Francis Mading Deng, a South Sudanese diplomat, scholar, and writer, built a reputation over the past 35 years as one of the world’s leading champions of humanity’s most forsaken, a pivotal figure in the modern anti-atrocities movement, and, until three years ago, the United Nations’ point man for the prevention of genocide.
But today, Deng’s legacy is at risk of being tarnished as his own country has devolved into the kind of mass ethnic cleansing that he had devoted much of his life to preventing. As South Sudan’s first ambassador to the United Nations, Deng, 76, now finds himself in the position of representing, and defending, a government that stands accused by the United Nations of committing mass atrocities.
In December, a long-simmering power struggle between South Sudan’s founding father, President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer with presidential aspirations, burst into open violence when forces loyal to the two leaders clashed in the capital, Juba. Government forces began targeting ethnic Nuer in the capital, setting off an explosion of ethnic-based killing that pitched the world’s youngest country into all-out civil war. Both sides have committed atrocities against civilians, according to U.N. human rights investigators, and the conflict has so far driven more than 1.5 million people from their homes and placed nearly 4 million at risk of starvation. No one knows how many have died.
The violence in South Sudan has posed a dilemma for the United States, where both Democratic and Republican administrations played a pivotal role in helping to create the new nation. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has long taken a personal interest in the fortunes of the South Sudanese. She had close ties to a small group of individuals, including Deng, who had been long promoting U.S. efforts to support the cause of South Sudan. Secretary of State John Kerry, who presented Kiir with a pair of the South Sudanese president’s trademark Stetson cowboy hats during a visit to Juba in 2011, traveled to South Sudan this past May to try to broker a political settlement between the rival leaders. He threatened to impose sanctions and other "possible consequences" on the two sides if they failed to pursue peace.
Deng — himself an ethnic Dinka from the still-disputed territory of Abyei — has remained loyal to Kiir, using his position and prestige at the United Nations to paint the most positive possible portrait of a government whose security forces, including the presidential guard, went door to door in Juba in the first days of the conflict hunting for ethnic Nuer to murder, according to U.N. reports.
Deng’s admirers have defended his decision to stick with Kiir, saying he has been honest about his government’s failings and serves as a voice of sanity in an administration that has increasingly lost its moral bearings.
"If the leaders in Juba had listened to Francis, there would be no South Sudan civil war," said John Prendergast, a leading American human rights advocate for Sudan who has known Deng for more than 30 years. "He stays in government through all the devastation because he believes he can make a difference, that his voice and position can somehow be used to help bring an end to the war and reconcile the two warring factions."
Deng did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article. But in response to a column in the online publication Gurtong, which caters to South Sudanese living abroad, Deng defended his decision to continue representing South Sudan. "On the issue of whether I should resign in view of the ethnic atrocities being committed in our country, views are divided even within my family, and, of course, among my friends and colleagues," he wrote. "The critical question is whether or not I am playing a constructive role in the service of our country and people. I believe that I am using my position at the UN to try to serve my country of South Sudan and my area of Abyei, to the best of my ability. Let me assure you that the moment I come to the conclusion that I am not making a useful contribution in the service of our country and people, the decision to leave will be a very easy one to make."
Deng’s critics say that he is achieving little beyond providing Kiir’s government with a cloak of international respectability. Many U.N. officials and diplomats doubt that Juba has been listening to advice from Deng, whose relationship with the leadership has grown increasingly strained during the civil war, and they say that Kiir’s inner circle has kept him out of the decision-making process.
"He doesn’t feel comfortable with the situation in Juba, and he is not well-informed of and not well-connected with the leadership," said one U.N. official. "Honestly, he is completely out of the game."
During his tenure in New York, Deng has also had only mixed success persuading his government to adopt key human rights initiatives.
Juba, for instance, has yet to ratify any of the major regional or international human rights treaties, including conventions on civil, political, and cultural rights. The government had told the African Union that it was on the verge of ratifying the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, but has yet to do so.
Juba’s inaction has made life awkward for Deng. In his first address to the U.N. Security Council as ambassador, Deng had to defend his government’s decision to expel U.N. human rights workers from South Sudan, an act that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon characterized in a report at the time as a "clear violation of both the United Nations Charter and the status-of-forces agreement signed by the United Nations and the government of South Sudan."
One U.N.-based diplomat said there had been discussions shortly after South Sudan’s independence about whether the new state should join the International Criminal Court to highlight its commitment to preventing bloodshed. In the end, the diplomat said, Deng opposed the move because he didn’t want to create new tensions with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
"He should resign," said Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, South Sudan’s former representative in Washington, who was detained for five months by the government along with 10 other former top South Sudanese officials. The Kiir regime accused him of conspiring to overthrow the government, a charge he has denied.
Gatkuoth, an ethnic Nuer, has since thrown his support behind South Sudan’s rebel leader, Machar, who also has a history of massive human rights abuses. Machar has been linked to a 1991 massacre of ethnic Dinkas in Bor, according to a report by the BBC, and forces loyal to Machar have been accused of carrying out large-scale killings of ethnic Dinkas during the current conflict.
"His legacy and his name are more important than what he is being dragged into by Salva," said Gatkuoth. "You don’t want your name, or your children, to be associated with this bad legacy of killing, of mass atrocities, of genocide."
Earlier this summer, Deng’s former deputy representative to the United Nations, Francis Nazario, resigned from the South Sudanese foreign service to protest the government’s human rights violations and call for a change in regime.
"Under the current government, violations of human rights have become the order of the day," he wrote in his resignation letter. "[The] leadership in Juba is neither capable, nor willing or ready to bring peace to the country now. Hence it must immediately go."
