Crisis in South Sudan: What Role for Canada?

By Stephen Baranyi and Tag Elkhazin

The signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army sparked optimism that the country could find a way out of its devastating cycle of violence and poverty. The accord’s partial implementation led in 2011 to an historic referendum in which the people of South Sudan voted to secede from the North. Stakeholders recognized that consolidating peace and fostering development would be as hard as ending the war, given the structural fragility that earned South Sudan fourth place on the Fragile States Index—even before the current crisis.


What might Canada do, beyond timid diplomacy and humanitarian aid, to help the South Sudanese recover lost ground?

In December 2013 South Sudan collapsed into a new war, this time pitting former allies against each other. The United Nations estimates that 10,000 people have been killed and several hundred thousand displaced. Ethnically-mixed communities have been torn apart. The legitimacy of the new state has been gravely undermined. Development gains have been stalled. Hope has been seriously jeopardized… but not lost.

Within weeks, Ottawa expressed its concern and welcomed mediation efforts by the region’s Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). It reaffirmed its support for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and increased its humanitarian aid. Yet those responses seem timid compared to Canada’s dynamic engagement in earlier years.

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From 2006 to 2013, Ottawa actively promoted CPA implementation through a whole-of-government approach. It contributed funds and personnel to UN peace missions, as well as monitors for the electoral and referendum processes. It offered humanitarian assistance to both Sudans. It developed a large cooperation program to build the capacity of the nascent South Sudanese state and to improve the education, health and food security of its citizens. Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), long involved in the South, were crucial to that joined-up approach. Canada contributed $900 million to the huge international effort to support peace, state-building and development in South Sudan during that period.

By 2013, Ottawa’s enthusiasm cooled as international engagement failed to yield the expected dividends.  The Harper government dismantled the Sudan Task Force and dragged its feet on approving a new cooperation framework with South Sudan. Ottawa’s minimal response to the current crisis can be understood against that backdrop, yet that does not make it right.

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At a recent CIPS event on South Sudan, a diverse range of participants urged Canada to recognize that reducing its involvement at this moment of acute need could further jeopardize its previous investments. What might Canada do, beyond timid diplomacy and humanitarian aid, to help the South Sudanese recover lost ground? Concretely, Canada could:

  • Offer assistance to IGAD mediators, to the warring parties and other stakeholders, to enhance their capacity to negotiate lasting peace.
  • Support civil society coalitions such as Citizens for Peace and Justice, which are working for reconciliation inside South Sudan. Canada should also support demands, by such coalitions and by diaspora networks, for representation at the peace talks in Addis Ababa.
  •  Maintain humanitarian aid and consider increasing support to UNMISS.
  • Renew longer-term development programming. The sectors targeted from 2006 to 2013 (governance, education, health and food security) remain valid, yet DFATD will need to adapt its programming framework to reflect conditions likely to exist after peace is restored. It is essential to get that new strategy approved in 2014.
  • Revive the Sudan Inter-Agency Working Group to foster joint analysis and coordination between Canadian NGOs, government, diaspora leaders and scholars engaged in the country.

Members of Parliament also have a role to play in these efforts.  The House of Commons could initiate hearings to follow up on the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development’s last report on Sudan. In 2010, SCFAID recommended that more should be done to support civil society organizations (such as ecumenical and women’s networks) in their peacebuilding and long-term development roles.

Acting on such recommendations, rather than disengaging, is the only sensible way forward for Canada in South Sudan.

Tag Elkhazin is the lead analyst at the Subsahara Centre in Ottawa.

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