The Trump and Biden administrations both declared China’s treatment of the Uighurs to be genocide. But the U.S. government has never applied the label of genocide to the mass killing, gang-rape and starvation of non-Dinka civilians by the state it midwifed: South Sudan, independent since 2011.
It could have. Since 2005, a clique of Dinka politicians hailing from the region of Dinka President Salva Kiir, asserted creeping control over the state. After the country’s independence in 2011, inter-ethnic competition – including between different factions of the very large Dinka group – accelerated ethnic ranking. State repression and violence became the glue of this system of political and ethnic domination.
On December 15th, 2013, as President Kiir continued to oppose a democratic transition, a political conflict with his most aggressive competitor, his former Vice-President, Riek Machar, a Nuer – the second majority ethnic group – culminated in fighting in Juba. The next morning, Juba’s residents woke up to sounds of the largest systematic massacre in the country’s recorded history. Over a week, the state massacred – mostly by shooting – some 15,000 to 20,000 Nuer civilians in Juba: twice as much as Srebrenica’s massacre, declared genocide at The Hague. A Juba resident I interviewed described “seven days of killings, from house to house. I saw six soldiers through the fence. A Nuer man just opened his door and was shot in the head.” This massacre of the Nuer made civil war inevitable and set the tone for future genocidal violence.
The U.S. was the leader of the international community in South Sudan. But Obama’s administration let the genocidal massacre of the Nuer slide all the while reducing its diplomatic presence in the country. The Obama administration, stuck in ideological predispositions dictating since the 1990s that the Arabs of Sudan represented evil, and the African Christians of the South, innocence, kept supporting South Sudan’s government.
Washington’s inaction emboldened Kiir’s faction: it learned that it could get away with what, in retrospect, turned out to be the first phase of a multi-ethnic genocide against non-Dinka groups.
Between 2014 and 2015, South Sudan’s government went after Nuer civilians living in Unity State, the homeland of Riek Machar, Kiir’s rival. It organized and subcontracted multiple armed groups to execute, burn, torture and gang-rape en masse civilians. “For the old ladies, they rape them and let them to die or hang them from the tukuls (houses)” a survivor explained to me then. The reason was simple, explained another survivor: “The government says ‘these Nuer people are rebels’”. The selection of victims by virtue of their membership to a “rebel” ethnic group to eliminate, was typical of genocide. The perpetrators expressed their intent to kill them in both direct and indirect ways, including when they implemented a policy of mass genocidal gang-rape meant to destroy and cripple the Nuer. They did everything to compromise their victims’ survival.
U.S. support to a genocidal state
But the U.S. continued to support South Sudan’s government. Susan Rice, a long-time advocate of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the Clinton administration, known for her advocacy against using the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of Rwanda’s Tutsis, continued to help shape America’s policy toward South Sudan, first as UN Ambassador from 2009 to 2013, and then as National Security Advisor. Rice had declared, on her position during the Rwanda genocide: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
But Rice never went down in flames for South Sudan. Instead, in 2015, she blocked an arms embargo against the government of South Sudan, while the SPLA chief of staff Paul Malong was recruiting more Dinka militias, and when the government’s atrocities vastly outdid those by the rebels.
In August 2015, under international pressure, a peace agreement was signed between Machar’s rebels and Kiir’s government. But ten months later, on July 8th, 2016, the government triggered fighting in Juba with Machar’s troops. Dinka perpetrators – soldiers joined by their civilian relatives – expanded their ethnic targeting to include in their killings the inhabitants of Equatoria, the region where Juba is located. They considered the inhabitants of Equatoria guilty by association with the Nuer. “I heard we are the next to be killed” a Juba resident said to me back then. A relative of a Dinka SPLA soldier had warned him: “After the Nuer, you Equatorians are next”.
But the Obama administration endorsed the government’s strategy, which after orchestrating fighting in Juba and an internal coup co-opting Machar’s deputy (Taban Deng), consisted in chasing Machar into the Congolese bush. It legitimized Kiir’s government and tactics, all the while reducing its diplomatic presence again. It continued to look away as government troops, almost exclusively Dinka, inflicted the same type of violence against civilians in Central Equatoria as they had against the Nuer. Government troops were not shy about their intentions, a key element in the legal determination of genocide. A gang-rape survivor recounted: “The SPLA said it wanted to kill all the people so that only birds remain in South Sudan.”
The Obama administration wanted to protect the sovereignty of the murderous regime. It supported South Sudan’s government militarily, by budgeting $32 million for technical training, non-lethal equipment and advisers to its military in 2016 and 2017, and an additional $2 million for a military and security operations center for the National Secret Services (NSS) and presidential guards – the same NSS and presidential guards involved in the 2013 Juba massacre. In other words, the U.S. effectively rewarded (at least with $2 million) the security agencies perpetrating genocidal massacres and gang-rapes with its taxpayers’ money.
The U.S. government still privileged its War on Terror over human rights in central and east Africa. It did not pressure Uganda, who supported Kiir’s regime with its military, or Israel who sold weapons and spyware to South Sudan, or Kenya who collaborated with the NSS to forcibly disappear South Sudanese critics in Kenya, just like in Uganda.
Washington only imposed a unilateral arms embargo on South Sudan in 2018, a symbolic gesture after government violence had radically altered the demography of the country and its political map. The death of at least 400,000 civilians and the mass exodus of about 4.3 million people paved the way for the perpetrators to colonize their victims’ land. “They want to kill us, disorganize us, and come with their cattle. It’s painful to see your land taken and be in a refugee camp”, a survivor from Central Equatoria told me. Another one, from the ethnic minority of the Shilluk in Upper Nile, confirmed the trend: “The Dinka take the land by force. Then they change the name of the place”.
This process of land-grabbing and population replacement is still ongoing. It is no coincidence that the Dinka supremacist organization of the Jieng Council of Elders, who teamed up with Kiir and Malong to recruit Dinka militias, is now calling for elections to cement those territorial gains. Some local activists are rightly cautioning against it. These elections, bound to be undemocratic, would either consolidate a genocidal peace or result in more genocidal outbursts, just like in 2016.
South Sudan’s government recently declared that it finally approves setting-up the African Union Hybrid Court – an obligation under both the 2015 and the 2018 peace agreements whose implementation it stalled. Under the guise of performing a discourse of accountability, this declaration allows the government, after delaying the establishment of the Hybrid Court for years, to prevent other international bodies from pursuing accountability. The African Union is now less likely than ever to genuinely promote accountability given the new civil war in Ethiopia, marked by grave human rights violations and international meddling, and Uganda’s more overt descent into dictatorship.
There is not much hope for South Sudan. Washington continues to consider that a genocidal state is better than state collapse. President Joe Biden pledged that his new administration would be taking a pro-human rights approach. But with the same top U.S. officials from the Obama days still in business, and the administration’s push for undemocratic elections, this seems unlikely.
Clémence Pinaud is an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the author of War and Genocide in South Sudan (Cornell University Press, 2021).
An earlier version was published by Le Monde on 28 February 2021.
Note, this eleventh paragraph article was edited on 15 March following a discussion on Twitter.