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Losing the last vestiges of our moral fabric

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Monday, 20 November 2017


The unspeakable atrocities that are happening in South Sudan are unfathomable, not only because of the scope of savagery in the war between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, but also because it defies every tenet of our civilized being in which we take so much pride. Civilization, however, has hardly penetrated the first layer of our thick skin. We assume that our unprecedented advancements in technology, medicine, space exploration, engineering, literature, and all forms of arts have equally deepened our moral and ethical conviction. No. We have in fact become increasingly immune and unmoved by the savagery which is unfolding before our eyes in so many countries.

Many judge the raging human atrocities-be that in South Sudan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and many other places-in relative terms to the horrors of wars and the unprecedented violence of the last century and before. They argue that today's world is better and safer than at any time in the history of mankind. That said, the idea of "Never Again," adopted in the wake of the second World War, has become nothing but an empty slogan. Should we really measure our moral conduct today in relative terms to the moral decadence of yesteryears?

Go explain that to those who have suffered unmatched cruelty and brutality and found salvation only in death. To the starving little boy who is about to pass away from malnutrition; to the girl that was raped a dozen times and left to die; to the shattered father who lost his entire family; to the weeping mother whose child died in her arms.

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Yes, go explain it to the tens of thousands of children who are about to perish because of lack of medical care; to the millions of traumatized refugees who lost hope of ever recovering again. Go explain to them, 'you are better off today than the tens of millions who perished before you.'

The irony is that we often compare the human capacity for mercilessness, torture, and random killing to a wild beast, when in fact the most vicious of all beasts would be insulted to be compared to the atrocities and slaughter that humans are capable of committing against one another.

Let's look at the tragedy that has gripped South Sudan.

Six million people-over half of the entire population-suffer from severe food shortages, some surviving on as little as a cup of rice per day. It is projected that in 2018, nearly 1.1 million South Sudanese children will still be acutely malnourished.

Armed forces use rape as a weapon of war. As a method of coercion, girls as young as seven are raped and burned alive in front of their parents. Rape is often used as a payment for services and a recruitment incentive for militias. Gang rape is so prevalent it is now considered normal, while pillaging leaves villages in a blood bath.

Nearly 7,000 new cases of cholera have been reported this year-a 73% increase from 2016 and the highest number of cases since 2014-and 51% of all infected are children and teenagers. Hospitals and aid vehicles are intentionally targeted by militia forces, and volunteers are ambushed and killed.

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The malaria rate has increased from last year, accounting for 65% of all illnesses. Approximately 78,000 people are infected every week, most of whom are under the age of five. In 2017, more than 1.57 million cases of malaria have been reported, which is an increase of 300,000 over 2016.

Tens of thousands of children have been recruited as child soldiers, carrying rifles taller than themselves. Children travel unaccompanied – separated from their families after villages are raided – and many of them end up dying in the wilderness. Women and children hide in swamps while bodies pile in front of them. A whole new generation is lost, as nationwide 51% of South Sudanese children are not attending school.

Men are slaughtered, and some have been locked in steel shipping containers beneath the sun without food or water, left to fry to death. Women are captured, forced to march, and raped nightly, while civilians, who are not actively involved in the hostilities, are targeted as a military tactic.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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