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Ceasefire Agreement Offers Tentative Hope in Troubled South Sudan

While Friday’s agreement was short on details, it carries the weight of heightened international pressure.
Photo via AP

South Sudan's president and rebel leader signed a ceasefire agreement late Friday, offering tentative hope that the country’s five month old conflict may finally relent.

The signing in Addis Ababa came just hours after the first face to face meeting between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar since violence broke out in December.

In a statement, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional bloc mediating the talks, said the agreement called for a cessation of hostilities within 24 hours and the forming of a “transitional government of national unity through an all inclusive peace process.”


— IGAD's CEWARN (@igadcewarn)May 9, 2014

Before the talks began, spokespersons for both leaders indicated they wanted the other side to give ground in a proposed transitional government. It did not appear those questions have been resolved.

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It also remains to be seen if all factions nominally under control of Kiir and Machar will respect their signatures, or will keep fighting, holding out for greater leverage.

A January 23 cessation of hostilities, also overseen by IGAD and signed in Addis Ababa, was violated by both sides before the ink had dried.

Reached in the capital Juba, Ariane Quentier, spokesperson for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), told VICE News it was too early to gauge the ceasefire.

“We don’t know how it’s going to be implemented, the modalities have not been spelled out,” said Quentier.

UNMISS is currently sheltering 90,000 South Sudanese at its bases around the country. Quentier said it was unlikely that many would leave in the near future, especially given the failure of previous agreements.

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“When the January 23 agreement was signed, no one left the camps,” she said. “Before people go home they want to make sure it’s holding.”

Signed agreement btw — Lotte Leicht (@LotteLeicht1)May 10, 2014

The UN has struggled to protect civilians in South Sudan.


In December, the Security Council authorized 5,500 additional peacekeepers but only 1,000 have arrived. It is unclear if they will now be more widely deployed outside of the camps. There is also concern that the agreement will lessen the sense of urgency around bringing UN troop levels to full capacity.

A new report by Amnesty International into the conflict in South Sudan has revealed “horrific atrocities committed by both parties to the conflict, with ethnically motivated attacks on civilians constituting war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

While Friday’s agreement was short on details, it carries the weight of heightened international pressure. US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the UN’s human rights chief Navi Pillay all made stops in the country last week.

UN assistant secretary-general Toby Lanzer visited the restive town of Bentiu in South Sudan on May 4 and 5 ahead of the arrival of high-level UN delegation on May 6.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced sanctions against two commanders — one on each side of the conflict — that had been accused of overseeing atrocities and attacks on civilians.

The sanctions were a depressing development for the Americans, whose diplomatic corps, over the course of two administrations, had helped transition the country into existence.

A decades long war between north and south Sudan had concealed differences between southern rebel leaders, and cracks quickly emerged after independence in 2011.


Eager for a success story, South Sudan’s benefactors turned a blind eye to a kleptocratic government in Juba, one predicated on oil graft and quid pro-quo among smaller rebel groups and the administration.

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Then, in July, as part of a power grab, Kiir jettisoned Machar from his cabinet.

When skirmishes broke out in December between Nuer members of the army — the tribe to which Machar belongs and Dinka soldiers loyal to Kiir, they quickly spread to the rest of the country.

Machar took to the bush and commanded forces that fought drawn out battles for control of key cities near oil fields where reserves provide the government with nearly 99 percent of it’s revenue.

Though the conflict revolves around unresolved questions of power and the egos of both men, it split the country along ethnic lines and civilians became the primary victims, unable to leave towns as they changed hands again and again.

April massacres of civilians in Bentiu and Bor appeared to be a turning point.

In Bentiu, after capturing the town, rebels, stoked on by radio broadcasts, murdered hundreds of Dinka and Darfuri civilians. Days later, a Dinka mob overran the UN base in Bor, killing more than 50, mostly-Nuer displaced persons inside.

The incidents entailed war crimes and were highlighted in reports released Thursday by UNMISS and Amnesty International. Both investigations cataloged severe human rights abuses committed by forces loyal to both Kiir and Machar.


"Civilians were not only caught up in the violence, they were directly targeted, often along ethnic lines," UNMISS wrote.

But Friday’s agreement did nothing to address questions of impunity or whether either leader could expect to face charges in international courts of justice.

Five months of conflict have left South Sudanese - the vast majority of whom are subsistence farmers - unable to plant their crops for this year. The current rainy season renders travel virtually impossible in many parts of the country.

The UN reports 3.7 million South Sudanese — more than a third of the country are suffering high levels of food insecurity.

“If we don’t do something now, we will be running into a famine,” said Quentier.