Once again, leaders from South Sudan, the world's newest country, are meeting in Addis Ababa to try and negotiate a lasting peace deal between the current government and rebels loyal to the ex-vice president. And once again, both parties have started the dialogues with chins raised and arms crossed, seemingly opposed to, and insulted by, most suggestions of compromise.
Yet while they hash out negotiations amid catered luncheons, air conditioned UN conference rooms, and posh hotels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the next 11 days, thousands upon thousands of their civilians are still suffering from bombings, starvation, and some of the worst human rights abuses in recent history.
On Thursday, a representative of the South Sudanese government confirmed for VICE News that President Salva Kiir will not be submitting a home-grown peace accord to the current talks, despite media reports that his government would offer an alternative to a post-conflict power sharing agreement drafted up by South Sudan's regional neighbors in March.
Forces loyal to Salva Kiir have been locked in a bloody struggle with forces loyal to ex-vice president Riek Machar for control over South Sudan since December 2013, a conflict that has killed at least 50,000 people and forced nearly two million to flee their homes.Leaders have failed to grasp peace despite the guidance of foreign parties like the United States and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a bloc of seven East African countries that is begging both sides to drop their weapons.
The country seceded from Sudan in a voter-backed referendum in 2011, but political schisms forged by 60 years of war in the Sudans laid the foundation for ethnic tensions between forces siding with Kiir, who belongs to the Dinka ethnicity, and Machar, who is Nuer. These spun out of control when Kiir accused Machar of trying to stage a coup against his government nearly two years ago, and allegedly commanded troops of Dinka ethnicity in the army to stay equipped while Nuer were told to disarm.
Ethnicity, however, is one of many elements driving the conflict, as fighting for control has also surged between members within these ethnic groups.
In July, fresh reports of human rights abuses across Unity state added to growing evidence that the war continues to be one of the most grizzly conflicts in the world. According to Human Rights Watch, soldiers from Kiir's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) gang-raped multiple women, ran over civilians with tanks, and carried out mass executions of women and children with "shocking disregard for civilian life."
Days prior to this week's peace talks, the South Sudanese government shunned the latest IGAD peace proposal to media, claiming it did not give the two leaders "proper mechanisms" to find a lasting resolution.
Salva Kiir loyalists contend IGAD's accord fails to divide each of the country's 10 states according to the will of its people, as it gives control of the Upper Nile, Jonglei, and Unity states to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition, or SPLM-IO, which is helmed by Machar. Unity and Upper Nile are the only states in South Sudan with capable oil fields, though Unity state has stopped producing since the start of the war.
In his remarks at Thursday's opening ceremony at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa compound, Nhial Deng Nhial, the government's chief negotiator, gave a heated rebuttal of the IGAD accord. He described parts of it as "utterly incomprehensible," and "non-sellable" to the South Sudanese people. Its demand that the government demilitarize South Sudan's capital city Juba, for example, was "totally baffling."
"The mechanisms [of this agreement] are a sure recipe for gridlock," he said.
Taban Deng Gai, spokesperson for the SPLM-IO, said that Kiir's government lost legitimacy on July 8 of this year when it held elections a year earlier than outlined by the constitution's five-year election period — elections Machar decried as "illegal" a day after they were held.
Kiir and Machar have until August 17 to settle a peace deal before IGAD considers raising the stakes. On Monday, President Barack Obama, who met with IGAD delegates during a trip to Addis Ababa last month, said that sanctions were on the table if parties didn't heed calls for a ceasefire, and that a "regional intervention force" may be necessary.
Jens-Petter Kjemprud, the representative of the Troika states — United States, United Kingdom, and Norway — echoed Obama's position, saying at Thursday's opening ceremony that if the deadline wasn't met, "the international community will look at new ways to solve the conflict."
IGAD heads of state have accused both leaders of saber rattling when there should be compromise. The African Union has reportedly suggested that Kiir and Machar be barred from government as a condition of any peace proposal.
Last year UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that six million people, or nearly half of South Sudan's entire population, risk being "displaced internally, refugees abroad, starving or dead" if the conflict continues to exacerbate. Since the conflict erupted, 4.6 million people are now considered food insecure, according to the UN. Peace talks have continued to turn up fruitless for the citizens of South Sudan; despite signing a cease-fire on February 1 of this year, shelling started up again only nine days later.
Women are some of the most severely affected by assaults by government forces. Out of 63 women interviewed by Human Rights Watch for its July report who claimed to have been raped by soldiers, only one had received medical treatment. Most villagers fled to the UN base near Bentiu, a town in Unity state, which now holds 70,000 people and whose conditions have been described by Médecins sans Frontières as "inhumane." Women with severe wounds from sexual assault perished along their walk to the base, which took upward of four days for some.
The UN Mission in South Sudan did not respond to requests for comment on what it was doing to care for this influx of sexual assault victims.
Amar Manyok, team leader for the IGAD women's bloc, told VICE News that the current peace proposal fails to address the conflict's brutality on women, who are its biggest victims.
It also fails to give women a proper place in post-conflict government. "When you empower women socially, economically, and politically, then they will bring more stability," she said on Thursday, as she stood on the sidelines of the opening ceremony. "But all of these are silenced by the proposal." As long as men dominate the South Sudanese government, she added, there will not be lasting peace.
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