The violence in South Sudan has been raging for weeks now, as civilians stream from their homes to the United Nations bases around the country seeking protection. A recent report from the BBC, however, has raised concerns that the U.N. is helping deepen the ethnic divide that the conflict has exposed rather than heal it.
Soon after the clashes between the South Sudanese government and forces tied to former Vice President Riek Machar, civilians began seeking out refuge at bases housing peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Within days, tens of thousands had taken shelter at these bases, even as they came under attack from armed groups. A report from the BBC on Friday, however, showed how life within a makeshift camp reflected the divide between the two major ethnic groups in South Sudan.
“Inside, two signposts summed up how much of a setback the reconciliation between the communities here has suffered,” the BBC’s Alastair Leithead wrote. “One pointed left and said Dinka, the other pointed right and said Nuer.” South Sudanese president Silva Kiir is a member of the Dinka, while Machar is Nuer. While the conflict is far more complex than being based on ethnicity alone, the split between the two has been seen as a reopening of old wounds between the ethnic groups, even as the political struggle between the men for control of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Party has played out. The image of the rudimentary sign circled the Internet swiftly on Friday morning, drawing concern and condemnation.
The United Nations has defended the decision to erect the sign as necessary for security and at the request of those seeking help. “As you know, when the UN supports large numbers of displaced persons in this sort of situation, UN personnel work closely with the community leaders of those in the bases,” a U.N. spokesperson told Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch. “UNMISS informs that UN staff working with the displaced people at the base were told by community leaders that tensions between communities were high and they requested to the UN that community members from each of these two ethnic groups be allowed to gather in separate areas for security reasons.”
That explanation seems solid to several human rights experts, if not precisely encouraging. “If the Dinka and Nuer are really asking for it then its probably useful and prudent for the UN to comply, although its not without complication,” said acting Washington director at Human Rights Watch Sarah Margon in an email to ThinkProgress. “Unfortunately what it really illustrates is just how tense the crisis has gotten, how quickly the ethnic component has become a flashpoint, and how serious the potential remains for such clashes to continue. Strong mechanisms to address accountability for past – and likely future – abuses on both sides will need to be a central component of any legitimate reconciliation.”
“Last thing [the U.N. wants] is tension in the camps that could boil over,” Laura Seay, an associate professor at Colby College, said on Twitter. “Also important to remember that camps are often organized by pre-existing village/neighborhood structures. So people in camps are often living in close proximity to their real-home neighbors.”
That the U.N. felt necessary to reinforce the divide with a sign doesn’t sit well with everyone, however. “There may be cases where it is appropriate to separate different populations for the security of all, and it is no surprise that people want to stay with people they know, which may in practice mean they separate themselves by ethnicity,” former journalist Bec Hamilton, author of the book “Fighting for Darfur,” told ThinkProgress. “But it still seems a categorically different thing for the UN to place a signpost that functions to segregate people by ethnicity.”
“It is the symbolism of it that is so distressing,” Hamilton continued. “There are plenty enough unscrupulous Southern Sudanese elites right now who are fueling the ethnic flames for their personal gain, without the UN putting its stamp of approval on it. We need to remember that this started as a political conflict and the actions of people who have a choice – like the UN – matter in terms of the direction it goes.”
Since the fighting first began, the United States has been working to use what political leverage it has to bring both Kiir and Machar to the table and halt the clashes between the forces loyal to them. National Security Advisor Susan Rice issued a statement on Thursday, urging both sides to agree to the cease-fire proposal regional leaders had put forward. “It is the obligation of both President Kiir and Mr. Machar to ensure that the lives of their people and future of their young country are not further marred by continued violence and atrocities,” the statement reads.
In the meantime, estimates of the number killed since late December continue to spiral upward, with the International Crisis Group on Thursday saying that it as many as 10,000 have died in the clashes.
The United Nations confirmed to ThinkProgress that locals had requested that U.N. staff in South Sudan keep the two sides separated. As for the sign itself, however, “we do not know at this point who put it up,” Acting Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq said in an email. “We do not have any information to indicate that UN personnel had done that.”