'Giving voice to the voiceless' in South Sudan focus of WCC discussion

By agency reporter
October 5, 2016

The World Council of Churches (WCC) co-organised a discussion in Geneva on 28 September entitled Rebuilding from below: The role of local civil society in South Sudan.

“The South Sudanese have the right to peace,” said the Rev Dr Martin Junge, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation.

There are now more than one million South Sudanese seeking refuge, he said, and if any future peace agreement will work, it needs the involvement of multiple civil society actors.

Four panelists and a 100-person audience attempted to define the term “civil society.” Fr James Oyet Latansio, General Secretary of South Sudan Council of Churches, said the church was on the side of the grassroots. “We must give voice to the voiceless”, he said, adding “women are more influential than men. Women are full-time, men are part-time”, which, as well as eliciting a general murmur of amusement, suggested taking a different approach.

John Ashworth, advisor to the WCC on South Sudan, stressed that all players need to be realistic. Civil society, “is weak, young, fragmented…made up of urban elites not in touch with rural people.” He added that the church has a major role in this space and that a third element, “traditional” civil society – tribal chiefs, including elder women – could not be ignored.

Teohna Williams, conflict advisor on South Sudan, said that South Sudan is extremely polarised and politicised and inadvertently, civil society influences or is influenced by a political agenda. Trying to work toward ending violence, she said, can be political in nature, even when not attempting to be so.

The means to securing a ceasefire was a key focus. “If you can stop the killing, it gives a window of opportunity to address peace”, said Ashworth.

Matthias Wevelsiep, right to peace senior advisor of Finn Church Aid, said that international actors need to support civil society toward a ceasefire, but that currently the international community was not holistic in its approach.

Williams shared an anecdote that starkly illustrated the intense difficulty in securing peace. She described a town in which there were “horrific levels of suffering,” and more soldiers than civilians. Community leaders had called a meeting, to which 500 came, including representatives of the government. To reduce tension, it was suggested that opposition troops should be 'cantoned' – the process of placing combatants into a camp where they agree to stay in order to ensure they don't fight. But this in itself risked exacerbating the situation as cantoning can be used to the advantage of one of the parties. So despite seeking a solution, a simple-sounding step can backfire.

Reconciliation also emerged as a key theme. Ashworth noted that reconciliation can not be imposed, and will also take considerable time.  He outlined a church-led strategy for consultation with “real grassroots” – echoing James’s earlier point – which would take two to three years. Reconciliation itself, he insisted, would take a further 10-20 years.

Wevelsiep agreed but was also positive that a lasting peace could be achieved. He cited “places elsewhere in Africa where infrastructures for peace are developing”, in Ghana and Liberia, for example.

The need for reconciliation was starkly illustrated by Latansio when he said: “We killed, we raped, we abused – we did everything…but we aim for a blessed peace.” With 64 tribes, reconciliation will always be a great challenge in South Sudan. Nonetheless, he outlined the church’s route to national healing through programmes to promote advocacy, neutral forums and reconciliation. He suggested that South Sudanese society was a pyramid, with what he termed “stakeholders” at the top, “grassroots” at the bottom and in between them, “brokers.” It is this last group that has done so much damage in the past, he maintained. The brokers misled the grassroots about the intentions of the stakeholders and vice versa; the brokers should now be cut out.

Williams asserted: “Many people feel either under significant pressure to do what the government tells them or to leave the country.” She described, however, a situation 18 months ago in a part of the country where thousands had been displaced. One community was thirsting for revenge. But their leaders brought them together and succeeded in dissuading them – arguing that vengeance would only come back to haunt them.

Finally, the notion of justice is clearly contentious in a context such as South Sudan’s. Wevelsiep said there needed to be a “progressive realisation of human rights. The violations of rights are difficult to bear but we also need to come up with solutions that take us to the next level.”

This point was also made by Ashworth, who stated that transitional justice is always a compromise. It is important to focus on sequencing or process, he said, and “justice and accountability should emerge as part of the process.”

* The World Council of Churches promotes Christian unity in faith, witness and service for a just and peaceful world. An ecumenical fellowship of churches founded in 1948, by the end of 2012 the WCC had 345 member churches representing more than 500 million Christians from Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other traditions in over 110 countries. The WCC works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church.

* World Council of Churches http://www.oikoumene.org/en

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