Germany's Responsibility in South Sudan
New year. New government. Same old indifference. In South Sudan thousands of people fear for their lives. We Germans send some food and medicine and recommend they settle their conflicts peacefully. With that, we think, we have done enough. This however, is far from the case. Not only do we have a moral responsibility to protect the thousands of South Sudanese in grave danger, it is in Germany's own interests to contribute more.
Since mid-December the world's newest nation has been shaken by a conflict that has rapidly turned into a civil war. It is a political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar now being fought along ethnic lines. Civilians, including women and children, are attacked simply because they belong to the other ethnic group. The United Nations has reported more than 1,000 deaths and more than 200,000 displaced. Since Christmas more than 60,000 people have sought protection on the compounds of the United Nations in the country.
On December 24, the United Nations Security Council almost doubled the amount of peacekeepers it wants to send into the South Sudan, adding 5,500 troops and police to the 7,000 soldiers and roughly thousand police officers already there. Where are these troops supposed to come from? A few have already been transferred from other UN missions that need every soldier on the ground, such as the mission in the Eastern Congo. The UN secretary general has asked governments worldwide to contribute uniformed personnel, equipment and logistical support to the UN-mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
Bangladesh will send a thousand soldiers. Australia offered to help with transporting troops into the country. Germany? Our foreign minister welcomed the Security Council resolution with the words "The international community is taking action." Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier explained, is sending humanitarian aid and supports the international efforts to find a political solution to the conflict. He was pleased, he added, that German nationals had been evacuated into safety. That apparently was the end of the discussion.
The Bundeswehr had the logistical capacities to evacuate German nationals in a matter of a few days. It could just as well transport UN troops into the country. Germany has been engaged in South Sudan since the very beginning of the new state's existence in July 2011. It is currently contributing 12 soldiers to UNMISS. At the end of November 2013, just two weeks before the outbreak of violence, the German parliament approved the continuation of the German contribution to UNMISS with up to 50 troops. The 12 soldiers currently on the ground are supporting the logistics of the UN operation, helping with, among other tasks, the transport of drinking water. These contributions are more needed than ever. Every additional solider on the ground could help.
The government could quadruple the number of peacekeepers it could contribute without having to ask for a new mandate by the Bundestag, but it does not seem to even consider such an increase. No such requests can be heard from our politicians, civil society or media.
That the United Nations is present in South Sudan is both in our German as well as our European interest: Since 2009 the German government has invested more than €800 million into statebuilding and stabilization in Sudan and South Sudan. We have an interest in stability in the European neighborhood. And we have an interest in credibility when it comes to our security policy. It would be much easier for us to criticize others – such as the French for the way they start their military interventions without consulting other Europeans – if we could point to more of our own effective contributions.
Also, putting national interests aside, knowing that thousands of civilians are under threat, why do we not even start a discussion on sending more German peacekeepers to South Sudan?
Three arguments brought forward by our politicians prevent us from starting a debate.
- Look at all the things we are doing for South Sudan right now. We are sending all that humanitarian aid and supporting the political process of solving the conflict. Yes, the conflict in South Sudan needs a political solution. The international community is putting pressure on both parties to settle their dispute peacefully. Yet both parties have repeatedly delayed the process while fighting continues. More humanitarian aid is urgently needed. But medicine does not help against murder or rape. People that fear for their lives need physical protection.
- What do we have to do with South Sudan? The UN and EU need to help these people. The rub, however, is that neither the UN nor the EU have their own troops. They can only achieve as much as their member states contribute. The new German government knows that. That is why it wrote in its coalition agreement that the UN needs adequate resources to fulfill its tasks effectively. And Germany is not one of many smaller or unimportant countries. It could contribute much needed support. It is one of the few countries with the relevant air transport capacities.
- African solutions for African problems. Yes, that would be nice, but people who make that claim do not mention that this is a long term strategy that might come too late for thousands of civilians. Among others, Kenya and Ethiopia are playing lead roles in pushing a negotiated solution to the conflict. A large part of the UN peacekeeping troops on the ground come from African countries. Yet there are not enough resources to protect civilians in South Sudan today.
We Germans can still decide that humanitarian aid and a few statements by our foreign minister are sufficient. But then we have to clearly spell out the consequences – without pointing to the UN, the EU or the African Union as if they were a substitute for our contribution. Many people who need protection will not get it. The government, parliament, civil society and every single one of us: We can decide that we have done enough. But no one else is going to take over our responsibility. That is up to us.
Sarah Brockmeier is deputy director of the German NGO Genocide Alert and a research associate at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin. A version of this article appeared on 9 January 2014 in the print edition of the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.