How to Save South Sudan

The United Nations has risked much to bring an end to South Sudan's conflict. Now it's up to the South Sudanese.

United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon (L) holds a South Sudanese child on May 6, 2014 in Juba, as part of his trip to demand an end to the civil war. The visit, coming as rebels and government forces battle for control of a key oil town, is the latest major push for a ceasefire in the nearly five-month-old civil war, which has seen the world's youngest nation collapse amid a brutal cycle of war crimes.AFP PHOTO/Samir BOL (Photo credit should read SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images)

One year ago today, violence broke out between different factions of South Sudan’s security forces. Within days, the fighting had spread from Juba, the capital, to other parts of the country. South Sudan descended into an appalling conflict that has since killed tens of thousands of people and displaced nearly 2 million. Despite urgent calls for peace, a year on, there are unmistakable signs that both sides are seeking to escalate the conflict. The United Nations has done much for the people of South Sudan and to promote peace. But it is now up to the country’s leaders. I call on South Sudan’s leaders to uphold their responsibilities towards their people and avoid any further bloodshed.

More than 100,000 people are still taking shelter inside nine U.N. peacekeeping bases across South Sudan. Almost 2 million more have fled their villages to seek refuge in remote areas and in Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Thousands of children have been enlisted to fight on both sides. Many people are completely destitute and aid agencies warn that there is a serious risk of famine by early next year.

Although the two sides in the conflict agreed on steps towards peace in January at talks facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a group of East African countries, neither side has made good on its commitments. Fighting has continued, including atrocities on both sides and attacks on hospitals and humanitarian aid convoys. The people responsible for these crimes must be held to account, and I am hopeful that the African Union Commission of Inquiry, headed by former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, will contribute to this process.

The country’s leaders appear unmoved by the plight of their people. Now there are reports that soldiers, regional rebels, and militias are re-arming, recruiting, and training with a view to resuming full-blown fighting, as soon as the rainy season ends this month. Moreover, it is clear that overt and covert military support has been provided to both sides in this conflict from within the region, adding another complex dimension to this catastrophic conflict.

The international community has done what it can. The United Nations Security Council immediately authorized more peacekeepers after the conflict broke out. More than 3 million people have received lifesaving aid. And I went to Juba in May to press the leaders to step back from the destructive path they are on.

Where people face grave risks, they expect the United Nations to act. It has. The crisis also brought about a landmark step in the United Nations’ efforts to protect people caught up in conflict. Faced with thousands of terrified civilians fleeing the violence, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan opened the gates of U.N. bases to offer them shelter from imminent attack. This unprecedented decision, made by the leadership on the ground with my strong support from New York, undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. It reflected our strong wish to improve upon what has been done in crisis situations in the past. This open-gates policy is an example of the Human Rights Up Front approach, a new initiative that aims to see the United Nations act earlier and more decisively in the face of human rights violations. We are determined to deepen our implementation of Human Rights Up Front in the period ahead. 

But the crisis in South Sudan cannot be solved by peacekeeping and humanitarian aid alone. Responsibility for preventing any new escalation and ending this man-made tragedy lies squarely with President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, the leaders of the two sides. Regional governments and other governments around the world must stand together and press both leaders and their respective military commanders to put their differences aside and work together for peace.

The parties to the conflict are now consulting their supporters on a transitional power-sharing arrangement that could provide for a new constitution, elections, and national reconciliation in the next 30 months. It is imperative that they — and we — back this deal.

I call on South Sudanese leaders to show statesmanship and seize this opportunity. They must prevent any resumption of hostilities, and reach an inclusive power-sharing arrangement with a transitional phase of governance. I welcome the decision earlier this month by the Peace and Security Council of the African Union to reinforce IGAD’s mediation with a committee of five heads of state. The creation of this coalition is a sign of Africa’s determination to prevent this conflict from deteriorating further.

The United Nations, the African Union, and IGAD have done what we can, and will continue to do so. Now it is up to South Sudan’s leaders to show their people and the world that they are committed to peace and to preserving the unity of their young country. The people of South Sudan went through decades of war in their struggle for independence. Three years after achieving their goal, they are locked in a struggle for survival. South Sudan’s leaders must pull their country back from the brink.

SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images

Ban Ki-moon is the secretary general of the United Nations.