Landmark moment for South Sudan peace talks

(AP Photo/Rebecca Vassie)Thousands of refugees who fled the recent violence in South Sudan and crossed the border into Uganda

Ongoing peace talks in South Sudan have made break though, as opposing parties have reached a landmark agreement to support humanitarian assistance throughout the war-torn country.

Significant political unrest has plagued South Sudan since its secession from the north in 2011 following two bloody civil wars, resulting in years of instability.

A fresh wave of violence began on 15 December last year in the capital city Juba as a result of an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to South Sudan President Salva Kiir's former deputy Riek Machar. The fighting escalated; spreading throughout the country and fracturing it along ethnic lines.

The latest reports from the UN indicate that over a million people have been displaced since December and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that a staggering 4.9 million are currently in need of critical humanitarian assistance.

Those working to bring peace in the region have praised the commitment of both parties involved in the conflict to allow vital aid to reach those in need.

ACT Alliance – a coalition of over 140 churches and affiliated organisations including Christian Aid, Church World Service and Christian Care – says an agreement was signed on May 5 by representatives from both sides, which reveals "a degree of clear political will to negotiate and reach a solution".

A ceasefire had previously been agreed on 23 January, but it failed to take effect and violence continued. Peace talks were subsequently begun, but church leaders were excluded from taking part and a group of Bishops criticised the legitimacy of discussions.

Last week, however, ACT Alliance, church leaders and government officials met in South Sudan and an agreement was made to allow aid agencies access to civilians in desperate need.

According to the signed document, those involved in the conflict will "consider one month of tranquillity from 7 May to 7 June 2014 in order to preposition humanitarian supplies and enable the people of South Sudan to plant their food crops, care for livestock and move to areas of safety".

ACT Alliance General Secretary John Nduna says the agreement has come at a "critical time".

"Only a small window of opportunity remains to get relief goods to those in need in remote areas," he said.

"The rains have already started, and within one month access to these areas will no longer be possible for those displaced by the fighting and unable to continue with their livelihoods which will have a negative impact in the much longer term.

"It is absolutely urgent for the government and opposition to do their utmost to open humanitarian corridors within South Sudan and from neighbouring countries to aid to those in need."

President Kiir and Machar have each arrived in Ethiopia where they will meet in person today, May 9, for further discussions. Nduna has expressed his hope that it will "mark the end of the violence and the start to a process of peace and reconciliation".

"We call on the president and the opposition to this time adhere to the Recommitment on Humanitarian Matters signed on Monday," he added.

"Peace is only possible if these two commit to immediately resolving their political differences and embarking on a process of national reconciliation and healing."

However, the US Ambassador to South Sudan has indicated that the process is not expected to go smoothly.

"I don't believe that [the two sides] will reach an agreement straight away," Susan Page said on a radio show earlier this week.
"But if they can agree on a broad-based process on how to resolve the conflict, end the fighting, that would be a step forward."