Source: UN Photo
On July 9, the youngest country on Earth celebrated its birthday. Four years ago, South Sudan achieved its independence with broad international support. Since December 2013, however, a new civil war between the South Sudan president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and his former deputy, Riek Machar, has devastated the wounded society. During the latest hostilities between the government forces and the armed opposition with the militias allied to it, the increasing brutality of the warring parties has become visible. At the end of June, the UN peace mission in South Sudan published a human rights report for the past three months. Government soldiers have gang raped women and girls. People have been pushed into their huts and burned alive. According to UNICEF, 129 children died in May alone. The UN Children’s Fund estimates that over the course of the war, 13,000 minors have been forcibly recruited. Some villages no longer have boys and men above the age of 14. More than 2 million people have been displaced inside and outside the country, and around 4.6 million are threatened by acute food insecurity, about 40% of the total population.
Despite political attention, the possibilities for international actors to influence events in South Sudan are limited, as the past one-and-a-half years have shown. Mediation attempts by the regional organization IGAD in Addis Ababa have not yet led to fruition. Agreements are instantly violated without the conflict parties even trying to hide as much. But the international community of states should use the space for maneuver that remains. Instead of sanctioning only a few military commanders, the UN Security Council should hold those politically responsible accountable and create an arms embargo.
After a series of threats, the UN Security Council created a sanctions committee for South Sudan in March this year. On July 1, the sanctions committee decided to list three military commanders from both sides, banning their international travels and freezing their access to international assets.
This is not enough. Only two of the six people actually have a passport. Most will not have any substantial foreign assets. The sanctions will hardly constrain their behavior.
The sanctions need to target a higher, political level. The latest human rights report of the UN mission speaks of a “consistent pattern” of alleged violations in all villages in the north of the country that were attacked by government soldiers – looting, cattle raids, attacks on schools and health facilities and, at the end, the burning the huts. Such systematic behavior suggests planning and a chain of command that extends to the top of the state. Building on the existing information collected by the UN mission, by embassies and by human rights organizations, the Panel of Experts, which was created by the Security Council and undertook investigations in South Sudan last June, could expand those initial indicators of political responsibility. A new fact-finding mission established on July 2 by the Human Rights Council could also collect further evidence.
If targeted at the right persons, sanctions could constrain individual’s actions. Ministers, party leaders and business men often have luxurious villas in neighboring states, whose maintenance require substantial funds. They visit their family and business contacts abroad. “There is a fear in Juba to be on a list, from which it may be difficult to get off,” said one Western diplomat.
Research on the impact of targeted sanctions has shown what is important. The sanctions need to be part of a larger political engagement, one that includes diplomatic pressure by a united Security Council. There need to be clear criteria for the kind of behavior liable to be sanctioned – and for what affected individuals can do to be delisted. The Security Council also needs to make sure that those states where the relevant assets are parked implement the sanctions.
The sanctions in South Sudan were passed by all member states of the Security Council, but Russia has already called them an obstacle to the peace process. This line of critique ignores the fact that there are clear exemptions from the travel sanctions, for example for the participation in peace negotiations. There are also relatively well-defined criteria for listing: violating the cessation of hostilities agreement, obstructing peacekeeping or humanitarian action, or committing abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law can lead to sanctions. On the other side, individuals can be delisted if they can assure the Security Council that they have not committed the actions included in the publicly available summary of reasons for listing. Germany, which has been a long-standing, important voice regarding the reform of targeted sanctions, could make suggestions to improve the design of sanctions in South Sudan that respect due-process and humanitarian concerns. Sanctions are first and foremost a political instrument and should provide incentives for the conflict parties to agree on a durable ceasefire and stop human rights violations.
Asset freezes and travel bans need to be primarily implemented by neighboring states. Here, the USA could put pressure on Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. For each regional bank, the financial relations with the United States are significantly more important than the favor of a few South Sudanese policymakers.
An arms embargo should be part of such an agreement in the Security Council. Thanks to decades of civil war, South Sudan is awash in small arms. According to the UN, 2.9 million small arms are in circulation in the country. Police and military are too strained and badly trained to guarantee the security of the populations. Every community takes care of its own protection from cattle raiders, armed robbers and rebels. The members of the Security Council should at least agree to ban the delivery of any further weapons to the country – and exert pressure on their partners to do the same. In this context, China, which has massively invested in the South Sudanese oil sector, could dissuade the Sudanese government from dropping weapons for Machar’s opposition forces.
At the end of the day, the world cannot create a peace agreement for South Sudan. But the right sanctions would show the warring parties that the international community is not prepared to accept their crimes. Massive violence against civilians cannot be justified by the logic of war.
To read a version of this piece in German, please visit ZEIT Online.