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South Sudan's foreign minister denies genocide

Jan-Philip Scholz, Adrian Kriesch / shMay 2, 2014

During a surprise visit to South Sudan by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is on a six-day tour of Africa, DW spoke to the foreign minister of South Sudan, Barnaba Marial Benjamin.

South Sudan's foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin
Image: AFP/Getty Images

US Secretary of State John Kerry is currently on a six-day visit to Africa. On Friday (02.05.2014) he made a surprise visit to South Sudan where a power struggle between supporters of President Salva Kiir and his rival, former deputy president Riek Machar, has been raging since December 2013. Both sides have been accused of widespread atrocities. Before Kerry met with President Kiir, South Sudan's foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin gave an exclusive interview to DW in which he first outlined what would be the main topics of discussion.

Barnaba Marial Benjamin: The visit of the Secretary of State of the United States, Senator John Kerry, is very much welcomed by the Republic of South Sudan. Definitely the Secretary will meet the President of South Sudan, General Salva Kiir Mayardit. President Salva will enlighten the Secretary of State about the commitment of the government of the Republic of South Sudan in implementing peace in this country, our commitment especially to the IGAD peace process which is now going on in Addis Ababa. Secondly, the President will brief the Secretary of State on issues of human rights abuses and how the Republic of South Sudan has already taken steps like the formation of an investigation committee led by the former chief justice in order to investigate all cases of human rights abuses and hold those accountable. I think this is the only civilized way you can deal with this. We will also enlighten him on the role of the African Union, especially the investigation committee led by the former president of Nigeria, Obasanjo, in supporting and coordinating with the investigation committee in the Republic of South Sudan so that the credibility of holding accountable those who have abused human rights is properly put within the context of the country internally as well as within the region and internationally. The third issue they will touch upon is bilateral issues between the United States and South Sudan. As you know, the United States has been a good friend of the Republic of South Sudan and is aware of the challenges that this country is facing – a young country, two years old, beginning and building itself, and it needs those friends who have got goodwill to this young nation in order to assist it, in order to resolve some of the challenges we have with regard to development , the issues of security-building, strengthening the capacity of the police and the new army. These are areas where genuine friends can come and assist. And finally, of course, what South Sudan needs is help and assistance – not punishment or conditionalities. And I think this message also needs to be conveyed to the Secretary of State with regard to the issue of sanctions because basically the relations that South Sudan and the US have were to help the country, not to punish the country. There are issues of concern indeed, that is true, and these issues of concern – whether it is human rights abuses or whether it is the issue of the rebellion that has happened in the country – it needs friends to assist with resolving these issues. And those who abuse human rights, at the end of the day will be held accountable, and I think these are the areas that the President will discuss with the Secretary of State.

DW:Yesterday in Ethiopia John Kerry said that Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda should send more troops to South Sudan. Do you think this is the right way forward?

As you know, when the IGAD summit held its summit last year in Kenya , the IGAD countries had agreed that there would be a protection and deterrent force that would be built by five countries - Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and Djibouti - in order to protect the important infrastructure in South Sudan, especially the oil fields, and also to provide monitors for the verification and monitoring mechanism which we are going to monitor to oversee the cessation of hostilities and how it is to be implemented. That process is already being handled by IGAD and the East African countries in order to bring about this protection and deterrent force. That was a decision by the heads of state of IGAD and East African countries.

The US Secretary of State also said he fears that South Sudan is on the brink of a genocide. Do you agree with his interpretation?

That is too much an interpretation, one must say. Yes, there is a rebellion. That is being contained and that is why the contribution to be done is towards actually implementing the cessation of hostilities so that we don't go into that process of genocide. I don't think there is a possibility of genocide in South Sudan because there is no ethnic war which is going on. What is happening is an attempted coup that has resulted in a rebellion and it's a struggle for power. You find all various ethnic groups in this country across the line. So, frankly speaking, I think as the peace process, the cessation of hostilities has been signed, that issue of genocide is far away. It can be averted. No doubt, there have been massacres conducted, especially by the rebels in Bentiu. You have seen it. You have seen it in Malakal. You have seen it equally even in Bor. Yes there has been a mistake, especially in Bor, which was under the control of the government where some youth just tried to attack the unarmed civilians. The government has already taken steps in trying to hold accountable those who had done that. So the issue of genocide is not the issue. What we should concentrate on now is how to bring the peace as soon as possible, in order to avoid revenge killings and massacres that happen out of hatred or fighting but people are not killing each other because of their ethnicity, no.

Can you assure the world that the SLPA does not kill any civilians?

The SPLA is a national army that is mandated by the constitution of this country to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of this country. One of the priorities is to protect its civilians. It is these civilians that have given it the mandate to protect this nation. No, the SPLA can never be engaged in the killing of civilians because they have not done it. What has happened are isolated cases like we saw in Juba where there were target killings but it was not the government policy or the policy within the national army. I am sure those who engage in that will be held accountable for it and punished.

Barnaba Marial Benjamin is the foreign minister of South Sudan.

Interview: Jan-Philip Scholz, Adrian Kriesch