On the eve of the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, President Obama issued a statement,
“We can offer no solace that fully addresses the pain borne by the victims’ families. But we must look back at Srebrenica with clear eyes, commemorate the tragedy, and learn from it.”
Rising tensions on the day, a memorial to over 7,000 Muslim men and boys who were executed by Bosnian Serb forces, ignited with the throwing of stones at a fleeing Serbian Prime Minister. Serbia’s stubborn refusal to label the atrocity as a genocide, aided by Russia who helped strike down a UN resolution labelling it so, continues to prevent the wound from healing. Like Obama, many world leaders have spoken of the need to learn from the events of 1995 and resolved to never let such suffering happen again.
Yet on 21st July 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report entitled “They Burned it All”. This 42 page document, arriving just 10 days after the Srebrenica memorial, details the human rights atrocities and war crimes committed in South Sudan during a military offensive earlier this year. According to HRW, The South Sudanese government forces were responsible for raping, killing and widespread pillaging. The report is a sobering collection of over 170 interviews with South Sudanese civilians over the course of June and July 2015. One woman told the interviewers that;
“If you run they will kill you so you just close your eyes so you don’t see the rapes.”
The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) was set up following the independence of South Sudan in July 2011 in order to aid the stability of the country. However the situation in South Sudan is complicating by the day and now poses a real test for the United Nations. The roots of the current crisis are, as ever, man-made. The fledgling state was plunged into civil war in December 2013 after rebel factions sided with the sacked deputy of the President. Since then over 50,000 are thought to have been killed. In response to this growing violence, the military capacity within UNMISS was readjusted. The mission now controls over 10,000 troops from 52 different countries.
Yet this considerable military force could not prevent the murder of internally displaced people (IDPs) in UN ‘protection-of-civilians’ (POC) sites. Whilst these incidents are nowhere near the scale of Srebrenica, once again the UN has been unable to create a safe haven underneath its banner. The high level of IDPs, 1.3 million have been displaced, has combined with the general disruption to production caused by war to lead to severe food shortages in certain South Sudanese regions. The fears of famine that dominated 2014 have returned. ‘Emergency situations’, the penultimate stage in the 5-stage measure for food insecurity ranging from ‘minimal’ to ‘famine’, have been declared in 3 states across South Sudan. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network estimates that 40% of the population will require emergency food assistance. To make matters worse, the arrival of the rainy season will further disrupt famers, and has brought with it sanitation threats and the increased risk of diseases like cholera affecting already malnourished children.
The combination of starvation, disease and destruction is forming a perfect storm above South Sudan. Despite the lessons of Srebrenica so fresh in their minds, the United Nations has not been able to protect South Sudanese civilians. Now the worsening conditions require immediate and considerable international action. In June, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) convened a high-level conference on the crisis in South Sudan. Donors committed to even more aid spending. The US, responsible for around 66% of all aid to South Sudan, increased its commitment to the country by $133 million. The UK Government, the second largest supporter of South Sudanese aid, agreed to a further £40 million in 2015.
Yet the South Sudanese Government is becoming increasingly insular and irrational in its view of the international community. In May 2015 a new law limited the foreign national presence within NGOs working in the country. In June, The South Sudanese Government expelled the United Nations’ top humanitarian official Toby Lanzer, who had criticised the actions of the ruling party. In July, a senior member of the of South Sudan’s governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) accused members of the international community of obstructing South Sudanese moves towards a peaceful end to the civil war. In response to the HRW report, an army spokesmen dismissed the claims, stating that;
“This report has to be verified, one cannot base a report on people who are part of the opposition”.
This increasingly obstinate distrust for the international community is only creating another barrier to saving the lives of South Sudanese citizens. On July 27th Barack Obama arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to talk with regional leaders. Following a raucous reception in Kenya, the US President travelled there to address the African Union, and the crisis in South Sudan was at the forefront of discussion with the aim to push for a final breakthrough in peace negotiations. Neither South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, nor rebel leader Riek Machar attended, but both face an ultimatum: African leaders are looking to foster support for ‘decisive action’ against the leaders should the civil war continue beyond August 17th. Following Obama’s visit, US envoy to South Sudan Donald Booth has said that peace delegates will meet on August 6th to “work this out” once and for all.
The last 19 months have seen South Sudan broken by a civil war between two sides willing to discard the lives of civilians on the road to political power. Famine and disease are now tangible threats to the population. 20 years on from Srebrenica, the United Nations is still struggling to protect innocent civilians in war-torn countries. If world leaders truly have learnt from the massacre, then finding lasting peace must be their immediate priority.
Tom Walpole is currently studying Arabic and Middle East Studies at the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. During his degree, Tom lived in Cairo and has focused his studies on security policy and Islamist movements within the Middle East. Tom is also alumnus of the European Youth Parliament and has an interest in researching the potential role of the European Union in Foreign Affairs.