Under the Radar: Why an arms embargo could be South Sudan’s best hope

Under the Radar: Why an arms embargo could be South Sudan’s best hope

Prospects for a unilateral arms embargo in South Sudan have the potential to overcome its track record of dismal peacebuilding attempts between its two dominant political rivals. If the U.S. is able to gain international consensus within the United Nations Security Council in support of a comprehensive arms embargo on weapons flows into South Sudan, regional humanitarian conditions may improve, mitigating political violence and growing civil unrest.

On 8 May 2018, the White House called for a “comprehensive review” of its foreign assistance to South Sudan in a press statement threatening to cut the country’s humanitarian aid, not simply as an economic maneuver, but a political one. However, a U.S. decision to end its assistance to South Sudan would exacerbate a dire humanitarian situation, in which millions of South Sudanese civilians face growing food insecurity, political violence, and widespread displacement. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) stated that 2 million people are currently displaced by crises in the region. The organization and other international NGOs called for the U.S. government not to proceed because its aid is “a last remaining lifeline for civilians in a war-torn country.”

Disunity: cause for concern

Among the White House’s concerns in South Sudan is the stagnant state of the political situation; specifically, the disunity between President Salva Kiir, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and former First Vice-President Riek Machar, leader of the rebel faction opposing Kiir, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO). Since political violence broke out in Juba in July 2016, the government has struggled to identify a sustainable strategy that would deliver national peace. In light of failed previous attempts, President Kiir and Machar met on June 19th to renegotiate a truce between their warring factions of the SPLM. The armed opposition subsequently rejected the peace deal, labelling it as “unrealistic”.

Cutting aid is not the only way

In view of peacebuilding efforts in South Sudan, the United States could bring about a ceasefire by other means than simply cutting its aid. Indeed, the U.S. government could lead efforts to build a unilateral arms embargo and push for greater involvement by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This could supersede previous failures to create sanctions, including the UNSC’s failure to approve a December 2016 resolution brought forward by the U.S. to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan.

The resolution also instituted travel bans and asset freezes on the South Sudanese leaders involved in fighting, namely, Riek Machar (see above); Paul Malong, Chief of Staff of the Government’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA);  and Michael Makuei Lueth, Minister for Information.

Despite the international condemnation of the UNSC’s failure to end the nationwide conflict in South Sudan, an arms embargo might succeed. It would require a clear multi-partner strategy, as part of a wider agenda of peace. It would also call for non-reactionary and non-punitive measures that specifically targeted the flow of military equipment into South Sudan, rather than treating all parties involved as “villains” amidst the increasingly complex regional geopolitics.

Failure of embargoes and sanctions

Part of the reason that embargo attempts and sanctions have failed to produce durable political breakthroughs in South Sudan is the current regional impunity for ongoing violations of human rights. In March 2018, the UN extended by a year the duration of its Special Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. This followed its strong criticism of the violations of international humanitarian law in South Sudan, including extrajudicial killings; gender-based violence; the recruitment of child soldiers; arbitrary arrests by government; and attacks on schools, churches, and other public buildings.

Mark Lowcock, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, has stated that this year’s peace process “has so far produced nothing,” adding “the cessation of hostilities is a fiction.” This sentiment was felt more widely in April, after President Kiir rejected as “unreasonableopposition calls for him to resign, in order to promote the peace process. Thus, any approach to ending the crisis through an arms embargo must take account of the governance gap in the region.

Actors on behalf of international human rights have found their goals for the sustainable development of the region frustrated by this governance gap. The international community, including the African Union (AU), has promised to implement further sanctions on South Sudan, at a time when greater multilateral cooperation between international actors is needed. In February 2018, the Atlantic Council applauded a U.S. arms embargo, saying that it would “weaken [President Kiir’s] ability to hold onto power by force.” The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, called for a collective arms embargo, but failed to persuade  the UN to pass it, even after UN experts had said that weapons continued to flow into South Sudan from diverse sources.   

