(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • South Sudan: Seize this chance for peace

    In the coming weeks South Sudan’s leadership, the opposition, and a cadre of armed groups are expected to come together to reignite peace talks. For the first time in months, an air of possibility floats over the war-ravaged nation.

    But many critical questions remain unanswered about who will be included in the talks and exactly what will be negotiated. It is vital that smart and effective external pressure is placed on the men with guns and power. Now, more than ever, neighbours and influential nations must spare no effort to help end this horrific man-made catastrophe.

    The east African regional body, IGAD, is meant to lead the process to end the war. The rest of us must do everything in our power to support them. Previous talks have been led by the “Troika”, an alliance of the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway. They helped end the Sudanese civil war and ensure independence for South Sudan in 2011. They also supported the talks that led to this young and troubled nation’s peace agreement in 2015.

    But the international players on the peace field have changed drastically, and support for South Sudan has waned.

    President Donald Trump’s America first policy has left the United States yet to outline a policy for South Sudan, or even to appoint a special envoy. This leaves the remaining two Troika members – Norway and the United Kingdom – with a big responsibility in supporting IGAD. They have a unique opportunity to guide international efforts toward a sustainable peace for the nation they helped create. Not stepping up now will have deadly consequences.

    Africa’s largest refugee crisis

    The past 12 months has driven South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis to new lows. Armed conflict has spread. Militia groups have fragmented and multiplied. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated. Some 7.6 million South Sudanese – about two in every three people – depend on aid to survive. Famine has been declared in two regions this year, and the number of people on the brink of mass starvation is climbing. Nearly four million people have fled their homes and across borders to Uganda and elsewhere, making it Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

    For ordinary South Sudanese, continued conflict will incite even more suffering. The repercussions of failure will reach far beyond South Sudan’s borders, as refugees will continue to flood out of the country and place ever greater strain on their neighbours, already buckling under the pressure of hosting two million refugees.

    A chance for lasting peace

    This human suffering is untenable.

    Concerted multilateral action is needed to stop the fighting and deliver a peace process accepted by all. The forum created to resuscitate the peace agreement, known as the High Level Revitalisation Forum, will bring conflict parties together under the regional bloc’s leadership. Within this forum, the UK and Norway can lobby for three concrete things to facilitate a real chance of lasting peace.

    Firstly, they should advocate that the broad state-building ambitions of the 2015 peace deal not be abandoned. The original agreement was not ideal, but it was a compromise agreed by all sides. It contained mechanisms and institutions that can still be the foundation of good governance: Something the South Sudanese desperately need.

    Secondly, the UK and Norway must enable IGAD to deliver a process that is inclusive. This means recognising the fragmentation that has occurred within the armed opposition groups, and bringing all of today’s warring factions to the table – not just the original signatories of the 2015 agreement.

    Finally, the peace forum must involve a real inclusion of civil society and civilian opposition figures. The UK and Norway should push the talks beyond merely replicating the elite power-sharing model of the original peace deal. It must include measures to address marginalisation and grievances within communities that are fuelling the conflict.

    Time to toss the lifeline

    The merry-go-round of peace initiatives over the years have failed. This next attempt must not.

    Aid agencies like my own, the Norwegian Refugee Council, have been on the ground, band-aiding where we can. But saving lives with food, water, and medicine is only temporary respite. What we humanitarians cannot offer is a lifeline of peace. The international community has a moral responsibility to support IGAD’s efforts to see this happen.

    On 9 July 2011, the United Kingdom and Norway stood in a dusty football stadium in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, as the nation celebrated independence. The international community vowed to stand by the new country to help build it. A credible chance of peace is within grasp.

    It is time to step up, not step away.

    TOP PHOTO: Children play on a tank in Leer, Unity State

    South Sudan: Seize this chance for peace
  • The well-fed dead: Why aid is still missing the point

    Three "Ps" symbolize our greatest challenge and failure as humanitarians today: protection, principles and proximity.

    Convened by the United Nations, the World Humanitarian Summit has bold ambitions to "reboot" the international relief system. But to measure the global gathering a success, we must walk away from the meeting in Istanbul armed with the tools that pass the "Aleppo-" or the "Kivu-test". It must make us better able to respond where we now fail the most.

    Here’s what we must ask ourselves: How can we remain on the frontlines and deliver for those in the crossfire who are largely on their own when ruthless armed men attack? Will we, at some cost, defend our humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence when fighters, host governments and even donors try to politicise, securitise and militarise our actions? Can we deploy out of our comfortable headquarters and capitals in strength and in numbers to field locations where the needs are greatest and the insecurity at its worst?

    Humanitarian agencies have clearly improved their ability to provide assistance. Mortality and malnutrition are down; disease control and education are up. In contrast, the protection of vulnerable women and children has not improved over the last decade.

    In 2005, as UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, I launched a major reform of humanitarian coordination to improve the capacity, funding and field leadership that was lacking in the response to the crisis in Darfur. Since then, humanitarian agencies have clearly improved their ability to provide assistance: from water and sanitation to shelter and logistics. In most conflict and disaster areas, mortality and malnutrition are down; disease control and education are up.

    In contrast, the protection of vulnerable women and children has not improved over the last decade. Civilians trapped in today’s conflict zones are still treated as pawns in geo-political battles waged from the sky. Modern warfare is still characterised by a shocking disregard for human life. In South Sudan, reports of deliberate killing, widespread rape and burning of people’s homes have become a regular feature of the young nation's history. In Nigeria, abducting entire villages of young girls has become the all-too recognisable calling card of men with guns.

    In Syria, civilians are deliberately starved and deprived of lifesaving health services and medicines. The Syrian army recently blocked a carefully negotiated humanitarian assessment mission to the town of Daraya that was carrying vaccines, health materials and baby milk to sick and malnourished children. Six of 18 besieged areas have not been reached this year. The civilians in Daraya have been officially deprived of humanitarian supplies since they were first besieged in 2012.

    Universally recognised places of refuge, such as schools, hospitals and temples, are targets, despite their protected status in international humanitarian law. The International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières warn of an epidemic of attacks on health facilities. For too many armed actors, the doctor of my enemy has become my enemy.

    Three commitments must to be made at the World Humanitarian Summit to better protect the world’s most vulnerable people:

    First, politicians and diplomats must stop their catastrophic failure to address the underlying causes of conflict. The responsibility to prevent and resolve conflicts lies with national governments and other parties to conflict. Humanitarians can reduce suffering, but they cannot end wars.

    Second, states must commit to specific actions to end impunity for violations of war crimes. Every day, international humanitarian law is relentlessly and openly attacked. Warring factions that commit atrocities must be held to account.

    Finally, aid organisations must commit to making protection central to our thinking about how, when and to whom we provide humanitarian assistance. We must work closer to and with the people we serve, by providing protection through our physical presence on the ground. We need to work alongside remote communities in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, to draw attention to their forgotten plight. Only then can we give a voice to the voiceless and speak up against the abuse of the powerful.

    Jan Egeland is the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council; special advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria; and a former UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

    Other views on priority reforms at the World Humanitarian Summit: 

    Kristalina Georgieva: Why more money alone won't improve crisis response

    The well-fed dead
    On priority reforms at the World Humanitarian Summit
    The World Humanitarian Summit will bring together global leaders and UN officials to improve the world’s response to crises. What’s the highest priority outcome? Special Advisor to the UN Envoy for Syria Jan Egeland argues that despite improvements in the delivery of aid, the humanitarian sector is still failing to protect civilians from violence.

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