The negotiations between the South Sudanese government and rebels began again this week, after a short pause for consultations. During the three week adjournment, the fighting, if anything, escalated. Dozens of civilians who had sought shelter at a United Nations base in Bor were killed by a mob which briefly overpowered the peacekeepers, trainee soldiers were shot in Mapel, though just how many is disputed, and perhaps most seriously of all, the rebels who over-ran the town of Bentiu are accused of a massacre in which hundreds of civilians were killed.
All these events, and other clashes which received less media coverage, expose how little the peace talks have been able to achieve so far. Although both sides signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in January,
The negotiations between the South Sudanese government and rebels began again this week after a short pause for consultations. During the three week adjournment, the fighting, if anything, escalated. Dozens of civilians who had sought shelter at a United Nations base in Bor were killed by a mob which briefly overpowered the peacekeepers, trainee soldiers were shot in Mapel, though just how many is disputed, and perhaps most serious of all, the rebels who over-ran the town of Bentiu are accused of a massacre in which hundreds of civilians were killed.
All these events and other clashes which received less media coverage, expose how little the peace talks have been able to achieve so far. Although both sides signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in January, just three weeks after the talks began, this has not been respected. Both military commands regularly state that they do no more than defend themselves when they are attacked, but in fact both sides have launched offensives in the last three months. In particular, two major towns, Bentiu and Malakal, have been fought over and the rebels have made no secret of their intention to target the nearby oilfields.
All this comes at a harrowing individual cost, and the ongoing violence is tearing apart South Sudan's cohesion as a nation. South Sudanese post disturbing images of those who have apparently been killed on social media every day (though some are clearly photos recycled from conflicts elsewhere on the continent). The gruesome photos are accompanied by invective accusations. On the battlefield, all too often this growing hostility is expressed through human rights violations, including against civilians. In Bor and Bentiu, to take just two examples, non-combatants were not just killed but actively targeted, including on ethnic lines. Restoring trust is all but impossible while the massacres continue.
The piles of bodies are not the only consequence of the fighting. More than a million people have fled the war, and most of them are out of reach of much help. Already markets in some areas are running low on food and farmers have not been able to plant their fields. Aid agencies are warning that up to 7 million people, which is 70 percent of the population, could be at risk of severe food insecurity in the coming year. There are fears that the fighting could provoke a famine.
How bad can things get?
There is clearly growing international concern about just how bad things could get in South Sudan. This needs to be transmitted, as forcefully as possible, to the government and rebel negotiating teams convened in Addis Ababa. Up until now, the impression that neither side is in a particular rush to stop the conflict, let alone solve the underlying issues, has proved impossible to shake off.
The focus must now be on convincing, or if necessary forcing, the men with guns to adopt a real ceasefire, which holds. The United States and the United Nations have threatened targeted sanctions on those who block peace.
The final shape the negotiations should take has been hotly debated. The 11 politicians who were accused of playing a role in the alleged attempted coup at the beginning of this crisis, but who were subsequently released, wish to present a political alternative to the government and the rebels. Many of them are likely to articulate strong criticisms of President Salva Kiir's governance, while denouncing taking up arms to make that point. In this, there is clearly a degree of political opportunism, particularly given the idea floated by some South Sudanese and foreigners that an interim government involving neither Kiir or the rebel leader Riek Machar should be set up.
Neither leader, of course, is likely to accept this proposition. The 11 men are not the only would-be participants in the talks. South Sudanese civil society organisations have expressed their desire to be included, to represent the view of those outside the political and military elites which are fighting over the country's future and their role in it. For the moment, though, the talks are restricted to the warring parties.
The focus must now be on convincing, or if necessary forcing, the men with guns to adopt a real ceasefire, which holds. The United States and the United Nations have threatened targeted sanctions on those who block peace. It is surely no coincidence that just hours after the UN's announcement, the South Sudanese justice minister announced that charges against the four remaining "political detainees", Pagan Amum, Oyai Deng, Majak D'Agoot and Ezekiel Lol, had been stayed in the interests of peace, allowing for the men to be released. This had been a key international demand. The US and the UN should be prepared to actually impose sanctions if this round of talks in Addis Ababa does not halt the war.
However, this would only work if everybody, and in particular South Sudan's neighbours, agree to implement them. US Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly spent part of his visit to Ethiopia trying to persuade the region to impose sanctions on leaders from both the government and the rebels.
A robust peacekeeping force
One reason the fighting hasn't stopped is because a monitoring and verification mechanism created by the IGAD, the regional body, hasn't been properly deployed. A regional military force is also expected to be sent into South Sudan to keep the peace. IGAD says its special envoys have been seeking support for both initiatives.
A robust peacekeeping force is problematic. One IGAD member, Uganda, is already involved in the fighting in South Sudan, sending in troops to back up Kiir. The South Sudanese rebels will not consider Ugandan troops as neutral. Regional peacekeepers under an IGAD mandate may be accused of furthering their own country's political and economic interests within South Sudan. Normally, it would seem logical to bolster the strength and mandate of the already existing UN peacekeeping mission, UNMISS. However, the South Sudanese government's dismal relationship with UNMISS means it would be likely to reject this notion. Somehow, though, a solution must be found.
Sending in enough troops to stop a war in such a large country, which presents many geographical challenges, will always be difficult. Yet getting the rebels and the government to pause their deadly embrace is a precondition for making meaningful progress at the talks. At the very least, it ought to be possible to send in enough military observers, backed up by peacekeepers, to apportion blame if further military offensives are launched. This could trigger a range of sanctions on individuals. Another profitable avenue to explore could be arms flows. Both sides seem to have enough ammunition to keep fighting, but this will not last forever. Cutting off the supply could help increase the chances of a ceasefire holding.
James Copnall is the author of "A Poisonous Thorn in our Hearts" about Sudan and South Sudan after the 2011 split. He was the BBC correspondent for both countries from 2009-12. Before this he was based in Ivory Coast (2004-7) and Morocco (2008-9).
Source: Al Jazeera