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South Sudan Needs to Address Cycles of Intercommunal Killings

Address Underlying Grievances, Protect Civilians, Ensure Rule of Law

Victims of ethnic violence in Jonglei, state, South Sudan, wait in line at the World Food Program distribution center in Pibor to receive emergency food rations, January 12, 2012. © 2012 AP Photo/Michael Onyiego/File

Inter-clan fighting killed 41 people and injured at least 60 others in South Sudan’s Lakes state this week, once again underscoring the challenge faced by the government of ending intercommunal violence. 

Lakes is not the only flashpoint for intercommunal fighting. Since mid-February, violent clashes in Jonglei state and Greater Pibor Administrative Area between the Lou Nuer, Dinka, and Murle communities have displaced at least 8,000 people from their villages to shelter next to the United Nations peacekeeping base in Pibor, and displaced thousands more in Akobo and Nyirol. Aid groups believe many more have been killed, and many injured are unable to access services. This spate of violence, part of a years-long cycle of attacks and counter-attacks between these ethnic groups, was triggered, as it has been in the past, by allegations that Murle abducted children.

Earlier this year, the UN documented an increase in intercommunal violence in other states as well, including Warrap, Unity, and Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. The causes range from cattle raiding and other resource conflicts to local government, land, and boundary disputes, revenge attacks, and mounting ethnic hatred.

In many places, political actors deliberately fuel underlying grievances and community antagonism for political gain. But in recent episodes, the violence and the type of weapons used has become more lethal and coordinated and the lines between armed youth groups, political, and military actors more blurred.  

Tailored solutions are urgently required, but South Sudan’s government has yet to address these conflicts effectively. Too often, they have selectively chosen where to intervene, failed to show up altogether, or hold anyone accountable for the violence. They have also responded heavy handedly and abusively, unleashing violent disarmament campaigns marked by killings, beatings, and detention of civilian suspects in military facilities. The absence of rule of law and local government – there are currently no state and county governments in place – leaves a power vacuum that exacerbates the violence.

One of the many priorities for the country’s new unity government should be finding meaningful and durable solutions to these deadly cycles of violence. Such solutions need to include an enhanced role for civilian authorities to mediate intercommunal disputes and rule of law institutions to provide accountability for ongoing violence.

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