Prospects improving

Nonetheless, prospects for a comprehensive arms embargo are improving. In May, the UNSC passed a resolution warning that it would consider imposing targeted sanctions on leaders in South Sudan, and that it also contemplated imposing a nationwide arms embargo if a “viable peace agreement” was not reached by June 30. The only challenge to the resolution from within the UNSC came from the Russian Federation, which said that it was “wrong-headed” to threaten the use of sanctions and an embargo against those involved in political negotiations.

If a peace agreement is not reached by June 30, as seems most likely, an arms embargo will have to be enforced, to increase pressure on South Sudan’s leaders to stop ignoring previous peace agreements supported by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Ironically, the most meaningful sanctions against South Sudan can arguably be imposed by IGAD because both the country‘s rebels and its incumbents have financial interests in the eight-bloc region. Therefore, it will be hard to ignore the fissures in the negotiation process. But an effective arms embargo tackles the primary incentive of political violence: illicit arms.

Without an embargo, unrest and violence risks will rise

If the international community fails to build unilateral support for an arms embargo to South Sudan, it can only damage the region’s humanitarian situation: since December 2013, for example, over 50,000 people have been killed. The absence of a unilateral arms embargo could also result in the further decay of the state when new peace deals collapse. This was the case in 2015, when negotiations to reunify the SPLM failed as a result of endemic political violence, which is a major source of distrust between the rebel factions of the SPLM. Additionally, though the narrow interests of regional players have largely delayed it, a delivery framework for humanitarian aid could be redesigned, but it would still prove insufficient without an internationally implemented unilateral arms embargo.

In any case, given the risks if a unilateral arms embargo fails, reconfiguring humanitarian aid delivery would not be a solution on its own. The example of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), for instance, shows the risks entailed by unsustainable multi-partner aid initiatives. OLS was the first major coordinated joint relief effort of the UN. It was a tripartite agreement between the UN, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement Army (SPLMA), and the government of Sudan. It resulted in prolonged negotiations between these groups and operations which began in 1989 in the form of a humanitarian aid delivery program to counteract war-induced famine in Bahr el-Ghazal.

Although OLS was by 1995 supporting conflict-affected people in Sudan, and was able to access communities living in areas controlled by government forces, restricted access meant that it had to negotiate with the instigators of the conflict, thus giving them legitimacy. This also undermined the UN’s efforts to build consensus abroad, where it was felt that foreign aid is often indiscriminate and depends on support from authoritarian powers. OLS could never act independently; it could not deliver food aid to inaccessible groups without help from the government. Another criticism of OLS was that it gave the Sudanese a sense of dependency on the international community. This came at a time during the 1990s when international aims shifted from giving emergency relief to long-term sustainable development  and food security in needy countries. The issue of aid dependency was problematic because it seemed to disempower local populations, cost a great deal and could not, without help from its recipients, coordinate its means of distribution.

OLS also had a significant impact on the outcome of the war itself, resulting in changes to the political structure of the region. This is a plausible view, given the food security assistance that was preferentially given to the SPLMA even while it was resisting the Khartoum government. More importantly, the disproportionate amount of aid reaching the southern factions gave the political actors less incentive to reach peace agreement and a ceasefire, because food aid diverted attention from the roots of the conflict. Despite its new initiatives such as the large-scale application of a household food economy approach, OLS failed to stamp out the increase in political violence that a comprehensive arms embargo might have prevented.

Cutting aid to South Sudan is therefore not the central long-term method of making the international humanitarian response to South Sudan more effective, or even viable; while ignoring the prospects for implementing an effective arms embargo in South Sudan will equally result in a failure to maximize humanitarian outcomes in the region, leading to more political violence and even greater civil unrest.

About Author

Kwadwo Boateng

Kwadwo A. Boateng is a Ghanaian graduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University who grew up in Johannesburg. He holds an Honors Degree in History, from Trinity College Dublin, and has worked with a number of organizations including the International Rescue Committee, International Crisis Group, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, UBS Wealth Management, and Rolling Stone Magazine. “Youth is never a handicap, but a new vantage point from which we can hope to inspire the good in others."'