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Cattle_JongleiDeciphering Murle Identity: Peacebuilding and Conflict Mitigation in Jonglei State

By: ANTHONY DiROSA

The politics of ethnic and cultural identity are of major concern to peacebuilders and policymakers when understanding how to stem the risk of armed conflict and mass atrocities in regions plagued by intercommunal violence. According to Diana Felix da Costa at the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, one such place is Jonglei State, South Sudan, where ethnic cleavages that divide tribes are a major focus for international and national policymakers seeking to specifically target and contain such risk factors. Jonglei State represents a setting where tribal groups are defined by multiple identities but marginalized as a whole for the actions of a few. These inter-group distinctions are significant as the cattle-keeping Murle, who are endemic to the lowlands of Pibor county, embrace a distinct identity compared to the agrarian Murle living in the Boma. Although the Murle share an overarching ethnic identity, it’s hard to view or treat them as a unified group. As the risk of violence and mass atrocities has been escalating in Jonglei recently due to fresh SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), Yau Yau rebel and Lou Nuer militia fighting, comprehensively understanding the scope of ethnic and tribal identities, specifically within the Murle culture, has never been more crucial to both Juba, the UN and international actors. Doing so may be a crucial ingredient in formulating responsive solutions to both inter-Murle violence and the more widespread fighting between Yau Yau rebels and SPLA/ Lou Nuer forces.

The Murle are an ethnic group that originally migrated from Ethiopia to southeastern Jonglei hundreds of years ago, before moving further north and settling around Pibor. They are a largely pastoralist group that live in the flat open lowlands of Jonglei, while a smaller group of farmers inhabit the Boma Plateau and surrounding areas. According to Diana Felix da Costa’s fieldwork in Pibor County, although these Murle enclaves associate with a larger collective ethnic identity, they are known to associate and dissociate selectively in situations where it may be advantageous or when their collective security is in jeopardy. This makes sense when understanding the differences in lifestyle from the lowland Murle, which is oriented around cattle, and in Boma, where Murle people live an agrarian lifestyle and have no cattle. While cattle raiding lies at the core of much of the violence occurring in Jonglei state, there is no evidence that the largely agrarian Murle near Boma are involved. Regardless of their guiltlessness they are vengefully targeted by rival clans simply because of their Murle identity. Thus, amongst the Boma Murle a new term of self-identification, “Ngalam”, meaning “without cattle”, has been increasingly used as a means of dissociating themselves from the cattle-raiding Murle. The fragmentation and inter-group violence within the Murle community is even more pronounced as Murle from Boma often report incidents of child abductions and rape on behalf of their Murle neighbors from Pibor. On the other hand, Murle from Boma have aided their fellow in-laws from Pibor and Maruwo Hills when these sub-groups faced conflict from rival groups in their areas. Diana Felix da Costa postulates that this may be an example of in-group survival, especially given the sense of marginalization and insecurity the Murle feel within South Sudanese society.

From these examples it’s understandable why da Costa believes that Murle identity construction is both situational and interactive. Murle identity seems constructed relationally and is subject to changes according to specific interests and circumstances according to da Costa. The Murle also negotiate, accept and challenge identities that are projected onto them by others. On the other hand, there is evidence that Murle identity can also be fixed, as a Ngalamit is viewed, by the Murle, to always be a Ngalamit. These crucial micro-level idiosyncrasies make it hard to view them as an unified ethnic group. Likewise, it’s important to differentiate between the lowland and highland Murle, but also more specifically between the minority of lowland Murle behind the raids and the majority who are not, according to da Costa. Furthermore, not all Murle support cattle raids, child abductions and violence, just as all Lou Nuer or SPLA forces don’t support raids, child abductions and indiscriminate violence against civilians.

Deciphering Murle identity is doubly important given the context of both intercommunal violence and the more widespread militia based combat between the Murle backed Yau Yau movement and the state backed Lou Nuer youth rebels. It is important to note that amongst the three main forces fighting in Jonglei, major ethnic and tribal affiliations lay at the core since much of the rank and file of the SPLA is made of Lou Nuer, a historic rival of the Murle. Recent news out of Jonglei indicates that local Murle leaders are planning to convince Yau Yau, who is also a Murle, to end his rebellion against the government in Juba because of their shared ethnicity. This potential leveraging of Murle identity to promote peace comes at an important juncture where SPLA soldiers are indiscriminately targeting Murle civilians on the assumption they are Yau Yau supporters. There is both a strong incentive and ripe opportunity for the Murle and the international community to capitalize on ethnic and tribal affiliations to help assuage the violence that has wreaked havoc on Jonglei. Doing so would reverse the recent history of unsuccessful negotiations, porous peace agreements, botched local disarmament campaigns and a failure to enforce and follow-through with community driven recommendations for peace.

