The Tragedy of Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan

By Tongun Lo Loyuong

August 20, 2013 (SSNA) — Around this time ten years ago, the world witnessed with shock and awe the tragedy that unraveled before television screens when a massive suicide car bomb ripped apart Canal Hotel in Bagdad. The bomb explosion caused considerable damage, including untimely claiming the lives of at least 22 members of the humanitarian community. Numerous strong international public condemnations followed, and subsequent additional security and protection measures were taken to ensure the safety of civilian population and humanitarian aid workers in combat situations.

However, despite all these efforts, little has changed in the way of preventing the replication of similar tragic occurrences across the globe. Humanitarian aid workers continue to be exceedingly victimized and deliberately targeted in complex emergencies and violent conflict settings around the world, from Afghanistan to Iraq through Syria to South Sudan where endless innocent civilian suffering continue to remain on a rampage. In all this, the tragedy of humanitarian intervention in South Sudan and elsewhere remains that the effort is yet to be effectively conducted.

Since the Canal Hotel tragic incident, August 19th has been set aside as a World Humanitarian Day to pay tribute to the selfless sacrifices of fallen martyrs from the humanitarian community, and to honor the courage of those who risk putting their lives in harm’s way to preserve the lives of other vulnerable members of the human family. In the last Security Council meeting commemorating this year’s World Humanitarian Day, and continuing the debate on civilian protection in armed conflicts, all the participant members shared the view that much remains to be desired in the way of providing adequate protection to civilians in complex emergency settings around the world.

For example, Philip Spoerri, the director for international law and cooperation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) highlighted that, “from January 2012 to May 2013 [alone], the ICRC had noted more than 1,200 incidents affecting the delivery of and access to health care, including the killing of 112 medical staff, and some 250 incidents involving attacks on or denial of access to ambulances, which were often delivering life-saving support.”

Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights equally underscored the deliberate targeting of non-combatants as an intrinsic feature of armed conflicts in the world, ten years after the Bagdad’s Canal Hotel incident. “A decade later,” she is reported as saying, “civilians in many conflict zones still suffered unacceptably high levels of threats to their lives, security and dignity. In July, Iraq saw the deadliest month in years as violence killed more than 1,000 people. In the first half of 2013, a total of 1,319 people had been killed in Afghanistan, and more than 100,000 had been killed in Syria since the fighting began there. The number of victims of ongoing violence in the Central African Republic was unknown, but reports were ‘concerning.’”

The same can be credibly asserted about South Sudan in view of persisting insecurity more generally. Particularly in view of the recent well-documented surge in inter-communal violence that have rendered the lives of many vulnerable members of our society valueless in regions, such as Jonglei States.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, Honorable Ban Ki-Moon, in his opening remarks of the meeting had underlined the enormous challenges facing the global body’s efforts to protect civilians in armed conflict settings. He is quoted as expressing outrage at civilian killings, including the killing of humanitarian aid workers, and urging member states to collectively work toward a proactive and pre-emptive humanitarian intervention. The Secretary General also appealed for the member states to uphold the principle of impartiality and work to swiftly enforce international rule of law as required to hold to account the culprits of international norms violations. “Protecting civilians demands timely political action and prevention.” “It might also include a presence or preemptive action by uniformed peacekeepers,” Ban Ki-Moon is reported as saying, before warning member states against “being seen as a party to conflict and diminishing the United Nations’ ability to provide impartial and timely humanitarian assistance.”

The remarks by the Secretary General and the other participants, and indeed the overall effort to keep the momentum going on the whole civilian protection efforts are encouraging. Yet, little in the presentations was there concrete recommendations of, for instance backtracking to the drawing board to re-examine, re-define and re-strategize on some of the challenges. In fact the debate seems to continue being stifled by the hurting stalemate between the redundant conflict of interests of sovereignty and territorial integrity on the one hand and the moral and legal principles and humanitarian responsibility to intervene on the other which has endlessly paralyzed the discourse on civilian protection in armed conflicts.

Consequently, for real strides forward to be made, it is imperative to steer the debate away from the sovereignty and territorial integrity versus the moral and legal responsibility to protect deadlock. In order to find appropriate response, we must begin to be guided by new and different sets of questions, such as what accounts for the deliberate targeting of civilian non-combatants and aid workers in most contemporary armed conflict situations? Or we must try to find out how are current armed conflicts different from past ones? And if so, why is it important to find amicable solutions to positively transform these conflicts?

Whether or not these or similar questions have already been raised and perhaps answered and new strategies have been setup in the past, demands further research. What is amply clear from this discussion thus far, however, is that civilian non-combatants and humanitarian aid workers are increasingly thrust in the middle of contemporary armed conflicts, which is unacceptable by all counts. What is more, it also seems self-evident that current efforts at protecting civilians remain deformed and are yet to yield meaningful dividend. If this is the case, where are we missing out in effectively overcoming these violent conflicts and providing the long overdue protection to civilians and humanitarian aid workers in these complex emergency settings, including in Sudan, South Sudan and elsewhere?

