GENEVA — The feuding leaders of South Sudan announced on Thursday that after several missed deadlines they had agreed to form a unity government in a bid to end the ruinous civil war they began soon after the country was formed in 2011.
South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation when, after decades of bloody conflict, it gained independence from Sudan in an internationally-mediated agreement.
But two years later, a civil war broke out when President Salva Kiir, who belongs to the majority Dinka ethnic group, fired his deputy, Riek Machar, who belongs to the Nuer ethnic group. That war has since cost an estimated 400,000 lives and ignited Africa’s biggest refugee crisis in years.
After talks in the capital, Juba, President Kiir and Mr. Machar, his former deputy turned rebel leader, told journalists on Thursday that they intend to form a unity government by a Saturday deadline. They had missed two previous deadlines in May and November last year, which they had set as part of an initial peace agreement that they reached in September 2018.
President Kiir said he will name Mr. Machar as First Vice President on Friday, paving the way for the government to be set up on Saturday. He said that he would provide protection for Mr. Machar and other opposition members. He also called on South Sudan’s refugees to come home.
“We are going to discuss the security arrangements for the protection of all opposition forces and members,” President Kiir said, according to Reuters. “If there are things we have not agreed upon, we have agreed to resolve them. We shall finalize them in coming days.”
Their announcement appeared to represent a significant step forward after years of stalled negotiations.
But the findings of a three-person United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, also released on Thursday, underscored the enormous challenges still facing South Sudan, an oil-rich nation that is also one of the world’s poorest.
The U.N. commissioners’ report found that the country’s political leaders had been pillaging national finances and enabling brutal attacks by local militias that inflicted heavy civilian casualties.
Barney Afako, a Ugandan lawyer and conflict mediator who is one of the commissioners, said of the deal in an interview, “That doesn’t mean it’s all over. It’s just the beginning of protracted trench warfare over political space. There are many battles to come but the hope is they will be political battles that don’t have to result in a return to damaging conflict.”
More than two million people have fled to neighboring countries to escape campaigns by marauding militias marked by widespread atrocities, including mass rape, and destruction of property. More than a million people remain displaced within the country, and over half the population face extreme hunger as a result of deliberate policies of obstructing aid deliveries to civilians.
Andrew Clapham, another member of the U.N. commission, said in a statement to reporters in Geneva that the commission “is outraged by reports of thousands of civilians forcibly displaced following a scorched earth policy in which the parties to the conflict are attacking villages, torching homes, killing civilians and also raping women and girls.”
He said that the violations “may amount to war crimes.”
The commission has said it has compiled a confidential dossier identifying individuals implicated in crimes and abuses, which it will submit to United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet.
“This information will be made available to support future prosecutions before regional or national courts and tribunals,” Mr. Clapham said.
Despite the fragile agreed in 2018 between President Kiir and Mr. Machar, government and opposition forces continued to recruit thousands of children, some as young as 12. As late as July 2019, the United Nations said that as many as 19,000 children were believed to be serving in military units.
Amid continuing violence at a local level, the United Nations team turned a spotlight on how members of the government were plundering the economy to line their own pockets with “catastrophic” consequences for the country’s humanitarian situation.
A report by the watchdog group, The Sentry, released last year detailed how oil revenues from a consortium, in which Chinese and Malaysian state-owned oil companies hold a major stake, had financed militias linked to atrocities.
The United Nations investigators found that government officials were draining millions of dollars from non-oil revenues, as well as committing other crimes of tax evasion, money laundering and bribery.