As the conflict in South Sudan enters its fifth month, thousands of its people have been killed and more than a million displaced, many of them defenseless children. Now Navi Pillay, the UN’s human rights chief, is excoriating the leaders of the country’s government and rebels over their recruitment of child soldiers.
Speaking during a visit in the capital of Juba, Pillay confirmed that the warring factions had conscripted more than 9,000 children for battle. The recruitment of children younger than 15 years is a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court, but the use of these combatants also indicates the potential for further war crimes.
In January, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, who famously tried to alert the world to the impending genocide in Rwanda 20 years ago, told a UN meeting commemorating the massacre that the use of thousands of child soldiers is “the most easily identifiable warning tool out there” of possible genocide.
Child soldiers are often obedient perpetrators of atrocities, as has been noted in the contemptible use of children by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. They were also used in the Sudanese civil war that led to the creation of South Sudan in 2011.
Pillay met with President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar, who now commands rebel forces from the bush in Upper Nile State. She was dispatched to the country after attacks earlier this month in the oil-hub of Bentiu and at a UN base in Bor left hundreds of civilians dead. In both cases, victims were targeted based on their ethnicity.
“The country’s leaders, instead of seizing their chance to steer their impoverished and war-battered young nation to stability and greater prosperity, have instead embarked on a personal power struggle that has brought their people to the verge of catastrophe,” Pillay told reporters at the headquarters of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
Fighting in South Sudan broke out in December, when mostly Dinka forces controlled by Kiir clashed with breakaway, predominantly Nuer elements of the army that were loyal to Machar.
A January cessation of hostilities agreement was immediately broken, and the subsequent bloodshed has broken largely along ethnic lines.
‘The legacy of impunity in this country is one of the factors behind the current tragedy.’
After rebels recaptured Bentiu and surrounding oil fields in mid-April, local radio broadcasts encouraged them to execute hundreds of Dinka and Darfuri civilians sheltered in a hospital and mosque. Days later, in an alleged reprisal, an armed mob overran the UN base in Bor, killing at least 48 of the 5,000 mostly Nuer civilians inside. Persistent attacks across the country have left thousands dead.
With an undermanned peacekeeping force sheltering an estimated 80,000 civilians at bases across the country, the UN has had to rely mainly on the threat of prosecution to ward off violence against civilians. Their pleas have largely been ignored. The United States and the UN Security Council have threatened sanctions, but haven’t yet targeted individuals. The massacres in Bor and Bentiu appear to be a turning point — either the violence will further devolve into genocide, or international threats of a tribunal at the Hague will have their intended effect.
Pillay said that she confronted Machar about the killings in Bentiu.
“He assured us that he is carrying out his own investigation into what happened and that he will do his utmost to stop his forces from committing similar revenge attacks on civilians,” she said.
Machar and Kiir have reason to care about their image. Both have long-standing ties with the West after fighting together for decades against Sudan’s government in Khartoum. Kiir is rarely seen in public without a ten-gallon cowboy hat given to him in 2006 by President George W. Bush. Machar, who pursued a Ph.D. in philosophy in the UK, was married in the early 1990s to a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who died in 1993.
Bedfellows when they shared a common enemy, tensions between the two grew after winning independence three years ago. The UN and many Western observers, eager for a success story in Africa, were deaf to warnings of impending conflict, even after Kiir booted Machar from the government last July.
While the International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, no venue was established to address violence between southern rebel factions. Bor, where the UN compound was attacked, is infamous as the site of a 1991 massacre where Machar’s “White Army” — so-called because its soldiers spread ash on their skin — killed 2,000 Dinka.
“The legacy of impunity in this country is one of the factors behind the current tragedy,” Pillay said. “Failing to hold people accountable for their actions simply breeds more discontent, more violence, as people decide that their only option is to revenge the crimes themselves.”
While the UNMISS mandate is set to expire in July, the US is pushing the Security Council to narrow the mandate in the coming weeks to focus exclusively on protecting civilians. Following South Sudanese independence, the mission was meant to support the government in Juba — a government now implicated in atrocities. Protecting civilians while extricating itself from that relationship has proved difficult.
The mission, which is now the subject of vitriolic abuse by the government, was long seen as too friendly with Kiir’s administration. UNMISS chief Hilde Johnson had longstanding ties to South Sudan politicians, and preferred to handle disagreements in private. Sources close to the mission told VICE News that she’s widely expected to leave in July.
UNMISS has complained that the government in Juba is restricting the wide access to the country stipulated by its mandate. The government routinely blocks UN patrols and helicopter missions.
“This is not what the mission was designed for, this is not what the compounds were designed for,” Stephane Dujarric, the spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, remarked to reporters last week.
The mission is expected to release a definitive report on human rights violations within the next month, but it may only list observations and accounts rather than specify who’s at fault.
Meanwhile, as South Sudanese oil exports slow to a trickle, famine remains a constant threat. If a peace agreement isn’t reached soon, the fighting risks evolving into a regional proxy war. Uganda, which is part of an East African bloc meant to mediate peace talks, is already fighting alongside Kiir. Those talks, which have been fruitless so far, are set to restart next week in Addis Ababa.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford