The Politics of Genocide and the Failure to Protect Human Rights in South Sudan

Posted: April 23, 2017 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Columnists, Daniel Juol Nhomngek, Featured Articles, Opinion Articles, Opinion Writers

By Daniel Juol Nhomngek, Kampala, Uganda


April 23, 2017 (SSB) — In recent time genocide has become common term used recklessly and selfishly during the war.  According to The Politics of genocide an excerpt from the book by Edward S. Herman & David Peterson, the word “genocide” has increased in frequency of use and recklessness of application, so much so that the crime of the twentieth century for which the word originally was coined often appears debased. Thus, this work is an attempt to assess the meaning of genocide in brief, the purpose for which it was coined, to further explain the politics of genocide, that is, how the meaning of genocide has highly been distorted to suit political interests, which, as a result, has resulted into its failure to protect human rights and how this understanding of genocide has affected its effective application in South Sudan and then I conclude.

The overall argument of this article is that genocide has become highly political to the extent that it has lost its real meaning and purpose for which it was invented and because of that it has become ineffective in protecting human rights due to the fact that it is embroiled in political debate. Hence, genocide is not applied in the context of which it was originally meant as it was in 1970s and 1980s but it has taken political connotation which has made it become very discriminative and ineffective. In that regard, I argue that the term genocide was purposely invented to protect innocent and “bonafide civilians” who are being killed due to their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. I used the term “bonafide civilians” to show that such civilians are completely innocent and are not part of conflict in any manner whatsoever though they are trapped among rebels. Thus, I begin in the order as I have given above.

 Genocide and its meaning

Genocide has been defined as intentional action to destroy a people due to their ethnicity, nationality, race or religion in whole or in part (see; what is the legal basis and validity for the UK to declare Genocide in South Sudan? The report prepared by Daniel Juol Nhomngek for PaanLuel Wël: South Sudanese Bloggers and published by friends of the fifth column  on April 17, 2017). What needs to be understood about genocide onset is the fact that the word genocide was coined recently.  It was coined from the combination of Greek word génos (“race, people”) and the Latin suffix -cide (“act of killing”). It was from the combination of the two terms as explained in the foregoing sentence that the UN in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948 obtained the meaning of genocide which is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.

However, before 1944 the term genocide was not yet in existence. Because of the absence of term genocide at that time mass killings were described with various terms including “massacre” and “crimes against humanity“, which were used to describe intentional and systematic killings. For instance, in 1941 when Winston Churchill (the former British Prime Minister) described the German’s invasion of the Soviet Union as a crime without a name (see; Churchill, Winston, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s Broadcast to the World About the Meeting With President Roosevelt (Speech) in August 24, 1941. British Library of Information)

In that respect, the term genocide was for the first time coined in 1944 by Lemkin (see; The Story of Raphael Lemkin” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), Holocaust Encyclopedia) who created this term in his Book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe to explain mass killings which was intended to annihilate the group. In Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, for instance, Lemkin describes the implementation of Nazi policies in occupied Europe, and cites earlier mass killings.

In other words, Lemkin invented the term genocide to describe the systematic destruction of a nation or people and for that reason, he describes genocide as “a coordinated strategy to destroy a group of people, a process that could be accomplished through total annihilation as well as strategies that eliminate key elements of the group’s basic existence, including language, culture, and economic infrastructure”. Thus, in his own language, Lemkin defines genocide as follows:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.

The definition of the genocide above shows that genocide is not a mass killing per se but it must be mass killings with intention to destroy a group of people to create a country or system for a particular member of ethnic, race, nationality and religion, which results into complete destruction of the members of a given group or race or etc by destroying another group through deliberate planned strategy. Hence, the prevention of genocide underscores the purpose for its invention, which is the prevention of destruction of the group or nation, which the law governing genocide prevents.

The Purpose of coining and the prohibition of genocide

The genocide was invented to curb mass killings that were threatening humanity. This was because of the Holocaust that was perpetrated by the Nazi Germany and its allies prior to and during World War II. It was due to such killings Lemkin successfully campaigned for the universal acceptance of international laws defining and forbidding genocides.

Genocide was also invented to criminalize mass killings that were becoming rampant at the time. Hence, the invention of genocide was to deter the perpetrators of such killings. Hence, in 1946 in its first session, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution, which “affirmed” that genocide was a crime under international law though it did not provide a legal definition of the crime. It was in 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) which defined the crime of genocide for the first time. The CPPCG was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948 and came into effect on 12 January 1951 (Resolution 260 (III)).