Deng has long been a towering figure in the South Sudanese diaspora, the son of Deng Majok, the late, powerful paramount chief of the Ngok Dinka of Abyei — a disputed border area that straddles Sudan and South Sudan.
The elder Deng wielded enormous influence over Sudan’s southerners — his sway reinforced by his marriage to wives from each of the more than 200 Dinka subtribes. He acted as a key mediator with the Arab northerners. He was also among the first tribal leaders in Abyei to educate his children, sending his son Francis to a Christian missionary school and then off to the University of Khartoum and Yale University, where he became the first person from his region to obtain a university doctorate in any field.
"He viewed himself as ‘the thread and the needle’ that sewed the North and the South into one national whole," Francis Deng wrote in a biography of his father titled The Man Called Deng Majok: A Biography of Power, Polygyny and Change.
The younger Deng has also moved easily between the northern and southern camps, including a stint as Khartoum’s foreign minister from 1976 to 1982. Deng resigned after then-President Gaafar Nimeiry’s Islamist government sought to impose sharia law on the largely Christian and animist south. A year later, Khartoum launched one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, laying the groundwork for Sudan’s ultimate division in July 2011 into two separate countries. Deng once supported the idea of preserving southern and northern Sudan as a united country with equal rights for all ethnic and religious minorities. But he came around to supporting the split on the grounds that Khartoum would never treat the southerners as equals.
While Deng has spent most of his adult life in the United States, he has maintained contact with the south’s revolutionary leaders, and he has family ties that cross government and opposition lines. "We have a tremendously big family. My grandfather was paramount chief of Abyei, and he had about 200 wives," said David Deng, one of Deng’s four sons and a human rights advocate. "We have literally thousands of uncles, aunts, cousins, and dozens of people who are in government."
Francis Deng’s half brother, Lt. Gen. Pieng Deng Kuol, is the inspector general of South Sudan’s national police force. His cousin Deng Alor, a former Sudanese foreign minister who served in Kiir’s cabinet, was detained by the government along with 10 other former high-ranking officials on charges of seeking Kiir’s overthrow. The detainees, who denied they were trying to topple the government, have since been released.
Despite his extensive family roots, Deng has always been something of an outlier back home, a man more at ease in Washington’s and New York’s corridors of influence and power than in the Sudanese bush, where South Sudan’s liberation was forged in blood by men willing to fight and die for their cause.
"He has never been on the ground for a long time; he was never close to the [liberation] movement, but was always working in different institutions in the U.S. and U.N. until he got his pension," Nazario told Foreign Policy.
Deng did, however, fit in well at the United Nations. He began his career at the world body in 1967 as a human rights specialist and steadily rose up the ranks. In 1992, then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed Deng as his first representative for the internally displaced, making Deng the world’s chief advocate for millions of homeless civilians who, because they had never fled their own countries, often lacked the basic rights accorded to refugees, who enjoy protections under a pair of 1951 treaties.
That work would later influence Deng’s scholarship, leading him to develop a notion that states bear responsibility before the international community for protecting their own people from mass atrocities, a novel and in some ways revolutionary concept that challenged the conventional view that state sovereignty is inviolable.
A book he co-authored in 1996, Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa, provided the intellectual underpinnings for the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, or R2P, which was endorsed by world leaders in the U.N. General Assembly in 2005. While R2P placed primary responsibility for protecting civilians in the hands of their own governments, it placed the world’s leaders on record acknowledging that the international community had a responsibility to act, militarily if necessary, to step in if governments were unwilling or unable to do so. Britain, France, the United States, and other Security Council members invoked the doctrine to justify military intervention in Libya.
In a testament to Deng’s growing stature, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Deng in May 2007 as his special advisor for the prevention of genocide, a position he held until he was tapped to serve as South Sudan’s first U.N. ambassador in July 2012. "He is very much viewed as the godfather of the R2P movement," said Cameron Hudson, director of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But Deng’s approach to human rights differed sharply from that of human rights groups that sought to shame governments into action. Deng preferred working behind the scenes, downplaying the prospects for military intervention, and gently cajoling governments into confronting ethnic divisions that threatened to deteriorate into violence. Even the notion of publicly labeling mass atrocities as genocides, in his view, could complicate efforts to save civilians by prompting their governments to retreat behind a wall of self-denial.
He believed that "when you throw the ‘g’ word around it puts people off," Hudson said. "A lot of people wanted him to be more alarmist. That wasn’t his style; he was very soft-spoken, a very cerebral person."
Deng’s son David said it is this belief in the virtue of slow, patient persuasion that drives his father to remain with the government.
His father has always been among those "who try to convince and see dialogue, even with people who may be called despicable," David Deng said. "For him, engagement has always been the way forward. To the extent that it can pay off I don’t know. But for the time being he is committed to it."
Francis Deng’s supporters have defended his tenure at the United Nations, saying that he did promote the cause of human rights. But he did so in a way he believed was most effective: quietly and without fanfare.
Simon Adams, executive director for the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, said that Deng has quietly convinced his leadership to allow South Sudan to participate in an international working group convened to promote the R2P doctrine and to agree to establish a government post in Juba to take up the cause. The government, however, has yet to appoint anyone for the job.
Adams said that Deng is deeply troubled by the fact that his country "is spiraling into something that is terrifying to him and runs counter to everything that defines him as a human being. But he is trying to find a quiet, strategic way through it, quietly prodding the government to move in a more positive direction. Whether he can achieve it is an entirely different question."
"I think he must go to bed at night constantly struggling with the questions: Am I being effective, or am I being complicit?" added Adams, recalling a conversation with Deng about his reasons for continuing on. "There are people who want me to be fired, and there are people who want me to resign," Deng told him. "But what will resigning achieve? It’s not going to end the civil war."