Time to take action to prevent more deadly violence in South Sudan

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On Tuesday, the United Nations released a report highly critical of both sides of the civil war in the world's newest country, South Sudan. In December 2013, an outbreak of violence in the capital of Juba quickly engulfed the entire northern part of the country in conflict, impacting large swaths of the population. While the origins may have been political, with a resulting split in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLA), the violence almost instantly metastasized into a war along ethnic lines, with ethnic Dinka and Nuer communities as the main protagonists.

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Over two years later, South Sudan is still at war, and predictions of a failed state seem inevitable. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese are dead, almost 1.7 million have been displaced from their homes by violence, and food insecurity is threatening 3.9 million people, fully one-third of the population. With regional peace efforts faltering due to diverging interests among South Sudan's neighbors, many of us in civil society welcomed President Obama's personal engagement on his trip to Africa last summer, which led to a new a peace agreement signed in August of last year. The story since has been mixed, with some welcome steps such as a reduction in urban fighting, and the warring sides finally agreeing on how to split up the posts in a new Transitional Government of National Unity (GNU). However, fighting has continued and has even spread to other parts of the country. President Salva Kiir's unilateral decision to expand the number of states from 10 to 28 has further threatened the ability of the two sides to move toward the GNU.

The recently released U.N. report by an independent panel of experts reaches many conclusions, but three are key:

  • The August 2015 peace agreement has "failed to result in a meaningful reduction in violence" and both sides have "a lack of political will" to put aside their differences and fully commit to the process envisioned by the August 2015 peace agreement.
  • The panel determined that "there is clear and convincing evidence that most of the acts of violence committed during the war, including the targeting of civilians and violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, have been directed by or undertaken with the knowledge of senior individuals at the highest levels of the Government and within the opposition."
  • An arms embargo is critical to promoting an end to the violence in South Sudan.

The report comes out at a crucial moment. Kiir has signaled his refusal to withdraw his expansion of states, which has led to opposition accusations of violating the agreement. Further, Vice President Riek Machar, the leader of the opposition, has now said he will not return to Juba to participate in the GNU.

The report's conclusions are particularly damning with respect to the government's involvement. For example, the report concludes that senior officials such as Kiir; SPLA Chief of General Staff, Paul Malong; and the Director General of the National Security Service's Internal Security Bureau, Akol Koor, "are waging an aggressive war involving the targeting of civilians and extensive destruction of communities." At the same time, the report finds that opposition leader Riek Machar "continues to seek funding and weapons to prosecute the war and to further his personal political ambitions at the expense of peace." The long-term implications of these actions for the conflict is menacing, with the panel concluding that South Sudanese increasingly perceive the conflict "as a zero-sum struggle where the exclusion of competing tribes from political power and the monopolization of resources for personal gain have become the principal aims of the belligerents." Actions need to be taken immediately to prevent this conflict from becoming a generations-long struggle.

The United States needs to take immediate steps to move the sides toward peace, including:

  • Pressing for an immediate arms embargo at the U.N. Security Council against both sides.
  • Beginning consultations on individual sanctions against senior leaders who have command responsibility and who have directed violent acts against civilians, or have had knowledge that such acts have happened under their command, and imposing sanctions if the parties do not comply with their obligations under the agreement.
  • Pressing the African Union to establish the hybrid tribunal on South Sudan called for in the agreement, investigate senior leaders responsible for the violence, and support other transitional justice mechanisms.
  • Supporting the independence and security of civil society, against pressures by all sides in an environment that is rapidly closing.

Efforts at imposing an arms embargo have been stymied in the past, but the clear evidence that the sides are buying or attempting to buy advanced weapons such as helicopter gunships and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles is a sure sign that an arms embargo is needed and could be effective. Complaints that an arms embargo would unfairly target the government are undermined by the report, which states that the purchase of helicopter gunships, for example, has emboldened those in the government who are seeking a military solution to the conflict, and the overall sense that the government bears greater responsibility for the violence. Even limiting the importation of ammunition could help reduce deadly violence in a country awash with small arms, but not necessarily the bullets they use.

The Obama administration has already allocated $5 million for a hybrid tribunal in South Sudan. With this fuel and a commitment by the African Union, as well as other transitional justice mechanisms, the international community can help turn the tide in South Sudan away from the violence and suffering that has characterized the last two years. This year will be an important moment in the history of South Sudan. In the last year of his administration, President Obama should intervene to try to save the state he helped create in 2011. A failure to do so would surely tarnish his administration's legacy on South Sudan just as he is set to leave office.

Abramowitz is the vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United.

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