Posted by Kelly Case
This article originally appeared in The Weekly Wonk.
When warring parties agree to consider terms for peace, it’s usually a cause for optimism. But as South Sudan’s belligerents mull over a proposed compromise agreement in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, hope seems futile. The mediators have set August 17 as an urgent deadline for ending the conflict. However, the unfortunate truth is that without participation and buy-in from the South Sudanese people, peace stands no chance.
South Sudan’s neighbors—in the form of the eight-country trade bloc known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)—have struggled collectively to mediate an end to horrific violence between supporters of current president Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar since it erupted in December 2013. Now, joined by regional and international stakeholders, including the US, they have prepared a draft agreement and warned the parties that they must forge a deal by August 17. Should the deadline pass without an accord, the US and other countries will likely impose further sanctions against South Sudanese leaders.
While these steps—and the urgency with which they’ve been set in motion—are commendable, the peace process, thus far, has suffered from a fatal flaw. Like so many attempts to end war, it has focused on the needs of those who took up arms, rather than those who have suffered at their hands. Whether the parties agree to a deal next week or not, the success of the next stage depends on broad inclusion of South Sudanese civil society.
Over the last one-and-a-half years, there have been more than 10 rounds of negotiations to bridge the political and tribal differences between the warring factions in South Sudan. During that time, the parties have broken at least seven ceasefires, some of them within hours. According to the UN, the latest violence has reached “new levels of brutality,” with both sides accused of raping and murdering countless civilians and targeting villages for destruction based on tribal identity.
These negotiation efforts have failed, in part, because women and civil society organizations—the most committed advocates for peace—have had only token representation at the table. Though they were allocated some seats, the selection process was co-opted by the warring parties. It’s unsurprising, then, that the proposed agreement is based on the interests of the belligerents, not on any substantive consultation with affected communities. As a result, it overlooks some critical needs and perspectives of marginalized groups.
For instance, according to the draft text, the body responsible for overseeing and coordinating a permanent ceasefire will be constructed entirely of military personnel, excluding the crucial voices of women, youth, and broader civil society, who would help implement and monitor terms of a truce. The agreement also fails to outline any confidence-building measures to encourage the return of internally displaced persons, prisoners of war, women, or child soldiers to their home communities. And, even though local organizations will ultimately be responsible for ensuring the success of many of the agreements’ measures on the ground, the draft text does not call for a critical mass of civil society representatives in any of the bodies that would oversee implementation of these programs.
Peace agreements aren’t just terms for ceasefires; they address a wide range of political, economic, and social issues. The draft accord for South Sudan is no different. It covers everything from power-sharing in the new government to transitional justice mechanisms to oversight of land and oil resources. These issues affect everyone in the country from residents of remote villages to those who sit in the seats of power. Therefore, the populace must be fully engaged in determining the way forward.
The best way to do this is by prioritizing meaningful representation of civil society, especially women’s groups, in all decision-making bodies related to the peace process. Not only can these organizations bring the concerns of communities to the table, they are also the constituency most actively trying to end the war.
Factions from the opposing parties have consistently ignored their peoples’ calls to put aside differences and renew the hopeful future promised during the country’s infancy, just four short years ago. Instead, they’ve haggled over who gets to be vice president and how to split up seats in parliament. Early reports from the talks in Addis allege that both sides are demanding the terms of the draft agreement be modified to give them 70 percent of positions in the proposed transitional government. Their actions demonstrate commitment not to peace, but to the continued destruction of their country.
Contrast that behavior with the actions and statements of South Sudanese civil society, particularly women’s groups. In June, The Institute for Inclusive Security gathered 12 South Sudanese women leaders who are members of the Taskforce on the Engagement of Women, a cross-border coalition of activists from Sudan and South Sudan. Though they’ve each suffered unimaginably during the recent conflict—almost all have lost multiple family members—these women continue to mobilize for peace, promote dialogue between the factions, and demanding meaningful representation at the table. They recently issued a powerful statement calling for an inclusive process to end the violence. To the mediators and belligerents, they assert: “We stand ready to support you.”
These women also insist that the negotiations and subsequent agreement must address the root causes of the conflict and be driven by the needs of the people. Like many peace processes, they say, South Sudan’s has lacked transparency, with no formal feedback loop to allow the citizenry to feel invested or to make their voices heard. As one member of the women’s Taskforce put it: “What is our interest? Where are we in the peace talks? Is that peace going to be sustainable if it doesn’t have the people’s agenda at heart?”
The need for inclusion is not an exercise in political correctness; it is vital to the agreement’s success. Globally, evidence demonstrates that inclusion leads to better results. A recent statistical analysis indicates that peace agreements are 64 percent less likely to fail when the process of creating them includes civil society alongside political parties. Additional research shows that, in peace negotiations where women had a strong influence, a deal was always reached and implementation was much stronger.
On August 17, there are two equally likely scenarios: the government and opposition may agree to a comprehensive peace accord or they may not. Either way, violence will continue unless the parties and mediators both prioritize inclusion.
If they emerge with an agreement, successful implementation will require understanding and addressing the needs and priorities of communities—a task for which local organizations are uniquely qualified. If they fail to settle terms, participation in the next round of talks must be expanded to include those for whom peace is a priority—like the Taskforce on the Engagement of Women—and restructured to provide these groups with meaningful, not just token, representation.
Some may claim that any agreement to end this war is a good thing. Certainly, the mediators are to be commended for trying. But by prioritizing meaningful inclusion, they will vastly improve the long-term prospects for peace. Traumatized by decades of war, the people of South Sudan don’t need just any agreement—they need one that will last.
Kelly Case is Program Manager for Inclusive Security’s work in South Sudan and Sudan. She leads the organization’s efforts to advance the inclusion of women in the ongoing peace processes in and between both countries.