The purpose of genocide was to provide for humanitarian and civilization aspect of war. Hence, genocide becomes a code of conduct and standards which all civilized States must observe when at war with each other or with non-state actors. Hence, the objectives of inventing genocide are to safeguard and protect vulnerable groups of people and to affirm and emphasize the most elementary principles of humanity and morality. In view of the rights involved, the legal obligations to refrain from genocide are recognized as erga omnes. This term is a Latin phrase which means “towards all” or “towards everyone, which is the rights or obligations that are owed toward all people.

The purpose of genocide was also to create the universal meaning of mass killings and to establish common elements that must be satisfied in order to prove that genocide has taken place in order to create certainty in the legal application of genocide. For that reason, genocide is a crime under international law regardless of “whether committed in time of peace or in time of war”. Thus, irrespective of the context in which it occurs, for example, peace time, internal strife, international armed conflict or whatever the general overall situation genocide is a punishable international crime.

In short, the purpose of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups or the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole.  Hence, the UN Security Council Resolution 1674, adopted by the United Nations Security Council on 28 April 2006, “reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.  However as it is expected, the human interests have distorted the original meaning of and the purpose for inventing genocide. Therefore, the next part of this work is going to deal with the politics of genocide and how genocide is being used as a political tool in various ways in South Sudan hence losing its original meanings and purpose and by implications fail to protect human rights.

 The politics of genocide in South Sudan

Genocide as already defined above is the intentional action to destroy a people an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group in whole or in part. However, there is much politics now in the application of genocide, which has made the genocide to become a mere game of numbers.  This is why the killing of one person is no longer considered as genocide though the definition of genocide itself contemplates it. This is because killing of one person is not considered to be of political significance as seen in the context of South Sudan.

In South Sudan genocide is understood as game of numbers and the easiest way of discredited the government and if possible make sure that the international community intervenes. For example, when some people are killed on the side of opposition, the opposition force can post such photos on social media in order to attract the sympathy of international community while the government tries by all means to downplay the number of people it has killed during the conflict. This is the reason why the issue of killings at Wau and Parjok in South Sudan are still very contentious. This is because of politics

In that regard, while the rebels or oppositions are using the numbers to show to the international community that the government of South Sudan has committed genocide, the government is reported to be blocking international community members from accessing sites of conflicts just because to cover up the killings and if possible to reduce the incidence of being accused of committing genocide.

At the same time and because genocide has been reduced into a game of numbers, when rebels commit mass atrocity crimes they do not admit their contribution to such mass killings because they want to play innocent and holy play in conflict. This was seen in Bentiu in 2014 when rebels massacred over two hundred (200) people in the Mosque and tried to deny the responsibility claiming that it was the government that was responsible though they accepted the responsibility later. This is because of politics involved in construing the meaning of genocide, which is seen as mass killings. Hence, the systemic or widespread and intentional aspects of genocide have lost their meanings as required to prove genocide.

In South Sudan, there are many instances where clear genocide (in normal circumstances) might have been committed but because of politics involved, such killings have been ignored. For example, between 1980s and 1990s genocide was committed between Nuer and Dinka. At that period, many innocent children, women and elderly of Nuer descent were all killed in cold blood and in horrific way. The method of killing them was to order them all into grass-thrush huts and set those huts on fire killing hundreds of such innocent people which was a clear act of genocide since they were systematic and widespread killings accompanied by intention to eliminate Nuer people. In revenge, Nuer Youth would do the same to Dinka people in the area of Pakam in Lakes State, Luac people in Warrap State and other areas bordering Nuer areas in Bahr El Ghazal Region and also against Dinka Bor in Upper Region. All these were acts of genocide but were and are never addressed or brought up at the present when we talk about genocide in South Sudan due to politics involved. The politics is to show that the Dinka Government is entirely to blame for being responsible for killings other tribes in South Sudan.

In addition, the genocide was also committed between Nuer and Dinka following the attempted coup of Riek Machar against Dr. Garang and the almost collapse of the SPLM/A, which led to the outbreak of the conflict between Nuer and Dinka in 1991-1997. In that conflict, many people were killed on both sides because of their ethnic origins. For example, Dr. Riek Machar ordered his soldiers to kill all Dinka soldiers who were in his camp because they were Dinka. However, the same thing was done throughout Bahr El Ghazal in which all members of Nuer community were killed in large numbers just because they were from Nuer.

