There is no denying the egregious crimes perpetrated by the diabolical triad of Syria, Russia and Iran against the defenceless civilians in Aleppo. We have witnessed the stream of unconscionable atrocities flowing into our television screens and social media on a daily basis.
Yet, once again, the United Nations and international community are too paralyzed to act.
But there is another civil war ongoing the last three years which has descended into the same depth of depravity and scale of atrocities as the conflict in Syria. It is in the nascent country of South Sudan. Unfortunately, as usual, Africa barely registers a ripple in the ocean of world affairs. On Nov. 28, 2016, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Genocide Prevention Committee sounded the alarm, noting that conditions are ripe in South Sudan for another “Rwanda-like” genocide.
South Sudan seceded from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011, following a referendum. Prior to secession, the people of south Sudan – who are ethnically African and predominately Christian –fought two long, bloody civil wars against the northern government in Khartoum, dominated by ethnically Arab and Muslim majority.
In 1955, when the shackles of British colonialism were removed and the Republic of Sudan was artificially created, the Arab north took over the reins of government and disenfranchised the African south politically, culturally, and economically. The south rebelled. Later, after a brief respite from war in the 1970s, civil war resumed when oil was discovered in the south and in response to the north’s attempt to Islamicize the south and enact Sharia law.
The backdrop of the Darfur genocide, nearly a decade ago, was predicated on the government of Khartoum putting down another rebellion in western Sudan against African Muslims. It was in this context, after a comprehensive peace agreement between the two sides, that the south voted overwhelmingly to separate giving birth to the new country of South Sudan.
Of course, there had been tribal tensions among the African tribes before, and even outbreaks of violence, but battling the common enemy in Khartoum forged a united front. As the fledgling country of South Sudan emerged, it seemed to transition seamlessly into democracy as elections were held. Not withstanding its poverty, there was peace and stability.
Then, in December 2013, violence erupted in South Sudan. It started as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president, Riek Machar. Kiir accused Machar of planning a coup against him. As a result, violent clashes broke out between soldiers loyal to each man. Both leaders recruited soldiers from their respective tribal groups – Kiir’s Dinka tribe, the largest, pitted against Machar’s Nuer tribe, the next biggest in size.
Both sides have targeted attacks on civilians from the other’s ethnic group. South Sudan is littered with mass graves as soldiers from both sides have committed large-scale rape, torture and mass murder. According to estimates, up to 300,000 people have been killed. Approximately three million more, in a country of 12 million, have been displaced – close to two million internally and one million more to neighbouring countries.
Back in late November, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum called upon “the political and community leaders in South Sudan to actively combat hate speech and make it clear violence against civilians will not be tolerated.” The United Nations special adviser for the prevention of genocide, Adam Dieng, has also expressed his alarm “of the inflammatory rhetoric, stereotyping, and name calling” that dehumanizes and denigrates the other side.
We must strongly urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and our government to take international leadership in addressing the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. The feckless UN peacekeeping forces must be significantly augmented to protect vulnerable civilians. Peace talks must recommence in earnest. Arms embargoes and economic sanctions against South Sudanese leaders must be attempted.
I remain incredulous that barely any ink has been spilled, images shown or voices raised with respect to disturbing events developing in South Sudan. But the Jewish community can help change that. Jews must continue to be the canary in the coal mine whenever the nefarious prospect of genocide rears its ugly head. The Jewish community did so during the Darfur genocide, and we must heed the call once more and marshal our resources. n
Norman L. Epstein is a physician and a former leader in the Canadian Darfur Movement.