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Inside Story

Can diplomacy help South Sudan?

As violence spreads across the country and rebels take control of key states we ask what can be done to ease the crisis.

Last updated: 03 Jan 2014 08:36
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South Sudan's rivals have agreed to gather for talks, even as fighting on the ground intensifies.

Rebels are now in control of two major states, with President Salva Kiir declaring a state of emergency in parts of the country on Wednesday.

The order covers the states of Unity and Jonglei, where fighting has been ongoing over the past month.

South Sudan can still be a successful country, but it requires leadership that is prepared to do that and so, on both sides of the current dispute between Riek Machar and Salva Kiir, both sides need to find it within themselves to remember what it is to have a South Sudanese nation and what South Sudan can be, and what can be done to restore or deal with the damage of the last few weeks and the fighting that has occurred.

Aly Verjee, a senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute

The current crisis began when President Kiir dismissed his deputy Riek Machar, along with most of his cabinet, last July.

But what may have begun as a power struggle between the two men soon turned into a violent conflict between their supporters.

At least 1,000 civilians have been killed so far and nearly 200,000 people are displaced as the humanitarian crisis worsens.

The United Nations is calling for an immediate truce. But so far neither side is backing down in South Sudan, which became world's newest state in July 2011 after separating from Sudan.

Hilde Johnson, the head of the UN mission in South Sudan, has warned of the dangers of continued fighting.

"We have seen terrible acts of violence in the past two weeks, there has been killings and brutality, grave human rights violations and atrocities committed," she said.

"We have seen evidence of apparent ethnic [violence] or targeting of South Sudanese citizens on ethnic grounds. This can lead to a perpetual cycle of violence that can destroy the fabric of the new nation. We need to do everything possible to prevent such a cycle of violence between communities of South Sudan," she added.

President Kiir dismissed his cabinet on July 24, 2013 and has since named smaller cabinet excluding Machar, who was his former vice president.

Then, last month, Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup, which led to fighting among their supporters. Machar denies the accusation, saying Kiir is violently purging his opponents.

The violence, which began in the capital Juba on December 15, has spread across the country, with rebels headed by Machar now fighting for control. 

Rebels control large areas of the important oil producing states of Unity and Jonglei. They have also taken the upper-hand in strategic cities of Bor and Benitu.

The conflict has also been marred by a surge in ethnic violence, pitting members of Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer community. The UN has urged both sides to take crucial steps to end the violence, warning of a humanitarian crisis in South Sudan as fighting continues.

Meanwhile representatives from both sides are in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa for talks. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is to chair the peace talks. The country's foreign ministry spokesman says the priority is to stop the fighting.

So, can diplomacy solve an ever-increasing crisis in the world's newest state? Or is the situation in South Sudan already out of control?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Fauzia Ibrahim is joined by guests: Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the minister of foreign affairs of South Sudan; Choul Laam, the chief of staff to the secretary general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM); and Aly Verjee, a senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute in Doha.

"What we have in South Sudan is a conflict, whether it's political or ethnic, you have a conflict. And what we need to do is to try and stop it as soon as possible. And the only way to do it is through dialogue. And I commend President Kiir and former Vice President Riek for accepting to send a delegation. This is a good start, but it is not where it would all be resolved without having a comprehensive dialogue. And that means bringing everybody who can change the situation and ensure peace in South Sudan, and that is through releasing of the detainees who represent the wider country, and they are from all parts of South Sudan and I believe these gentlemen have the power to try to resolve the current situation in South Sudan."

Choul Laam, the chief of staff to the secretary general of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement

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