The Responsibility to Protect in Abyei

As Sudan’s northern and southern governments hurl accusations about who is responsible for recent flare-ups along the disputed border, U.N. officials issued a principled reminder to both governments of their responsibility to protect their people. In a joint statement issued yesterday, the U.N. secretary general’s advisers on genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect, Francis Deng and Edward Luck, reiterated common concerns among international actors this week on the volatile situation in Abyei. Noting recent reports of military deployments into Abyei by both sides, the two officials warned:

[A] stand-off between the two armies is very dangerous (…) and could easily trigger further ethnic-based violence in Abyei. We urge both parties to refrain from any actions that could put the lives of civilians in danger and risk a return to full scale hostilities.

Critically, the statement also underscored the responsibility that both governments share in ensuring that civilians are protected. This responsibility, the two advisers emphasized, extends to “all person in Abyei, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion,” adding that under the CPA, the Ngok Dinka are technically dual citizens of both North and South, in what appears to be a pointed message to Khartoum.

The parties have a shared responsibility towards these populations and must protect them. We call on both parties to initiate a thorough and impartial investigation into the recent incidents of violence in Abyei and to hold those responsible accountable in order to discourage further acts of violence, including forced displacement, which is a crime against humanity.

The statement is a reminder that even if a government is not responsible for violence itself (setting aside the contention by many observers that members of the northern government were in fact behind the recent clashes and destruction in Abyei), the government is still accountable for protecting its citizens against all violence committed by any actor. This responsibility is particularly relevant for the dynamics in Abyei, where both the South and North arguably have considerable influence over actors on the ground, and where any and all incidents of fighting have the ability to trigger much wider civilian devastation and render more difficult a resolution at the political level.