What was horrifying and saddening about such killings was the fact that some of those who were killed on either side did not know their mothers’ tongues because they were born and grown up in either Nuer Region or Dinka areas but they were killed due to their ethnic origin.  These killings without politics would have constituted genocide but because of politics of genocide, they are not mentioned anywhere whenever the issues of mass killings or genocide are discussed though they still haunt us to date in our bitter memories and become always flash and starting point for the next conflict. Hence, what needs to be understood in respect of the killings between Nuer and Dinka is that it is something rooted in history of the relationship between Nuer and Dinka and what they always wait for is an opportunity to kill each other. In order to end such conflicts and killings once and for all there is a need to go back far into history to unearth the deep seated hatred and after reconciling them, the law is passed to make it hard to commit such atrocities among themselves.

Finally, the killings of Nuer because of their ethnicity by Dinka people in Juba in 2013 would have been characterized as genocide under normal circumstances where there is no politics involved. In the same way, massacres of Dinka people by Nuer youth at Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile States in 2014 would have also been categorized as genocide. This is because killings were all along ethnic line with intention to destroy either ethnic group in whole or in part but it was not the case at that time as no one admitted the responsibility on either sides but both sides were busy trying to cover up such mass killings and in addition try to shift blame to either side.

In normal circumstances and without politics, the recent killings of Dinka people would have been characterized as genocide. This is because for genocide to occur the conflict must pass through eight stages called the genocidal process before it is classified as genocide. Among the stages that the conflict must pass before becoming genocide are classification and symbolization, which are fundamental operations in all cultures. They become steps of genocide only when combined with dehumanization. At these two stages denial of the humanity of others become part of conflict which permits killing with impunity. Hence, the universal human abhorrence of murder of members of one’s own group is overcome by treating the victims as less than human beings.

Thus at these two stages, the target groups are called in disgusting animal names such as “rats” or “vermin”;for example Rwandan Hutu hate radio referred to Tutsis as “cockroaches.” The targeted group is often likened to a “disease”, “microbes”, “infections” or a “cancer” in the body politic.  Bodies of genocide victims are often mutilated to express this denial of humanity. Such atrocities then become the justification for revenge killings, because they are evidence that the killers must be monsters, not human beings themselves. Looking at these two stages, we can conclude that the recent actions in Equatoria region where Dinka people are called MTN or charcoals or forbidden goods and when they are killed their bodies are cut into pieces are also acts of genocide which shows the stage in which we are in relation to Dinka and other communities is in third stage of genocide.

However, the international community is not even ready to report these killings of Dinka people because of their ethnicity because of politics involves in genocide. This is because they believe that Dinka people are many, strong and also are the ones in the government, so the genocide cannot be committed against them. Hence, they have no eyes to see act of genocide when it is perpetuated against Dinka people or when Dinka people are targeted and killed because of their ethnicity. But when a member of another tribe is killed even during the war, the real meaning of genocide applies. For example, the recent killings in Wau were started by the civilians against the SPLA and when the SPLA hit back hard in self-defense, those who were killed in the process of conflict were categorized as victims of genocide. This is because of the politics involved in genocide and the need by international community to apportion blame solely on government and Dinka people for killing other tribes.

The members of international community in and outside South Sudan always reach the conclusion that genocide has occurred even if they have not gone to a place where the fight occurred since they have already made their judgment as to who is guilty of genocide. All these are politics of genocide because it is no longer a law to protect people but it is a law used as new tool for political change through the use of the term of the failure by the government to protect its citizens. Because of politics, social media has become a strong agent in manufacturing genocide in South Sudan. For instance, it is easily manipulated through creation of thousand of dead bodies accompanied by strong messages of warning against the pending genocide and because the members of international community are gullible as they can easily believe in social media even where the news is not true, then, they can easily conclude that genocide has taken place in South Sudan.

In addition, rebels can manipulate the situation by attacking the government soldiers and after that disappear into civilian population and when the government soldiers who are attacked go at rampage against civilians, the same rebels use social media to call upon international community claiming that the government is carrying out ethnic cleansing even where those ethnic group members are rebels or are hiding rebels.

