South Sudan: The crisis demands more attention

ICRC’s Head of delegation in Juba, Franz Rauchenstein

ICRC’s Head of delegation in Juba, Franz Rauchenstein

Interview with ICRC's Head of Delegation in South Sudan 

ICRC DC’s Trevor Keck just got back from nearly a month in South Sudan, where he witnessed first-hand the suffering of people caught up in continued fighting that has been going on for 18 months. At the end of his visit, Trevor sat down with the head of the ICRC’s delegation in Juba, Franz Rauchenstein, to discuss South Sudan’s largely forgotten humanitarian crisis. 

TREVOR: First, can you describe the ICRC`s operational setup in South Sudan? What are the priorities, and how have the ICRC`s activities evolved since the violence broke out in December 2013?

FRANZ: Before the current conflict, this delegation was focused on livelihood assistance, protection and capacity building. After the outbreak of violence in December 2013, the delegation scaled up in order to bolster its emergency response capacity. We began airdropping food and other relief items to vulnerable populations in remote parts of the country. The ICRC boosted its emergency medical services. We now have five mobile surgical teams (MSTs) working around the country to treat war wounded. We also changed our modus operandi. For instance, we now have ten planes and two helicopters that are critical to moving aid and staff around the country.

Increasing our air capacity was key as we were forced to evacuate three out of five of our field offices in Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal due to insecurity and fighting in Upper Nile state. We are now back in Bor, but not in the other locations. Even while our offices in Bentiu and Malakal are not fully operational, we have found ways to anchor ourselves in the field, through “field bases.” Our staff camp in these bases in quite difficult conditions for weeks at a time. These field bases enable the delegation to deploy a multi-sector response, including both emergency assistance and protection. Many of these field bases are in opposition-held areas, where most of the internally displaced people (IDPs) are located.

In short, this delegation has seen a major scale up since 2013, with budget and staff more than doubling in the last two years in response to growing humanitarian needs. In 2013, the ICRC budget for South Sudan was just 75 million USD. Today, South Sudan is the ICRC’s second largest operation in the world. We began 2015 with a budget of 140 million USD, and we are seeking further support that will enable us to better respond to ever growing humanitarian needs in South Sudan.

TREVOR: I am struck by the immense operational challenges in South Sudan. Can you speak about the challenges the ICRC faces in responding to humanitarian needs in a country with little infrastructure and a rapidly evolving conflict?

FRANZ: The biggest challenges in South Sudan are logistical. You need planes and helicopters to go anywhere in this country due to the lack of roads, and the climate often presents challenges to landing the aircraft. During the “dry season,” it`s not a problem. But, during the “rainy season” – from April to November – the challenges are enormous as the landing strips get saturated and the “black cotton soil” turns to mud. This means that sometimes planes can`t land for weeks.

 for the first time in nearly 20 years, the ICRC has resorted to airdrops to get aid to people in remote areas. ©ICRC/PawelKrzysiek

 for the first time in nearly 20 years, the ICRC has resorted to airdrops to get aid to people in remote areas. ©ICRC/PawelKrzysiek

Airdrops are perfect for the rainy season. But, our other activities, and the resupply of our bases, requires the delegation to land aircraft throughout the year. This requires us to use smaller and more nimble teams that can be transported via helicopter. Outreach and networking activities are greatly reduced during the rainy season. We are trying to mitigate these challenges, but we are clearly doing less outreach during the rainy season.

The other operational challenge is security. We frequently face challenges to obtaining the security guarantees necessary to carry out activities close to the front lines.

TREVOR: Civilians have borne the brunt of this conflict. Millions have been displaced and tens of thousands killed since the current conflict broke out in December 2013. Moreover, millions now depend on food assistance and other basic necessities as a result of the fighting, which has left towns in ruins and livelihoods destroyed. Can you discuss the protection challenges in South Sudan? What is the ICRC doing to promote respect for international humanitarian law (IHL) by warring parties? And, has there been any progress on these issues?

FRANZ: During the last year, we intensified our protection dialogue with both parties to the conflict by submitting oral and written reports to various levels of command. A lot of progress has been made in developing this dialogue. For instance, government and opposition commanders have issued positive instructions to their troops to protect civilians during warfare and respect humanitarian organizations. The [South Sudanese] Minister of Defense, the [SPLA] Chief of Staff, and Riek Machar have all issued instructions urging their forces to respect IHL. Other commanders have told us verbally that they have urged their forces to adhere to IHL.