One way of getting at the bottom of this is to realize that the whole notion of impartiality in humanitarian intervention is flawed, counterproductive and often conflict exacerbating. The tragedy of humanitarian intervention in various geographic conflict contexts, such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and Sub-Sahara Africa is that neither humanitarian relief actors nor civilian non-combatants are perceived as innocent, neutral or impartial in most of these conflict settings. This is certainly not how both most state and non-state actors active in contemporary organized political violence in these areas envisage the role and place of civilian non-combatants and humanitarian aid workers in the armed conflicts. Call it terrorism or whatever suits you, but at best non-combatant victims, including victims from humanitarian actors in most contemporary organized violent conflict settings, are largely seen as parties to the conflict.

The civilians with which the enemy is identified or where the enemy operates are often by default setting regarded as the support base of the enemy. As scorch earth policies which are increasingly favored by many organized armed groups in these regions indicate, the modus operandi of this new form of organized violence seems to be guided by the age-old adage that in order to kill the fish, poison the river.

Humanitarian aid workers, particularly those representing the global body and international NGOs, are equally identified in the same context not as innocent and impartial actors, but at least as political symbols and the media by which political message is wired to the enemy in their brutal killing. They are looked at as easy targets whose killing are not only justified, but serve as a short cut to inflict deep pain and psychological terror in the enemy’s camp, with minimum capacities and resources.

In this regard, it is naïve of the humanitarian actors and policymakers to keep pretending and presenting themselves as innocent and impartial in contemporary armed conflicts while clearly the view is not appreciated or shared in most settings where humanitarian needs are dire, needed, but accordingly often also prevented by local authorities. By the same token it is equally naïve to persist on missing out by accident or design on the local socio-cultural dynamics in such complex emergencies and zones of armed conflicts. Not taking identity and cultural complexities and sensitivities in these settings seriously often leads to replacing a conflict by another often more devastating in humanitarian interventions sites. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and South Sudan are glaring examples to this end.

Put in a common language, what I am presenting here is informed by Mary Kaldor’s framework that articulates the contemporary form of intra-state armed conflicts or political violence taking place within a state as “new wars.” In her seminal book “New and Old Wars,” Kaldor has wisely as well as timely drawn attention to the fact that “during the last decades of the twentieth century, a new type of organized violence developed, especially in Africa and Eastern Europe, which is one aspect of the current globalized era.”

The ideology of the new wars, she argues, is built on identity politics and identity particularism based on religion, nation, tribe, ethnicity, and in the case of South Sudan one might add clan, kinship and political interest groupings. The distinctive characteristic of the new wars as hinted earlier is the perpetration of an amalgam of conventional state war institutions and practices also known as organized political violence, combined with organized crimes and predation, and blended with systemic egregious violation of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international refugee law.

The primary targets of the new wars are therefore, unsurprisingly the unprincipled and unlawful practice of mass killing of non-combatants through the perpetration of ethnic cleansings, crimes against humanity, and genocides. As the objective of their tactics, new warriors or dogs of the new wars perpetrate appalling violence without the least feeling of guilt, in their trail spreading hate and fear, exclusion, depopulation, torture and summary and arbitrary killing of political opponents. Destruction of cultural and religious symbols and the targeting of the vulnerable members of the political opponents, and rape and sexual profanation of women is normative practice of the new warriors.

The agents of these new wars do not just defy all normative conception and ethics of war, but also blur the distinction between what is national and transnational “internal and external, between aggression and repression, or even between local and global.” They are largely incoherent units, with no central command and control structure and lack discipline to obey their militant superiors; they breed and multiply in weak and failed states; they cripple the already ailing economy of the state; and sustain themselves through political war economy, diasporic assistance and predation and ransacking of lootable resources, including humanitarian relief aid. Their fighting group units consist of members of paramilitary groups, thugs, and criminals usually hired by the government to do their dirty jobs, as practiced in Sudan, Congo and elsewhere. These new warlords have no qualms over abducting and recruiting child soldiers.

In short, contemporary wars are new and illegitimate wars, and may elude archaic responses meant for the old or traditional wars, and therefore require a paradigm shift in the manner they must be responded to. As Kaldor pointed out what is needed to overcome the new wars, is “a cosmopolitan political response—one that puts individual rights and the rule of law as the centerpiece of any international intervention.” But for this to happen, local identity-based socio-cultural dynamics must be taken seriously, and the discourse must be moved away from the misguided and anachronistic national interest considerations. The national interest calculations, which are in turn guided by realpolitik in some delusional primordially designed anarchic and lawless world, are the stuff of old wars. Instead the premise of the discourse on humanitarian interventions must begin to be more positive in light and peaceful in assumption, and must primarily if not entirely be grounded on legal and moral universalism. For to be sure there are numerous islands of civility and zones of peace in the seemingly turbulent oceans of the new wars out there. The failure to adequately identify and empower the local cultural agents of civility and peace in these settings is the tragedy of humanitarian intervention in South Sudan and elsewhere.

The author is reachable at [email protected]

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