Harmonizing Ethnicity, Pluralism and Human Rights in South Sudan

© Pete Muller, AP
by Paula Mendez Keil

In a January 2011 referendum, the people of South Sudan voted by an overwhelming majority (approximately 99% of the population in favor) for secession from Sudan. After two civil wars spanning over 40 years and an estimated death toll of 2.5 million, July 9th marked the birth of the long awaited and hard-fought for dream of independence. But can this newly created state achieve pluralistic stability against a multi-ethnic backdrop? Or will its fate be that of other African states, torn by ethnic divisions and ongoing conflict? Undoubtedly the fundamental right to self-determination has been achieved, but will this result in a state which is able to fulfill the rights of the many and not just those of a few?

It would be inapropriate to extrapolate an outcome without first considering the colonial legacies of the past. Sudan, as well as other 20 African territories, has suffered the repercussions of British colonial rule throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leaving the country in a highly volatile state since 1956. British colonial policies centered on the notion of ‘divide and conquer‘, manipulating ethnic diversity in order to pit different groups against each other and thus maintain unfettered rule of the territory. This strategy ultimately translated into a play on power inequalities and ethnic stratification as a means of social control.


Recent accusations of the northern government supplying arms to ethnic groups in the south, in an attempt to destabilize the region, seem to indicate a continuation of the British colonial strategy by the Sudanese government. The capitalization of existing ethnic stratification and internal resource allocation disputes is designed to shift attention from separatist movements. Such is the case with the oil-rich town of Abyei on the North-South divide, where outbreaks of fighting have been reported as recently as June. Clearly, these governmental tactics are intended to impede alliances from forming among diverse ethnic groups with a shared vision, in order to maintain state stability. However damaging, these schemes have evidently not succeeded in preventing secession, and hopefully will not play a role in the nation building of the state.

Since the early seventies the theory of a Fourth World in which internal colonization occurs under existing state systems, has prevailed in African political discourse. This has been the clear progression in Sudan, where the northern Muslim majority has dominated government since the country’s independence from British rule, consequently marginalizing non-Muslims in the south. Although Sudan ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 1986, whose Article 2 declares that “every individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognized and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, color, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status” (emphasis added), a consistently contradictory policy of discrimination has persisted.

The ethnic heterogeneity in South Sudan prompts the question of future political stability. Now it will be the responsibility of the newly formed government to successfully address and accommodate ethnic differences among its five prominent ethnic groups—Dinka, Nuer, Azande, Bari, and Shilluk/Anwak—and other communities. With respect to human rights, the principle of non-discrimination is indispensable to ensuring harmony in a pluralistic and multi-ethnic country. As the African Charter reaffirms, every state has the duty to eliminate all forms of discrimination and guarantee all rights without distinction. The sense of insecurity and vulnerability brought forth by change quite often results in intolerance and turmoil among rival groups. For this very reason the South Sudanese government should be wary of the instability periods of transition bring to stratified societies, which tend to exacerbate preexisting tensions, and avoid repeating errors committed by the government of undivided Sudan. In particular, it is critical to ensure that concrete problems afflicting its people, such as access to land, water, and political representation are not ethnicized and thereby exacerbated, which in the case of Darfur has led to genocide and massive internal displacement with tragic human rights consequences.

Far too often, states have tended to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses under the pretext of cultural autonomy. Rather than giving into false dichotomies between cultural traditions and human rights values, the nascent government should take the opportunity to create not only an adequate legal framework for human rights, but also a judicial and political system which promotes a culture of respect for human rights, especially of women and minorities, building on both human rights and cultural values that promote dignity and equality, within and between groups.

A particular challenge will be to remove any biases entrenched within the inherited judicial and political system, including those with colonial antecedents, which may shift the balance of power towards any one particular ethnic group. A related concern is corruption, reportedly widespread in the capital, Juba, which increases the potential for human rights violations. It is thus essential to establish power-sharing mechanisms which provide for transparency, accountability and participation. This is central to the realization of human rights and the promotion of inclusive pluralism by preventing any one ethnic group from disproportionately benefitting from natural resources or political power in the newest addition to Africa.

About the Author:

Paula Mendez Keil is a 2011 Research Intern at the International Council on Human Rights Policy. She is currently completing a Master’s in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

1 comment:

  1. Well done on this article. Let's hope the new government has a vision and is more concerned in the prosperity of the new state rather than solely interested in gaining power.

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