The challenge seems to be the chain of command. Many of the same problems continue again and again. ICRC delegates frequently hear of civilians directly targeted, and find villages and hospitals in ruins after fighting has taken place. We document cases, and resubmit allegations to senior and local officials on both sides, urging fighters to respect IHL. As such, there seems to be good intentions at the high command level, but challenges in ensuring that IHL is implemented.

Another challenge is the presence of armed actors that are not under the command of the main parties to the conflict, and that seem to be less interested in following IHL. There are many armed groups in South Sudan organized along ethnic lines with very loose or nonexistent command structures. The ethnic dimension of the conflict makes protection activities challenging, as many fighters are motivated by revenge for what happened to their community. These ethnic tensions make it difficult to persuade fighters to limit the war to military objectives.

In terms of what the ICRC is doing, we maintain our ongoing protection dialogue, where we raise alleged violations of IHL confidentially with the parties to the conflict, and urge action to ensure that IHL is respected. In addition to this dialogue, the ICRC is training government and opposition officials on IHL and facilitating “train the trainers” courses in Juba and elsewhere. The ICRC is also training local militias, such as the White Army, in IHL and first aid.

TREVOR: South Sudan`s economy is in a dire state. Oil output, which accounts for 90% of government revenue, has declined by about a third, by some estimates. Moreover, basic goods are becoming scarcer, food prices have increased, and the South Sudanese pound has lost significant value. In your view, how does the economic situation impact the conflict in South Sudan? Are you concerned that the economy could further undermine the security situation?

FRANZ: I am very concerned with the economic situation. Some believe that the economy is creating an incentive for the parties to accelerate the conflict. The reason – if and when the economy collapses, the parties to the conflict may lose control over their troops. We fear that if fighters get paid less, paid late or not paid at all, they may resort to alarming practices and be inclined to loot towns, not respect protections for civilians or even potentially divert humanitarian aid; all of which we have witnessed in other countries experiencing an armed conflict amidst a fragile economy. Deepening poverty could also increase ethnic tensions, which would aggravate the conflict, and negatively impact the civilian population.

TREVOR: Finally, what messages do you think the international community needs to hear regarding the crisis in South Sudan?

FRANZ: I would encourage any government with influence on the parties to the conflict to urge them to ensure respect for IHL and swift access for humanitarian agencies. The US, in particular, played a constructive role in helping negotiate the May 9, 2014 ceasefire agreement. While that agreement didn’t stop the war, humanitarian agencies saw improved access because of it. Senior level US engagement with the parties to urge respect for IHL, including protections for civilians, health structures and war wounded, as well as unimpeded humanitarian access, among other issues, could be very constructive. The African Union, IGAD, the Security Council should also engage constructively with the parties on humanitarian issues. Civilians have suffered enormously as a result of the conflict in South Sudan, and the humanitarian needs are overwhelming. Tens of thousands have been killed, more than two million displaced, and there is a growing food security crisis. And yet, it feels like the international community has lost interest in South Sudan, particularly as crises in the Middle East proliferate. Nevertheless, the humanitarian consequences of the crisis in South Sudan are enormous, and demand greater international attention and continued financial support.

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Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck serves as Public and Congressional Affairs Officer with the Washington Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In this capacity, he is responsible for representing the ICRC to a range of audiences in the U.S. and Canada, including Congress and leading civil society organizations. Prior to joining the ICRC, he was an Afghanistan researcher for Center for Civilians in Conflict, an organization that seeks to make warring parties more responsible to civilians. Based in Kabul, he conducted research on civilian protection issues, conducted interviews with victims of conflict across Afghanistan, and authored two reports as well as op-eds based on his original research. Before that, Trevor worked with various NGOs conducting research and advocacy on a range of security, humanitarian, and human rights issues. Trevor holds a Masters in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His master’s thesis on the concept of direct participation in hostilities was published in the Spring 2012 edition of the Military Law Review, the official publication of the U.S. Judge Advocate General Corps. He also holds a Bachelor in Peace and Conflict Studies from Chapman University graduating magna cum laude.