International Order & Conflict

Expeditionary Diplomacy Could Save Lives in Sudan

in Program

On February 7th, Southern Sudan’s
Referendum Commission officially announced that 99% of Southerners voted for
secession. The international community
has made extraordinary investments to prevent a reigniting of civil war between
the north and south, but the question remains whether that investment can
prevent additional violence against civilians.  

This is the second of
two Stimson spotlights on the challenges to and opportunities for the United States and the international community to
protect civilians from atrocities in Sudan. The first
outlined various flashpoints that could spur widespread or
systematic violence against civilians. This piece looks at innovative US efforts to invest in local diplomatic
capacity to prevent and respond to violence against civilians in Southern Sudan.


By Alison Giffen – One week
ago, Southern Sudan’s Referendum Commission
announced that 99% of Southerners voted for secession, and President Bashir accepted
the South’s decision. While many in Southern Sudan
celebrated what they hope is a critical step to sustainable peace, others
remained caught in conflict. Since the referendum, more than 100 civilians were
reportedly killed and approximately 150 injured in Southern Sudan’s volatile
Jonglei and Upper Nile states.[1] These
events are indicative of the kinds of conflict that are likely to take a toll
on civilians during the year of Southern Sudan’s transition to an independent
state, and exemplify the need for innovative interventions to prevent and
respond to violence against civilians.

protection of civilians requires more than high-level diplomatic engagement and
mediation often called for by advocacy organizations. Special Envoys and Ambassadors
are critical components of mediating and mitigating tensions between the main
party protagonists of a conflict, but in a war-torn environment like Sudan, threats
against civilians are diverse; indigenous institutions often lack the
willingness, authority or capacity to protect human rights. Moreover government
officials or authorities may themselves be perpetrating violence against
civilians by omission or commission. In sum, the number and diversity of
protection challenges far outweigh the prevention and response capacity.

Adding to
the challenge, local disputes can quickly escalate into wide-spread or
systematic violence. For example, one report may ascribe the cause of a clash
to cattle rustling, migration route disputes or tribal violence, but disputes
over resource allocation and management have obvious political implications and
are ripe for manipulation by cynical actors looking to seed conflict. As such, personal
and local tensions can quickly escalate into state, national, or regional
conflict, resulting in atrocities and large-scale displacements, with strategic

diverse threats require unique, tailored responses. Effective prevention and
response requires an in-depth understanding of why civilians are vulnerable;
who is targeting the civilians, why, and how; what actions could effectively
deter the violence and what are the possible negative consequences of the proposed
interventions to civilians and how can those risks be mitigated. Such an
analysis is necessary to understand whether the conflict can be prevented or mediated
by a civilian response, whether a military component may be necessary, whether
the local authorities/armed forces can address the situation or whether
state-level, regional, or international efforts will need to be brought to

As an
example of the complex challenge of prevention and response, the recent incidents
in Upper Nile state that appear to have
resulted in more than 50 civilian deaths were reportedly the result of
conflicts within a Joint Integrated Unit (JIU). JIUs were created per the 2005
Comprehensive Peace Agreement and include soldiers of the northern Sudan Armed
Forces and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). JIUs have been
the epicenter of violent clashes over the years and are sure to be a source of
insecurity as their future, separation, and redeployment are decided. In
Jonglei state, clashes between a former SPLA General George Athor Deng — who
incited a rebellion against the Government of Southern Sudan following contested
election results in 2010 — and the SPLA resulted in dozens killed last week. Southern Sudan’s political environment is fractious and
its army is a conglomeration of former rebel splinter movements and sizeable
militias that serve at the pleasure of the highest bidder. Southern
Sudan’s political cohesion and monopoly of force will be severely
tested as the focus on the common enemy of the north turns inward. Other
incidents in Jonglei state reportedly involved cattle rustling and the
abduction of children.  

prevention and response requires additional diplomatic capacity of a different
kind. The three challenges of multiple, diverse threats; the potential of
conflicts to escalate quickly; and the need for tailored responses, requires a
three-pronged approach:

  • Investment in quality diplomatic
    capacity at the local level.
    This includes deploying capable personnel, preferably
    with extensive field experience and qualified and/or trained in the local
    language and culture, conflict analysis, atrocity prevention and response,
    security management/hostile environment training, and conflict negotiation
    and mediation.
  • Effective integration of the
    local diplomatic capacity into national and global/strategic prevention
    and response strategies.
    Information from the local level on threats and
    vulnerabilities, and requests for action must be gathered, analyzed, and
    prioritized in a central location so that higher-level diplomats and
    policymakers can make decisions of whether, when, and how they should intervene
    to effectively diffuse local conflict that can escalate.
  • Effective communication and
    coordination with other protection actors and stakeholders
    , including but not limited to the
    local communities, appropriate local government actors, other international
    diplomatic presence, the UN presence and NGO actors.

In the
lead-up to the referendum vote, the US Administration put this model into action.
Over the last year, the US has
sent more than 20 representatives of the Civilian Response Corps and the Office
of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) to augment its
footprint in Southern Sudan.  Some of these individuals are to be based in
five of Southern Sudan’s state capitals, which
will become operating hubs for further outreach.

This expeditionary
diplomatic presence is tasked with identifying flashpoints for violence,
building trust with local communities and government officials, and serving as
a communication link to other actors to help prevent conflict. Rather than
lead, this presence is intended to complement other US and international
conflict prevention and response programs run by USAID, the US Office on Transition
Initiatives, the EU and its member states, the UN peacekeeping operation, and agencies
and international NGOs.

The US has
some special advantages in playing this role, although some would argue that
others have been on the ground longer and know the terrain better.  First, the US government is more likely to
react quickly to information and asks relayed by its own employees, rather then
its partners. Second, the United
States has arguably the most influence of
any single nation over the nascent Government of Southern Sudan. As such, the
presence of a US
government figure in a state capital could in itself serve as a deterrent to
some of the sources of conflict and violence. 

At a time
when security concerns and/or resource considerations have largely confined US civilian
diplomatic presence to national capitals, this wholly civilian response is
innovative and ambitious – but it is not foolproof.  Given the last week of violence, the learning
curve will be steep and S/CRS will
need to capture quickly best practices, lessons learned, and benchmarks to
measure effectiveness. Such tools will be needed to translate learning smartly
into practice as well as to convince skeptics in Congress that civilian
capacity is worth continued investment.

years ago this month, the US Senate ratified the International Convention on
the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Last year, the
Administration prioritized prevention of and response to atrocities in the National
Security Strategy, the Quadrennial Defense Review and most recently, the
Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Today’s US civilian response in Southern
Sudan is one effort that
could move the United States
closer to turning its rhetorical commitment to prevention and response into


Credit: Soldiers of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) redeploy to
form a new Joint Integrated Unit (JIU) battalion with the Sudan Armed Forces
(SAF), under the terms of the agreement of the Abyei road map, July 2008 by Tim
McKulka (UN Photo ID 183440)




[1] See


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