I was recently on a panel discussing the conflict in South Sudan. A thing that struck me during the discussion, was how the panelists were struggling to bring up positive scenarios. Still, Friar James Oyet Latansio, general secretary of South Sudan Council of Churches, was able to keep up an atmosphere of hope ̶ without denying the terrible events of the recent months.
I kept wondering, when compared to other actors, why are faith-oriented actors better at maintaining hope? What makes faith-oriented peace support actors different from other actors, and what do they bring to the table?
First about South Sudan: The violent conflict in South Sudan has again taken many twists and turns during the summer, and the developments are not encouraging. Many fear that the conflict is getting worse, often referring to the fragile peace agreement and the regular fighting between the parties. The International Crisis Group commented in August, that as a result of the recent events the people of South Sudan need to deal with a watered down peace agreement, a somewhat controversial new regional force under the UN (which has little linkage to peace implementation), and growing regional divisions.
While there is always hope for a turn to the better, it is likely that South Sudan’s extremely fragile situation will continue for some time. What kind of peace infrastructures can be helpful in this situation? I am suggesting infrastructures for peace as they are laid out in the Embedded Peace report by Giessmann from the Berghof Foundation. In the report the infrastructures for peace are perceived as “a dynamic network of skills, capacities, resources, tools and institutions that help build constructive relationships and enhance sustainable resilience of societies against the risks of relapse into violence.”
The recent report from the Berghof Foundation argues that insider mediators and especially faith-oriented insider mediators are important resources within infrastructures of peace. Looking at South Sudan, one can argue, along the lines of networks of networks, the churches continue to be a faith-oriented infrastructure for peace themselves. So, what makes them different from other actors?
- In fragile environments, change is constant and a couple of days make a different between fragile peace and violent confrontations. In this unstable environment, actors with the potential to positively influence stability or even create stability are well positioned to bring inclusive peace processes forward on different levels.
- The world’s newest country has very weak institutions, and all sectors – private and public sector and civil society – are fragmented and need strengthening. When leaving the urban centers, there are not many professional actors that can support peace. The reach and presence of churches in different parts of the country are important for their possibility to contribute to peace. It should also be noted that presence beyond “temporarily present” (such as NGO and even UN regional forces) is essential.
- In addition, in a predominantly political-ethnic conflict such as in South-Sudan, faith-based or faith-oriented actors may be perceived as relatively neutral actors, with limited ‘own’ political agenda, and with both convening power and influence to advance reconciliation between groups.
It should be noted that all actors working on conflict are navigating a “mine field”, and are thus constantly in danger of being too close of too far from the conflict parties. Violent conflict affects everyone, and when the political mainstream talks war, voices of peace might not be taken seriously.
Like all other peace actors, so are the churches in South Sudan struggling at times. In spite of this, as peace actors, the churches in South Sudan have contributed and continue to contribute to the peace process. Their contribution has the potential of being ever magnified if they remain united, focused and manage to recognize and overcome internal and external challenges.
When Fr James Oyet Latansio called for peace and reconciliation in the recent panel, he reminds all the participants about the most crucial goal: peace needs to be brought back to South Sudan.
“We must give voice to the voiceless,” he said. Even in the case of the local peace processes and far reaching and inclusive South Sudanese dialogues, the churches will hold their position and have a constructive role in translating dialogue into action.
Senior Thematic Adviser – Right to Peace
The Network has supported informal dialogues facilitated by church leaders in South Sudan in 2015
Read more about Tradition- & Faith-Oriented Insider Mediators (TFIMs) in Conflict Transformation.
Recent press WWC release: South Sudan Council of Churches issues message to UN delegation.