Peacebuilding initiatives must take these initial steps to understand the dynamics of Murle identity on top of addressing the root causes of violence and mass atrocities in. These acts are fostered by an environment lacking basic state security assistance and free flow and access of humanitarian aid. They are also fueled by the weakening of traditional authority and dispute resolution mechanisms and the manipulation by local and national elites of local grievances and ethnic identities, according to da Costa. Since fighting began to intensify around March 2013, over 100,00 civilians have been cut out off from humanitarian assistance and 120,000 forced to flee their homes. As the international community turns its attention to South Sudan’s current worsening crises, it is indeed important to understand the outstanding grievances and deep-seeded motivations behind such violence and to work to ensure these issues are addressed. What’s equally important is that external policy prescriptions be crafted by first understanding the nuances of the Murle identity so that peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives can harness them for peace.

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Part 11 in a series by Marissa Goldfaden as she works her way through “Introduction to minority rights, regional human rights mechanisms, and minority rights advocacy,” a new online course offered to the public free of charge by Minority Rights Group International. The course’s stated objectives are to introduce concepts of minority rights and discrimination, develop awareness and understanding of international and regional mechanisms for minority rights, and improve practical skills in lobbying and advocacy.

gender equalityBy MARISSA GOLDFADEN

Topic 9: Thematic focus: Multiple forms of discrimination
Section 1: Key concepts

Sex and gender defined

Sex refers to biological difference between men and women.

Gender refers to socially constructed roles, behavior, or activities that are considered appropriate for men and women.

There is little variation in aspects of sex between different human societies. However, gender roles may vary greatly. Because gender differences are based on societal attitudes of what is considered appropriate for men and women, they can and do change over time.

Section 2: Identifying discrimination on more than one ground

Discrimination: Expanding the concept

As we learned in Topic 1, direct discrimination means less favorable or detrimental treatment accorded to an individual, or group of individuals, due to their possession of one or more specific characteristics. International law specifies those protected characteristics as: race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Intersectional discrimination occurs when two or more layers of discrimination act together to double or triple the disadvantage experienced by the individual.

Section 3: Focus on minority women

The concept of gender affects both men and women. However, intersectional discrimination on the grounds of both gender and minority status frequently affects and disadvantages minority women in a different way than men. Members of minorities frequently face threats and increased discrimination from the majority when they try to defend their rights. A dominant majority usually has an interest in keeping the situation the same. When minority women assert their rights, the backlash may have a gender dimension – often sexual violence.

Conclusion

It is important to remember:

  • Minority women may face particular discrimination or violence because they are both members of a minority group and women.
  • No culture is homogenous.
  • All cultures are constantly adapting and changing.
  • Minority women have the same rights as other women.

Section 4: Balancing cultural rights with the individual rights of minority women

Protection of identity and restrictions

Culture and gender

For many communities, women and girls are the custodians of cultural identity. Often, cultural practices of men will change, whereas the cultural practices of women are maintained. This is one reason why, when there are tensions between the rights of a minority to protect their cultural identity and the rights of individual members of the minority, frequently, the tensions relate to cultural practices of women or those that affect women.

Cultural identity of minorities: A limited right

Writes MRG, “Members of minorities have the right to protect and promote their identity. However, this right is not unlimited. The UN Declaration on Minorities permits states to restrict cultural practices ‘where specific practices are in violation of national law and contrary to international standards’.

States may not enact laws to restrict any practice they choose, because this would make the right to protection of cultural identity meaningless. Prohibitions on cultural practices must be based on reasonable and objective grounds. States should prohibit practices that violate other human rights standards.”

International standards

International law sets out principles to which restrictions on cultural practices, including religious practices, must adhere if they are legitimate:

  • Restrictions must not be discriminatory.
  • Restrictions must be necessary to protect one of the following:
    • public safety
    • public order
    • public health, or morals
    • the fundamental rights and freedoms of others
  • The restrictions should be the minimum necessary to meet the aim for which they have been employed.

Undue influence is a legal term defining a situation whereby one person improperly exerts influence over another to act in a certain way.

Conclusions

The right to identity is not unlimited, and there are legitimate restrictions that governments can make on minority cultural practices. However:

  • Restrictions must not discriminate (directly or indirectly), and must conform to international standards.
  • Cooperation with affected communities is important in ensuring that already marginalized groups do not perceive restrictions to be attacks against them.
  • The opinions of diverse sections of minorities are important, since there are likely to be different views on cultural practices and restrictions within the community.

Image: thegrindstone.com

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