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Genocide Looming in South Sudan?

Line of Defence Magazine, Winter 2017

Relocating internally displaced persons in South SudanRelocating internally displaced persons in South Sudan


In this sobering account, Damien Rogers of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies examines a South Sudan plagued by corruption, poverty, displacement and human misery, crippled by an intractable civil war that may well turn genocidal.


South Sudan is in crisis. Ravaged by the scourge of war, the situation on the ground there now ranks among the most volatile and insecure places anywhere in the world. 300,000 people are already dead. Of the two million people displaced within the country by the furies of armed conflict, over 230,000 are living in emergency shelter at UN-run civilian protection centres.

Earlier this year, famine was also declared in some areas of the country. Over one million people remain at risk of starvation. The world’s newest state is tearing itself apart.

The roots of this crisis run deep and lie mostly in South Sudan’s war of independence. Beginning in the early 1980s, the country’s path to succession was bloody, brutal and protracted. It was one of Africa’s longest-running wars, ending in 2005 with a peace agreement that led to formal political independence on 9 July 2011.

For the Sudanese leaders in Khartoum, this succession was costly as South Sudan represented 75 percent of Sudan’s oil revenues. Post-independence relations between Juba and Khartoum remain fractious, with tensions arising around border incursions, violence committed by various armed groups, and the disbursement of oil revenues.

Within two years of obtaining independence, South Sudan descended into civil war. In December 2013 South Sudan’s first President, Salva Kiir, accused his Vice-President Riek Machar of attempting to seize power through a coup d’etat. Fighting immediately followed as the army fractured along ethnic lines.

Those claiming Dinka kinship, including many of the President’s top brass, supported Kiir. Comprising some 200,000 troops, the President’s army is a formidable war-making machine. Those who support Machar are mostly Nuer, the largest ethnic group in the country, and they draw on the Nuer-majority provinces for their support.

There is an important international dimension to this civil war. At the outbreak of hostilities, Ugandan troops fought alongside the President’s forces. Kiir’s black Stetson hat, a gift from US President George W. Bush, signifies his orientation towards Washington, D.C. Machar, on the other hand, is seen by many as Khartoum’s man and, described as a rebel by some commentators, suffers a high degree of international isolation.

Invited to return to Juba in April 2016 only to be dismissed from office two months later, Machar fled South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo and, from there, to South Africa.

Since then the fighting has spiraled outwards from Juba and has engulfed other regions, including agricultural areas that could produce much-needed crops during a time of great food scarcity.


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There are credible and alarming reports of atrocities committed amidst the carnage of this war. A report released by the UN in May 2017 details 114 cases of armed attacks on civilians between 12 July 2016 and 16 January 2017.  These attacks appear to be focused along ethnic lines as government forces target the Nuer.

The opposition forces also appear to have blood on their hands, though the UN investigators had more difficulty obtaining evidence of their war crimes. The deliberate killing of civilians is a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions and is a recognized war crime. These acts might also be crimes against humanity if they form part of a widespread or systemic attack on the civilian population. If there is a demonstrable intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the Nuers of South Sudan, then these actions could amount to genocide.

However, saying that the situation in South Sudan is not too bad because there are only war crimes and crimes against humanity — but not genocide — is to conceal deplorable actions behind the shield of very particular legal terms. While hiding behind words might avoid triggering an obligation to act under the Genocide Convention of 1948, war crimes and crimes against humanity remain morally repugnant and feature among the most serious of all international crimes.

Given the evidence of war crimes, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court could take an interest in South Sudan’s situation because she is responsible for investigating and prosecuting those most responsible for committing mass atrocity. This remains unlikely, however, as South Sudan is not a member of the Court. And given the weight of incriminating evidence implicating government forces, President Kiir is unlikely to join the Court any time soon.

The UN Security Council could refer the situation to the ICC Prosecutor, as they did for the respective leaders of the Islamic regimes in Libya and Sudan. Whether or not the Council does so remains to be seen.

The Security Council has not, however, stood idly by. Having determined that civil war in South Sudan constitutes a threat to international peace and security in the region, the Council exercised its powers under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to establish a peacekeeping mission in July 2011. Following the outbreak of organized armed violence in late 2013, the Council strengthened the mission’s military capacity and then refocused its mandate around four key areas: protecting civilians; monitoring, investigating and reporting on human rights violations; facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid; and supporting the implementation of the ceasefire agreement.

The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) currently has an authorised force of 17,000 armed troops and over 2,000 police. It has one of the toughest assignments to ever appear on the Security Council’s agenda.

The road out of this quagmire of human misery will be long and the journey arduous.

For starters, the government’s finances are in poor shape. The country’s oil production was shut down after neighboring Sudan was discovered helping itself to the valuable resource. Reports also suggest systemic corruption among South Sudan’s officials. One well-respected expert on African affairs, Alex de Waal, recently went as far as to characterise the government as a kleptocracy. Annual inflation for 2016 ran at over 800 percent.

Poverty is now widespread among the population, including in the capital, Juba. Meanwhile, government forces continue to import more weapons and armaments.

International peacekeepers face immense challenges too. With a population of over 11 million people, South Sudan covers an area roughly equivalent to the size of France. Yet the country is profoundly under-developed in terms of critical infrastructure. There are few tar-sealed roads, for instance.

In addition to the two main fighting forces, there are many other smaller armed groups operating throughout the country. The ‘blue helmet’ no longer affords the peacekeeper a level of protection that it once did; UNMISS has taken fire and casualties. On occasions when foreign aid workers have been attacked and requested urgent assistance, nearby UN peacekeepers remained safely inert in their barracks.

While international media organizations frequently report on the situation in South Sudan, New Zealand’s media organisations have shown very little interest in covering the war. Some attention was given to David Shearer’s appointment as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, making him the most senior UN official in the country, but that’s about it.

This lack of coverage gives the impression that New Zealanders think that African lives matter less than Manchester’s teenaged daughters. South Sudan’s civil war deserves more attention here because groups of civilians are being deliberately targeted on the basis of ethnicity and presumed political allegiance. Such activities really ought to represent an intolerable affront to the values we share as human beings.


Dr Damien Rogers is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies. He is author of Postinternationalism and Small Arms Control: Theory, Politics, Security (New York: Routledge, 2016). His next book, Law, Politics and the Limits of Prosecuting Mass Atrocity, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.


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