US lawmakers want somebody to start counting the dead in South Sudan

The survivor of an attack on a displaced camp in Malakal in March 2016 (Credit: IOM/Mohammed)

A group of six United States senators wants the United Nations’ humanitarian office in South Sudan or another body to tally up the number of dead in South Sudan’s civil war.

The only group that has provided an estimated overall death toll for the civil conflict did so two and a half years ago. The figure of 50,000 to 100,000 dead, put forth by an international thinktank, hasn’t been updated in spite of new mortality surveys, open source reporting on fighting and atrocities, and UN reports that are not publicly available that detail additional killings.

American lawmakers want to see an updated estimate. Last week they wrote a letter saying that the US government should “advocate for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs or other credible body to determine how many people have been killed due to the conflict and conflict-related causes in South Sudan.”

The letter is addressed to the new US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Haley is the former governor of South Carolina and a recent appointee of President Donald J. Trump and member of his cabinet. As such she has an ear in the White House as well as influence in agencies like the State Department.

Why isn’t anybody counting the dead? For one, information is scarce as many of the casualties take place in remote areas. The warring parties don’t disclose their own losses in battle nor are they inclined to reveal if their soldiers have killed a group of civilians.

But availability of information isn’t the only factor. Some critics seem to suspect that there are political factors at play or simply that the United Nations doesn’t put the same value on human life in South Sudan as it does in other places like Syria, where casualties are more closely tracked.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College in the US and longtime observer of Sudan, told the AFP news agency in March 2016 that he thought the failure to count the dead was a failure of morality. “If we give up on establishing mortality estimates we are, in one way or another, saying that the lives don’t really count,” he said.

Aid workers and officials who did not want to speak on the record told the AFP that the true death toll might be as high as 300,000 – and that was more than a year ago.

“It’s an imperfect science but in other countries, such as Syria, the UN has done a much better job of tracking the numbers of civilians killed than in South Sudan,” said Skye Wheeler of Human Rights Watch.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Casie Copeland, a researcher for the International Crisis Group: “It’s shocking that… in a country with one of the largest UN peacekeeping missions in the world, tens of thousands of people can be killed and no one can even begin to confirm the death toll.”

“Counting the dead goes beyond understanding the scale of this devastating war, it honours those who have been lost and is a minimum form of respect to the tens of thousands of South Sudanese who have been killed,” she added.

South Sudanese civil society activists have attempted to step into this gap with an initiative called Remembering the Ones We Lost, which seeks to name each and every victim of the civil war. But the effort goes beyond just making a social science estimation of the death toll — it’s really about memorializing of the dead. As such there isn’t really a data science component to the project. And the number of names collected so far doesn’t even come close to the real death toll.

For its part, the United Nations has not published any findings on an overall death toll. Instead, a senior UN official who spoke to reporters in March 2016 took heat when he cited the two-year old thinktank estimate of 50,000 dead without updating the number.

Relief officials working with the UN have researched mortality rates in several locations in the country but their findings have not been widely publicized by the UN leadership. For example, a UN Development Programme (UNDP) survey — based on over 1,500 interviews across the country — reported 63 percent of respondents had a close family member killed.

Other indicators showed 18 percent had a child abducted, 14 percent were tortured, 33 percent had a relative “disappear”, and 55 percent had their home destroyed. In the worst battle zones, the figures are even higher.

The UN survey also found 41 percent showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “These rates are comparable to those found in post-genocide Rwanda, post-genocide Cambodia,” the report read.

Another UN survey was a mortality study conducted in late 2015 in southern Unity State — a region that is now experiencing famine. Published by the Office of the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan in January 2016, the survey found about 8,000 deaths from violence and drowning (while escaping fighting) over a one-year period.

However, enumerators reported that people were reluctant to discuss mortality, especially among children aged five years and younger, which suggests that information on deaths in the UN report “should be treated as an underestimation of mortality.”

The UN report recommended further studies to “estimate excess mortality” in South Sudan. Such studies would cover not only deaths due to violence but also malnutrition and disease caused by wartime hunger or disease.

Journalist Nicholas Kristoff, writing a year ago in The New York Times, contended that there could be as many civilians dying in South Sudan as in Syria. Casualties in the latter conflict are better documented by groups like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

“There’s no doubt the mortality rate increased significantly in South Sudan since the war began in December 2013,” Kristoff says. “More than 2 million South Sudanese are displaced, many cannot plant crops, many don’t get bed nets to fight off malaria, and many no longer have access to medical care… We don’t know how to weigh these figures properly, and we may never know.”

He said the death toll was “staggering” compared to the little attention that it has received in international media: “The Tyndall Report says that television network evening news programs provided zero coverage of South Sudan’s civil war in 2015.”

The US lawmakers who want to see better counting of the war dead in South Sudan also want the US government to pursue an arms embargo in South Sudan and “targeted economic sanctions” against warmongers who are allegedly fueling the war.

The senators say that that Ambassador Haley should also use her diplomatic position to pursue the creation of an independent international investigation into the most serious crimes committed in South Sudan since December 2013.

Senator Benjamin Cardin, who has criticized the South Sudanese government in previous congressional hearings, is among the authors of the letter.