By Caelin Briggs, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Caelin Briggs is an advocate at Refugees International. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Two years ago today, South Sudan gained independence from Khartoum, becoming in the process the world’s youngest country. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which today is South Sudan’s national army, was then just a group of rebels, fighting in the mountains and deserts for sovereignty for their people. But this independence day, many South Sudanese aren’t cheering the SPLA – they are running from it.
Reports of abuses by government soldiers in Jonglei State have streamed in during recent weeks, adding to a long list of major human rights violations since 2011. The time has come for South Sudan’s foreign backers to force major changes to the nation’s military. If they do not, then the SPLA could destroy the very country it helped create.
A month ago, I traveled with my colleagues from Refugees International to Jonglei State and met with some of those who had just fled their homes after SPLA attacks. Between January and June of this year, soldiers allegedly burned down hundreds of homes, looted and destroyed property belonging to Medicines Sans Frontieres and other aid groups, displacing tens of thousands of people across the state.
Some suggest the motivations behind the violence are likely a mix of absent or insufficient pay for SPLA soldiers, ethnic animosity, and a perception that the civilians in the area are anti-government due to their ethnicity and assumed support for an opposition group operating in the area.
Regardless, one man, an older amputee from Pibor town, described the fear of being left behind as his family fled. “I was alone for two weeks before I managed to escape,” he said. “My family ran to the bush, but because of my leg I knew I couldn’t keep up.” Like hundreds of others, the man hid in his home waiting for a chance to flee, and hoping that the marauding soldiers going door-to-door wouldn’t find him.
Now, the South Sudanese government has reportedly cut off access to 150,000 people at the epicenter of the violence, Pibor and Pochalla counties, prompting fears that the SPLA could be committing massive abuses without anyone even knowing. Even peacekeepers from the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have been barred from patrolling in the affected areas.
The United States was eager to see the rule of Sudanese president and International Criminal Court indictee Omar Al Bashir weakened, and between 2006 and 2012 it provided some $30 million in military technical assistance to the SPLA each year, according to a former envoy to Sudan under the George W. Bush administration.
But with money should come responsibility, and here the U.S. has let South Sudan down. The United States and the U.N. should have helped shepherd these soldiers into their new role, and held them accountable if and when they misbehaved. Western expectations that the SPLA’s ragtag rebels would transition seamlessly into a professional military were unrealistic.
Now, with the SPLA on the rampage in Jonglei State, the time has come for a new approach. The U.S. may have been the SPLA’s closest ally in its battle for freedom, but it should not allow nostalgia to weaken its response to ongoing abuses. There is no doubt that the recent attacks on civilians and denial of access in Jonglei are violations of international humanitarian law, and to continue to ignore the SPLA’s atrocities – and the apparent complicity of the South Sudanese officials in Juba – is to imply consent.
Instead, the United States should make it clear to South Sudan that these human rights violations and attacks on civilians are unacceptable. To do this, Washington should withhold a portion of its non-emergency foreign assistance until the government begins holding soldiers accountable for abuses. As the largest supplier of aid to South Sudan, the U.S. has the leverage to bring about this type of positive change – it simply needs to use it.
U.N. Security Council members, both collectively and independently, must also press South Sudan to give the Red Cross, aid groups, and peacekeepers unimpeded access to Jonglei. They should remind Juba that it is bound not only by the Geneva Conventions, but also a Status of Forces agreement with the U.N. Mission in South Sudan that allows peacekeepers to travel anywhere in the country without government permission or authorization.
South Sudan has a long road ahead of it, but ignoring the SPLA’s ongoing abuses helps no one. It will be much easier to address these challenges now, rather than waiting until human rights violations have become an accepted practice. The U.S. and the United Nations must step up and begin showing South Sudan the tough love it badly needs.