Towards sustainable civilian security in South Sudan


South Sudan smallLast week saw the start of yet another armed anti-government revolt in South Sudan’s Jonglei state.  Reportedly led by Murle militia leader Major General David Yau Yau, there are now fears that the revolt will escalate as a result of longstanding local grievances with the army of South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

The unrest comes as a result of a widely criticised government-led civilian disarmament campaign in Jonglei state – so-called ‘Operation Restore Peace’ – which was launched after violent clashes between Lou Nuer and Murle communities in January. Carried out by the SPLA, with an additional 15,000 soldiers and 5,000 members of the South Sudan Police Service, the campaign has been condemned by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and groups such as Human Rights Watch for alleged human rights violations including killings; allegations of torture, simulated drowning and beatings; rape and attempted rape; and abductions. On October 3rd, Amnesty International issued a press statement calling on the government to take immediate action to end these reported human rights violations, launching a new report ‘Lethal Disarmament’ which highlights abuses in Pibor County of Jonglei State.

Not for the first time, the Government of South Sudan’s  civilian disarmament initiative has failed to improve security in South Sudan. In 2006, as described by the Human Security Baseline Assessment at Small Arms Survey, the SPLA’s forcible civilian disarmament operation in northern Jonglei State succeeded in collecting 3,000 weapons from the local community. However, as a result of the campaign’s focus on the Lou Nuer community and martial and poorly planned approach, as well as a lack of subsequent security guarantees for the community, heavy fighting ensued and more than 1,600 people were killed.

In 2008, Interim President  of Southern Sudan, Salva Kiir issued a decree to start a six month disarmament period across the country. Conducted by the SPLA, the aim of the operation was to get all civilians to surrender their weapons in a peaceful manner, although ‘appropriate force’ could be used. However, as operational logistics were not outlined after the decree, a lack of centralised strategy resulted in various outcomes and in many places, an increased sense of insecurity. For example, in Lakes State local police had their weapons confiscated and weapons searches became violent as reportedly drunken soldiers stole from people’s homes.

Thus far, civilian disarmament operations in South Sudan have done little to increase long term security. After decades of war, small arms and light weapons are notoriously rife in the young country, but attempts to solve this problem by confiscating these weapons does little to deal with the root causes of insecurity and communities’ need for self-protection.  Small Arms Survey estimates that prior to the interim separation of Sudan and South Sudan after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, there were between 1.9 and 3.2 million small arms in circulation, with about two-thirds of these in civilian hands.  While these weapons come from a number of sources – including the SPLA during the Second Civil War – it is also important to understand why civilians feel they must arm themselves.

South Sudan’s severe underdevelopment, lack of infrastructure – with only 300km of paved road  – seasonal floods, and subsequent lack of service provision and security capacity, means that there is a considerable absence of established security services across the country.  Persistent, and often deadly, cattle raiding and escalating inter-communal armed conflict between groups such as the Lou Nuer and Murle in Jonglei State leave individuals and communities to seek ways to protect themselves and their property. Subsequently, informal community security structures are common; ranging from community initiatives to groups such as the Lou Nuer’s ‘White Army’, which was originally formed to protect cattle and now constitutes a major threat to Murle communities in Jonglei. In effect, the Government’s inability to ensure security at the community level means that groups are forced to take matters into their own hands, often challenging the state’s right to a monopoly of violence because of a lack of confidence in its ability to provide adequate protection.

In current approaches to civilian disarmament, communities are often left in a ‘security vacuum’, without the means to protect themselves from immediate security threats but without any guarantees that even short term immediate security assistance will be provided.  This state of vulnerability in turn leads to community backlashes, rapid re-arming or attempts not to turn weapons in.

As stated in a report by Saferworld in February 2012, ‘on its own, civilian disarmament does virtually nothing to address the factors fuelling demand and supply of these weapons, which requires a much more complex and long-term strategy.’  Reducing and managing the proliferation of civilian use of small arms and light weapons will require the Government of South Sudan to create a holistic strategy that addresses the demand for weapons as well as their supply. As has been proven in efforts until now, addressing the single issue of weapons supply without dealing with the underlying need for guns undermines attempts to decrease proliferation of small arms and light weapons. A government strategy would necessarily address structural issues, including the state’s capacity to provide professional security services that can be relied upon for protection, such that communities feel safe from immediate threats.

In no small measure, this will involve degrees of security sector reform, particularly with focused training on civilian interaction and ethnic impartiality in operations if the army is to be used for future operations. As the latest Amnesty report demands, the Government must ‘provide security forces carrying out civilian disarmament with the necessary training and resources to enable them to have a clear understanding of how to carry out disarmament in accordance with international human rights standards’. This must also include measures to address the structural issues facilitating civilian arms possession, including sales of weapons to civilians by government security forces because of lack of pay and porous regional borders that allow illicit trade. Such augmentation of basic infrastructure and security capacity in South Sudan will take years, and so attempts to reduce proliferation must also include measures to address immediate security threats, in addition to tackling longer term structural, capacity and training issues.

Civilian disarmament campaigns in South Sudan currently attempt to tackle one of the many symptoms of the country’s militarised post-war society. Instead, these campaigns must be seen as one aspect of an overarching and sustainable disarmament and security sector reform strategy that must be undertaken long term, while ensuring that the immediate security of communities is safeguarded and that their need for weapons to protect themselves is adequately addressed and reduced.

Zoë Pelter is a Research Officer of Oxford Research Group’s (ORG) Sustainable Security Programme. 

Image Source: ENOUGH Project