Comment & analysis

Interview: “For us to rest, we need to accept each other”: access to security and justice in south-east South Sudan

13 February 2020 Maring Joseph Garamoco and Lucian Harriman Interview: “For us to rest, we need to accept each other”: access to security and justice in south-east South Sudan

Our report “Like the military of the village” explores access to security and justice in Torit and Kapoeta, in South Sudan. Maring Garamoco and Lucian Harriman discuss the main findings and the priorities for security and justice, to counteract the country’s harmful cycles of conflict. It was produced as part of the Peace Research Partnership.

What challenges do people face in accessing justice in South Sudan?

Maring: One of the main findings is that the security and justice needs of the people in the two locations we conducted the research in, Torit and Kapoeta, are not being met. Formal institutions like the police and courts are weak and don’t have sufficient resources in terms of infrastructure, vehicles, numbers of employees, equipment and training for employees, or the level of pay necessary for staff to be motivated at work.

Lucian: State security and justice services also tend to be located very far away from people, particularly in rural areas where most people are. The state is very slow in responding to incidents of crime and in processing court cases. There are significant costs of time and money involved for people when trying to access state security and justice. There are also problems of nepotism and corruption, and a lack of trust in, and understanding of, the formal legal system.

Maring: We also found that there are huge amounts of firearms in the hands of civilians. As the state is not able to provide security for its citizens, civilians acquire guns to protect themselves. Many people get their arms from organised forces and join community defence groups, which are groups of armed young men who provide protection for their communities.

Are there issues accessing justice that are specific to women?

Maring: In terms of justice, the research showed that women are very marginalised and when they report cases of rape, this is considered a ‘normal thing’ – it’s not seen as a crime. We also noted that gender traditions, including the concept of masculinity, are a main cause of conflict between communities. For example, if men don’t raid cattle they are considered cowards and not worthy of being a man. The price men pay for a bride in some areas of South Sudan is high, and if they want to marry they have to pay with a lot of cattle and goats. If they don’t have these animals, then they may have to raid the neighbouring communities. Women generally encourage this raiding and sing songs to praise and motivate the men.

Lucian: Both women and men tend to prefer to solve problems outside of the formal justice system, such as through acts of revenge or by using customary justice processes, which means that people typically don’t want to seek support from the state for their security and justice concerns.

What made you choose Torit and Kapoeta as locations for the research?

Maring: These locations were selected because the security situation there was stable enough to allow the research to take place and we thought that there might be some lessons from these areas, which could benefit the rest of the country. The team held approximately 85 interviews and focus group discussions with a variety of people including the army, armed opposition, government, police and prison officials, customary leaders, members of armed community defence groups, civil society representatives, and groups of women and youth.

The report explores the role of non-state security providers in security arrangements made between the government and the armed opposition, what did you find?

Lucian: We discovered that community defence groups in the area where we did the research were able to stay relatively neutral during the civil war, unlike similar groups elsewhere. This was in part because their ethnic identity did not automatically put them on the side of the government or the opposition. It meant they were relatively less affected by the civil war than other communities.

We also learned that there were informal discussions and cooperation locally between the government and the armed opposition, which took place before the formal national peace deal was signed. Community defence groups provided a channel for these discussions, which were conducted in secrecy as they were taking place outside of negotiations and at a time when the two sides were officially at war. The discussions happened because all sides had shared interests, particularly in ensuring that people and goods were able to travel safely on the roads.

What did the government and opposition agree in practice?

Lucian: They agreed to cooperate in combatting road banditry. The community defence groups ended up implementing the bulk of the security arrangements: conducting patrols along the roads and apprehending people involved in attacks. They were actually given ammunition by the government to do this, which was acknowledged both by the army and the government. This security cooperation has continued more openly since the revitalised peace agreement was signed in September 2018. The community defence groups were seen as effective and legitimate security providers by women and men from civil society, the government and the armed opposition. So while the higher-level peace process was happening, these arrangements were really what was making a difference on the ground. 

What are the priorities for security and justice in South Sudan? What are the report’s recommendations?

Maring: One of the report’s recommendations is to conduct a massive civic engagement and awareness-raising campaign on gender equality, because most people in the country do not accept that men and women are equal. We also recommend strengthening security and justice systems, including community defence groups, to ensure that they are inclusive of women. This is important, as the defence groups currently completely exclude women from their membership and decision-making. 

Lucian: We further recommend addressing the gender drivers of violence and insecurity: the concept of masculinity and the need to pay cattle in order to get married both fuel violence. This also leads to violence against women, because women essentially become something that can be traded and purchased, and it’s difficult for them to leave abusive relationships without some kind of exchange of cattle for them.

Another recommendation is that attempting civilian disarmament at the moment would probably be counterproductive. People have weapons for a range of reasons, but when they cannot rely on the state to provide security and they lose their weapons, then they lose the means of protecting themselves. Past disarmament campaigns in South Sudan have been carried out with force, resulting in violence, while communities that have been disarmed are made vulnerable to neighbouring ones that haven’t. So one point we make in the report is that while a voluntary, non-violent civilian disarmament process is an objective, other measures could be taken in the interim to reduce the risks around the arms that are already in circulation.

The report also recommends that international ceasefire monitors, and other people trying to support the peace process in South Sudan, need to understand the role of community defence groups in the security situation, and consider whether and how to engage with them. If you’re trying to improve security, but you’re not thinking about their role, then you’re missing an important part of the story. It is not enough only to engage with the government and the armed opposition.

What are the risks of engaging with community defence groups?

Lucian: There are risks around trying to integrate community defence groups into the police or the army, because if the civil war were to start again – which is a possibility in South Sudan – it might mean that these groups get drawn into the conflict, which previously they were able to avoid, at least those where we did our research. Also, the groups currently have a level of accountability to their communities based on customary decision-making, and if they are formally integrated into the state that may be undermined. What we recommend is dialogue and engagement with community defence groups to increase their inclusiveness and accountability, and to encourage cooperation between them and formal authorities, in governance, policing and in relation to the peace process. However, we are also cautious to point out that the risks related to this kind of engagement must be considered carefully, and may not be appropriate in all situations or in all areas of South Sudan.

What is the top priority for achieving peace in South Sudan?

Maring: The Revitalised Peace Agreement is the only hope for the people of South Sudan. If the agreement is not preserved, then it’s going to take the country in a different direction. There are challenges with this, especially looking at security issues such as cantonment of troops and formation of a national army, and looking at the number of states and boundaries, which are highly disputed between the government and opposition. These are all contentious issues, so it’s important that the international community pushes for the Revitalised Peace Agreement to be upheld, because this is the only hope. Everybody is tired, including the political leaders and the soldiers, and people are saying we need to rest. For us to rest, we need to accept each other.

The report was produced as part of the Peace Research Partnership. This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.