IN THE violence and misery caused by the civil war in South Sudan, a very faint ray of light appeared this week. Since December, the nascent nation has been torn apart by armed conflict between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and the rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar. Thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. On Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry won a promise from Mr. Kiir to sit down with his rival and begin talking about peace and a transitional government.
We can only hope that this time will be different. The two sides never honored a January cease-fire agreement. They have turned deaf ears to appeals to restrain their forces, split along ethnic lines between Mr. Kiir’s Dinka and Mr. Machar’s Nuer group. An attack last month on the oil hub Bentiu after Mr. Machar’s forces took the town left hundreds dead. Then, residents of Bor, a predominantly Dinka town, attacked a United Nations base where the Nuer were sheltering. The twin assaults brought U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to investigate. At a news conference Wednesday in the capital, Juba, she warned that a “boiling point” has been reached and the two leaders have “embarked on a personal power struggle that has brought their people to the verge of catastrophe.”
By all evidence, including that offered by Ms. Pillay, the catastrophe already exists. More than 9,000 children have been recruited into the armed forces of both sides, women and girls have been raped and all civilians have been subjected to indiscriminate violence. Humanitarian groups already have described South Sudan as one of the world’s most urgent crises, along with Syria. “How much worse does it have to get before those who can bring this conflict to an end — especially President Kiir and Dr. Machar — decide to do so?” Ms. Pillay asked.
The world ought not wait. If Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar show up for peace talks in Addis Ababa aimed at a transitional government, and if they truly engage in negotiations, it might be a good sign, but their behavior so far sows grave doubts. More needs to be done to prevent the civil war from becoming a genocide.
Mr. Kerry said agreement with the foreign ministers of Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia was reached on the “terms and timing” of sending an additional 2,500 African peacekeepers to augment the existing 7,700 United Nations troops in the coming weeks. That’s better than doing nothing, but to see South Sudan survive, a larger intervention of well-equipped forces is called for, and not just from Africa. Peacekeepers must do their utmost to protect civilians and provide safe conditions for humanitarian relief.
Mr. Kerry was right to warn that those who commit crimes against humanity will be held to account. We can only hope that Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar will come to their senses. Their nation, so filled with hope upon achieving independence, cannot be allowed to become just another failed, violent state.