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Museum Statement on Civilian and Ethnic-Based Targeting in South Sudan

Washington, DC—The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum today expressed its concern about the targeting of civilians in the context of an escalating political conflict in South Sudan. Reports that civilians are increasingly being attacked based on their ethnic identity, and that violence is being incited by broadcasts of hate speech, are deeply troubling warning signs of potential genocide. The Museum urges all parties to cease deliberately targeting civilians and calls on those international actors involved in mediation and peace-building in the country to make the protection of civilians their top priority.

“Less than three years after South Sudan emerged as an independent nation from Sudan, its leaders have marred that achievement and allowed a political dispute to return the country to its darkest days of violence,” said Michael Chertoff, chairman of the Museum’s Committee on Conscience, which guides the work of the Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “Now, despite enormous goodwill on the part of the international community to ensure the country’s viability, South Sudan is again faced with unimaginable levels of ethnic violence that risk tearing the country apart while it is still in its infancy.” 

“South Sudan is situated in a region where genocidal acts have been committed in the past,” said Museum Chairman Tom Bernstein. “We are concerned that the world could once again be witnessing those warning signs, and as the Museum has done in the past in South Sudan, we are calling for action to protect civilians before the violence spirals out of control. Unless the international community takes more immediate and effective steps to protect those civilians, mitigate the conflict, and hold responsible those who are directing and perpetrating these acts, the window for preventing an even greater human tragedy in South Sudan will be missed.”

The current conflict began in the capital, Juba, in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused former Vice President Riek Machar and other former political allies of an attempted coup. Clashes between government and rebel forces loyal to these respective leaders have spread beyond the capital and been accompanied by waves of violence against civilians. Ethnic identity has emerged as an organizing principle driving the violence, with government forces being dominated by President Kiir’s Dinka tribe and rebel fighters loyal to Machar largely comprising Nuer forces.

The Museum has been actively monitoring and raising awareness about Sudan and South Sudan since 2000. In 2004, the Museum was among the first to call attention to the genocide unfolding in Darfur. A two-decades-long civil war between the two Sudans resulted in more than two million deaths, half a million refugees, and over four million civilians displaced from their homes. In the lead-up to South Sudan’s 2011 referendum on self-determination, the Museum sent a delegation to witness preparations for the vote and give voice to the hopes and aspirations of its people for a future free from ethnic- and religious-based conflict. “Unfortunately, the promise of independence has not been fulfilled, and the world is witnessing a return to the kind of ethnic-based violence in South Sudan that was once perpetrated against South Sudanese by their former rulers in Khartoum,” added Bernstein.

In the past weeks there have been a number of high-profile massacres of civilians, including an assault on thousands of Nuer civilians seeking sanctuary in a United Nations compound in Bor and a slaughter of primarily Dinka civilians in the ongoing battle for control of the oil town of Bentiu. In a further troubling development, the campaign in Bentiu reportedly used radio broadcasts to encourage the commission of atrocities against specific groups, including sexual violence against women. The situation now in South Sudan is complicated by the threat of famine. A humanitarian crisis is looming as a raining season descends on the region, leaving over one million displaced people without access to food or medical care.  

The Museum joins calls for South Sudan’s leaders to immediately halt the targeting of civilians, actively discourage further attacks, respect the role of the UN peacekeeping force in its efforts to protect civilians, return to the peace process, and allow for the immediate unfettered access of international humanitarian assistance to those in greatest need. The African Union Commission of Inquiry already on the ground and a proposed UN inquiry must be allowed to conduct their duties so that a full record of the crimes can be compiled. Ultimately, a sustained national reconciliation effort and political reform process will need to be pursued in the aftermath of the current crisis to help rebuild South Sudan and to mitigate the danger of the country again being torn apart by ethnic violence. It is not too late for South Sudan’s leaders to live up to the confidence that their people—and the world—placed in them at independence less than three years ago.

A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. Its far-reaching educational programs and global impact are made possible by generous donors.

The Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide seeks to make ending genocide and related crimes against humanity a national and international priority.

Visit ushmm.org to learn more.

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