As a matter of politics, genocide like we see in the case of South Sudan where some killings are considered to be potentially genocidal while others are ignored, under the international law some powers such as the USA and Great Britain and others do not commit genocide against the people of color so too all of the fine talk about the “responsibility to protect” and the “end of impunity” are never extended to the victims of these same powers, no matter how egregious the crimes are( see; Edward S. Herman & David Peterson above) but these powers are the one in the forefront campaigning for South Sudan government to be destroyed because of genocide.

Another example where we see the politics of genocide at play is the case of the Western establishment rushing into proclaiming “genocide” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur which is the same as we see in South Sudan today and because of that they also agitated for tribunals to hold the alleged perpetrators accountable as is also the case in South Sudan today.

However, due to politics and power there was a silence over the crimes committed by America against the peoples of Southeast Asia in the countries such as Vietnam, Central America, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa which would have been very serious genocide in other normal circumstances. This is the “politics of genocide” as pointed out by Edward S. Herman & David Peterson cited above in this work.

Due to the politics of genocide the Armenian Genocide also known as the Armenian Holocaust that was committed by the Ottoman government‘ through systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, these killings is still denied by the Government of the Republic of Turkey though it was clear that Ottoman authorities, the predecessors of the current Turkish Government,  rounded up, arrested, and deported 235 to 270 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders from Constantinople to the region of Ankara, the majority of whom were eventually murdered. The genocide in this case was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly, and the infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. The Turkish Government still deny these killings because of the politics involved in genocide.

Finally, the genocide of Rwanda of 1994 against Tutsi is now settled that it was a mass slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority government. It is estimated that more than 800,000 Rwandans were killed during the 100-day period from April 7 to mid-July 1994. 800,000 that were killed during the one hundred days of killings were not only Tutsi but members of Hutu majority were also killed but because of politics involved the killings in Rwanda genocide is only believed that it was solely carried out against Tutsi by Hutu and now the definition of genocide enshrined in law in Rwanda carried Hutu as perpetrators and Tutsi as victims of genocide. Hence, as seen in this discussion, genocide is highly political, which makes it hard to be committed against any group and at the same time makes it easier to be committed against any other group provided it is recognized by the international community.

Therefore before I conclude, it must be observed that the international community believes that it is only majority group that carries out genocide against minority group though in reality, minority group also has a capacity to commit genocide as seen in the case of South Sudan. In fact, in South Sudan, all different tribes or ethnicities have capacities to commit genocide if they are given an opportunity so the international community must change its understanding of genocide when it comes to South Sudan and the issue of genocide.

The killings by the government going on at Equatoria Region, Upper Nile and Western Bahr El Ghazal should not be categorized as genocide because such killings are not necessary intended to eliminate a given tribe or group but they occur due to the use of ruthless respond by the government in case of attack from civilians which make it suitable to be described as war crimes and crimes against humanity. In addition, it is not genocide for simple reason because some of the members of those ethnic groups being killed are within the government working and if it were genocide, they would have been eliminated as well. In addition, the rebellion in South Sudan is formed along ethnic line so it becomes hard to fight without killing members of each ethnic group and because of politics involved this aspect is never considered or taken into account by the international community.


In conclusion and as based on the arguments above, it is my argument that genocide has become highly political to the extent that it has lost its real meaning and purpose for which it was invented. Hence, genocide is not applied in the context of which it was originally applied in 1970s and 1980s but it has taken political connotation which has made it become very discriminative and ineffective. It is discriminative because it is not applied in accordance with its natural meaning as it was understood by Lemkin but it is applied selectively as dictated by the political interest and because of that it fails to protect human rights.

In addition, I argue that the term genocide was purposely invented to protect innocent and “bonafide civilians” who are being killed due to their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. I have used the term “bonafide civilians” to show that such civilians are completely innocent and are not part of conflict in any manner whatsoever.

However, the international community fails to understand that in South Sudan, both the so-called victims (minorities) and the culprits (majority) are all capable of committing genocide if there is an opportunity to do so. This politics of genocide has made international community to ignore the real needs for protection against human rights violation hence the violation of human rights with impunity become order of the day as the members of the international community are looking for some elements of killings not killings themselves.

NB// The author is human rights lawyer and can be reached through:

The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël: South Sudanese Bloggers (SSB) website. If you want to submit an opinion article or news analysis, please email it to SSB do reserve the right to edit material before publication. Please include your full name, email address and the country you are writing from.

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