Following claims of serious rights abuses in South Sudan, the UN is sending in a team of monitors to investigate. Sanctions have been imposed on six military leaders from both sides of the conflict.
Rape, murder, forced recruitment of child soldiers – there has been a flood of horrific allegations concerning acts of violence and coercion perpetrated against the civilian population in South Sudan. According to UN reports, government soldiers and allied militias raped women and children and then burned them alive. Fighters of the Shillik militia kidnapped up to a thousand children in June and took them to a military training camp, says East African regional development organization IGAD. The youngest children abducted were just 13.
"The violence in South Sudan has reached a new level of brutality," said Christophe Boulierac, spokesman of the United Nations children's agency UNICEF. Children in the states worst affected by the civil war, Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei, are at great risk, he told DW. "We have indications that the recruitment of children is increasing. This is, of course, related to the fighting. The more fighting there is, the more children are recruited. What South Sudan needs first of all is peace," he said.
The UN estimates there are some 13,000 child soldiers in South Sudan. In addition, some 250,000 children face severe malnourishment, Boulierac warned.
On Thursday the 47-member UN Human Rights Council decided to send a team of monitors to the civil war-torn nation. The mission was urgently needed, the Council said, "to undertake a comprehensive assessment of alleged violations and abuses of human rights, with a view to ensuring accountability."
Decades of violence
"The situation in South Sudan is not getting any better. With every day that passes, positions become more entrenched and it becomes easier for low-ranking army officers or ordinary soldiers to get away with acts of violence," said Tim Glawion, an expert on South Sudan with the GIGA Institute in Hamburg.
The civil war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir fired his deputy Riek Machar on suspicion of plotting a coup. Even before the country became independent from Sudan in 2011, there was a long history of violence and civil war. It is often said that the civil war of 2005 was a war between south and north Sudan, Glawion said, "but that is inaccurate. In reality, since the 1960s, the civil war has been not only between north and south (of an undivided country) but also between different groups in the south." In other words, various ethnic groups have been fighting for decades on the territory now known as South Sudan.
The resolution to send monitors came a day after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on six commanders from both sides of the conflict for their role in the spiraling violence. The US, Britain and France had forwarded their names to a newly formed committee. The six will be subject to a global travel ban and assets freeze.
In an interview with DW's Africalink program, Peter Schumann, a former coordinator of the UN's Mission in South Sudan (UNMIS), said he thought the sanctions "demonstrated the weakness of the Security Council which does not want to get involved politically and put pressure on the political leadership." Instead, the Council has imposed sanctions on the military leaders "without really specifying why they were selected and not specifying precisely what they have to do to get the sanctions lifted again."
The oil factor
Talks between President Kiir and rebel leader Machar in Nairobi ended last weekend. Although Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, as the mediator, tried to sell as a success the mere fact that the two had actually met, rebel spokesman Mabior Garang was more outspoken: the talks had failed to produce any concrete results, he said.
However concrete results in the past, such as a ceasefire, were often not worth the paper they were written on. Numerous such agreements were swiftly broken. This time, the conflict parties ostensibly discussed power sharing and whether to introduce new posts such as a second deputy president. But, said Glawion, it was really all about holding power, not sharing it. "Power brings with it access to the country's oil resources." The main problem is that Riek Machar sees no way of becoming president under the country's one party system "but that is what he wants. And that is one reason why he took up arms. Salva Kiir, for his part, has no desire to renounce power," Glawion said. Both sides still believe they can win by military means and so have no real interest in a peace agreement, Glawion concluded.
The reinstatement at the end of June of top South Sudanese politician Pagan Amum as secretary general of the ruling SPLM party was welcomed by some observers as a rare step towards political reconciliation. Amum had been arrested and sacked when the civil war broke out.
Political solution vital
Glawion, like Schumann, is also critical of sanctions against individuals – and against well meant but, in his view, inappropriate measures. "It is always the reflex reaction of the international community to say 'we need massive humanitarian aid' but this is often counter-productive since the aid is often diverted and lands in the wrong hands," he said. To solve the problems and end abuses such as the recruitment of child soldiers and rape, or to prevent the spread of hunger or disease, "the solution is not to build a hospital or reintegration centers for child soldiers. The solution must be a political one, under which military rulers lose their power which is returned to civilian hands," Glawion believes.
Sarah Steffen contributed to this article