9 May 2014

South Sudan's Warlords Talk Peace

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar are in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for direct peace talks. Amnesty International says war crimes have been committed against the population.

Thousands of South Sudanese citizens have been killed, a million more have fled from their homes. South Sudan's president Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar  are meeting on Friday (09.05.2014) for the first time since the civil war began almost five months ago. The venue for the first direct talks between the two is the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

They take place against the background of increased pressure on both sides from the international community. After the US administration imposed sanctions on high ranking military leaders from each side on Tuesday (06.05.2014), describing them as "individuals responsible for perpetrating unthinkable violence against civilians," the European Union is now considering taking action against perpetrators of human rights violations or those who hinder peace negotiations.

Escalating civil war

What began in the summer of 2013 as a political conflict between two members of the same party, has escalated into a bloody spiral of violence between the ethnic groups to which the two leaders belong: President Kiir is a Dinka, his former deputy and present foe Machar is a Nuer.

Hardly a day now goes by without clashes between the two groups, clearly under the leadership of Kiir and Machar.

A new report by Amnesty International, published this week, accuses both of being behind targeted attacks on the civilian population. According to Amnesty's East Africa Deputy Director, Michelle Kagari, children and pregnant women were raped, and old and sick people shot dead in their hospital beds.

UN and US pressure

The international community is now hoping there will be a positive outcome to the first meeting of the two opponents since the fighting began. They should agree on an end to the violence as well as the setting up of corridors for humanitarian aid to reach those in need. Steps should be taken towards a political solution to the conflict.

Following a surprise visit to South Sudan last Friday (02.05.2014), US Secretary of State John Kerry said President Kiir had expressed willingness to negotiate the establishment of an interim government. Kiir evidently intends to head such a government himself in the period leading up to regular elections due next year. It is unlikely that rebel leader Machar will agree. He has repeatedly called for Kiir's resignation.

The meeting in Addis Ababa is the second attempt to end the conflict. In late January both sides agreed to a cessation of hostilities - which they subsequently ignored. For Lazaro Sumbeiywo, a Kenyan mediator with the regional development group IGAD, it is a very positive sign that the two are meeting face to face. IGAD is attempting to mediate in the conflict. Kiir and Machar are the only ones who can end this civil war and begin a political dialogue, Sumbeiywo told DW.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has also expressed optimism about the Addis talks. "We hope that peace will come as soon as possible," Ban said during a visit to South Sudan on Tuesday (06.05.2014). "Leaders must close the wound they have opened, they must support justice and accountability for crimes committed," he added.

Like Kerry, Ban had also put considerable pressure on Kiir and Machar ahead of the meeting.

South Sudan against more UN peacekeepers

Meanwhile, the suffering of the civilian population continues. Thousands of fearful civilians have been holding out in military bases of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). In the northern town of Malakal, some 18,000 people took refuge at the local UN military camp to escape an escalation in the fighting there. Conditions are dire: There is hardly any drinking water; sanitary facilities are catastrophic as the camp was only intended to accommodate a few hundred people.

"These are conditions that no one predicted and which only become more challenging the longer this continues," said UN police adviser Stefan Feller, who accompanied the UN Secretary General on his visit to the camp.

UN camps have been attacked by rebels several times. The UN wants to add to the 8,700 peacekeepers in the country but the South Sudanese military is opposed to this. Additional peacekeepers won't solve the weaknesses of UNMISS, Philip Aguer, spokesman of the South Sudanese army said in an interview with DW. "They can't even manage to protect themselves. So how should they protect civilians?" he said.

Both Amnesty International and the UN warn of the risk of famine in South Sudan. With so many people having fled their homes, there is no one to sow seed or tend the fields. That should have been done before the onset of the rainy season which has now begun and which also makes it impossible for aid to be delivered to many parts of the crisis region.

Editor Sarah Steffen

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