Analysis: Amid blood feuds, oil curse, South Sudan reaches familiar precipice

Some 45,000 South Sudanese residents have sought refuge with United Nations peacekeepers in the past 10 days.

South Sudan 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)
South Sudan 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah)
NEW YORK – Blood feuds and oil curse another African country today, this one barely an infant, coddled by Western governments with lofty words but insufficient aid: the recently independent South Sudan.
Some 45,000 South Sudanese residents have sought refuge from United Nations peacekeepers in the past 10 days. That amounts to roughly a third of the population of Jordan’s Zaatari camp, the largest camp for refugees fleeing the violence in Syria since that war began in 2011. In total, over 100,000 South Sudanese are already displaced after a week and a half.
Inter-communal killing has infected every South Sudanese state, with at least three mass graves identified on Monday. The UN expects to find more.
“Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days,” Navi Pillay, the UN’s high commissioner on human rights, said on Christmas Eve.
During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the mass killing of ethnic Tutsis was promoted live on radio broadcast.
Local journalists failed to pick up on the genocide for days. But on Christmas Day this year, UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon used the radio as a platform to reach the South Sudanese people with a distant message of hope.
“South Sudan is not alone,” he claimed. “We know many of you are suffering from horrific attacks. Families are fleeing their homes. Innocent civilians are being targeted because of their ethnicity. This is a grave violation of human rights.”
He continued, “I once again call on the country’s leaders to settle their differences peacefully, and I underscore their responsibility to protect civilians.”
The responsibility to protect, or “R2P,” is a principle of international law that considers sovereignty a responsibility, and not a right; once that responsibility has been shirked – or worse, flagrantly mocked – the international community has a moral duty to intervene.
Justifying a military campaign against neighboring Georgia in 2008, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that R2P was only considered valid in the West “when people see some trouble in Africa.” His government has not considered R2P applicable in the Syrian crisis.
Yet with South Sudan, Lavrov’s comments are relevant not because they are fundamentally sound, but because they underscore an unfortunate truth: This principle most obviously applies to the victims of African strife. It was constructed in Geneva and New York after Rwanda, and here we are again.
Violence spread on Wednesday to South Sudan’s Upper Nile region, which produces over 200,000 barrels of oil per day and provides the government with a modicum of income.
That output alone is roughly a third of Iran’s oil exports at this point, which fluctuate between 700,000- 800,000 barrels.
Fighters loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar, have concentrated their fighting in oil-rich states in the country’s northeast. But ethnic violence has permeated Juba, the capital city, worrying UN peacekeepers on the ground that its spread will be difficult to contain.
Machar’s leadership is an important reminder that this conflict does not perfectly reflect the devastation in Rwanda and Darfur. The crisis in South Sudan is primarily political and is not led by one ethnic group’s desire to suppress another. But Machar’s ability to capitalize on deep ethnic divides in his country may result in similar scenes.
“Those who seek to take or hold power by violence or division along ethnic lines will not have our support and may be in violation of international law,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Tuesday, announcing efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry to moderate immediate talks between Machar and South Sudan’s nominal president, Salva Kiir.
US President Barack Obama has informed Congress that he may take further action in South Sudan, after three V-22 Ospreys – highpriced items in the US arsenal – came under fire during an attempted evacuation of US citizens.
But the American president has made clear whom he intends to protect in this conflict.
“Action has been directed consistent with my responsibility to protect US citizens both at home and abroad,” he wrote to Congress, citing the War Powers Act, “and in furtherance of US national security and foreign policy interests.”