains unpublished, reportedly out of fear it could implicate the very people that agreed to sign — Kiir and Machar. A hybrid court system to be established by the AU, and tasked with investigating and prosecuting those responsible for war crimes, will not include a role for the UN, something previous drafts of the agreement did stipulate.
Sally Hayden contributed reporting.