Since South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, announced the intention to hold a National Dialogue in the country to resolve ongoing violence, questions have swirled around its current viability. Diplomats, international organizations, and local civil society organizations all raised major issues with the process, including:
- whether a Dialogue can take place with ongoing violence and violations against civilians taking place;
- whether the Dialogue is intended to undermine transitional justice mechanisms outlined in a 2015 peace agreement;
- who will lead the Dialogue, and;
- whether the Dialogue will be inclusive of different political actors and at a grassroots level.
Many of these issues are interconnected. Decisions around which political leaders will participate are contentious because plans for the Dialogue are moving ahead without an actual ceasefire. And because the conflict is ongoing, civilians may be reluctant to participate openly out of fear of Government reprisals.
That said, a National Dialogue run by the South Sudanese themselves is not an inherently bad idea, especially since internationally-driven attempts at negotiating peace agreements in the past have left a wake of signed but unimplemented documents. And in a country where free speech on politically sensitive topics is restricted and the space for civil society organizations to operate is narrowing, a National Dialogue could be an important avenue for discussing the future of the young and divided country.
For the UN peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), potential international donors, and international organizations operating in the country, however, whether and how to participate in the Dialogue is a difficult question. But UNMISS, donors, and international organizations need to have clearly set coordinated positions on the conditions under which they will engage with this process, something the civilian head of UNMISS has himself called for. Otherwise, the National Dialogue will move forward simply because the Government of South Sudan wants it to—with the potential for all sorts of immediate negatives consequences for civilians and longer-term negative consequences for genuine peace and reconciliation in the country.
In the past, the South Sudanese Government has responded to inaction on the part of the international community by creating facts on the ground, enacting damaging policies.
UNMISS and other international actors need to avoid inertia and indecision and instead should consult with civilians to understand their views on the Dialogue and to set conditions for engagement in the process. If certain conditions are met and UNMISS does engage in the National Dialogue process, UNMISS and other international organizations can use their geographic reach and existing community-level engagement structures to feed grassroots level perspectives into the process. If civilians are not included as meaningful participants in the Dialogue, the results of the process are likely yet another agreement between national politicians that divides the spoils of war between themselves rather than healing the deepening ethnic divisions that four years of civil conflict have sown.