The UN Security Council recently imposed new sanctions on South Sudan including travel bans on six South Sudanese citizens. Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, praised the move saying: “The Security Council took strong action in support of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Sudan by sanctioning six South Sudanese individuals for fuelling the ongoing conflict and contributing to the devastating humanitarian crisis in their country.”
But the reality is that only one of the listed men, Major-General Marial Chanuong Yol Mangok, has a passport. This is largely a toothless travel ban on non-travellers. Many observers of South Sudan argue that the latest round of sanctions will do little to stop the country’s turmoil.
Even an arms embargo would only be successful if UN members enforce it:Israel and others still sell weapons to the war-torn nation. But an embargo has its place (the lifting of an international arms embargo on Somalia in 2013reportedly resulted in a rise of human rights abuses).
But neither President Salva Kiir nor rebel leader Riek Machar (the two men leading a brutal war for victory) are touched by the latest UN moves. Opposition figure Lam Akol told Associated Press that “if the sanctions are meant to encourage the spoilers to be serious for peace, and to warn them that not doing so has a price or punishment, then they should target the right people.”
South Sudan stands at a precarious point in its young history — 9 July was the fourth anniversary of independence and yet there was little to celebrate. I attended a government-organised “celebration” in the middle of the capital, Juba, on a searingly hot day. Although thousands of locals attended, many in full suits and fancy dresses, it was hard to discern any real enthusiasm. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni spoke, and warned against “outsiders” meddling in African affairs while his gunships flew overhead. President Kiir pledged to bring peace to South Sudan and remove corruption, promises that after years of war were hard to believe.
Since December 2013, when political and ethnic simmering tensions between Kiir and Machar exploded in bloodshed in the capital Juba and across the country, the nation has been rocked by extreme violence and dislocation. The world’s newest state has become one of the most reliant on international donors and aid to barely keep alive.
The exuberance that greeted the 2011 independence vote has largely disappeared. I never meet any locals in South Sudan who want to be once again controlled by Sudan under President Omar al-Bashir — for years under his rule the Muslim north routinely abused its southern, Christian neighbours — and yet millions of internally and externally displaced refugees are losing any hope of a secure future.
Today around eight million civilians, out of a population of 11 million, face food scarcity and at least 40% of the country is predicted to suffer from severe hunger by the end of July. In other parts of the nation, such as Unity and Western Jonglei States, some households face catastrophe and likely starvation, according to the USAID-backed Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) issued a report in late June that accused government soldiers of “widespread human rights abuses” in Unity State. The allegations included the sexual abuse of women and girls, and the burning alive of girls in their homes. The report stated: “This recent upsurge (in fighting) has not only been marked by allegations of killing, rape, abduction, looting, arson and displacement, but by a new brutality and intensity. The scope and level of cruelty that has characterized the reports suggests a depth of antipathy that exceeds political differences.”
The scale of the humanitarian crisis is immense. UNMISS runs “protection of civilian” camps and as of 6 July they were housing 153,769 people nationwide in eight locations. Cholera outbreaks are increasing while the current rainy season means vast swathes of the country are inaccessible by road. Billions of dollars of global, financial support is being pledged on an annual basis for the UN and NGOs to administer assistance, but I’m hearing there’s donor fatigue after years of grinding conflict with a rising death toll (tens of thousands, at the very least). In the brutal calculation of donor contributors, South Sudan may become less of a priority than, say, Syria or Iraq, though the needs are only increasing.
None of this carnage was inevitable. It’s a man-made disaster that was emboldened by the choices made by western powers and supporters in the lead-up to the 2011 independence vote. Buyer’s remorse is now ubiquitous. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently visited South Sudan and powerfully reported on the conditions faced by suffering civilians. While he acknowledges his own backing for the Kiir government in 2011 — though “now it’s difficult not to feel despair” — there’s little reflection on lessons that should be learned from the experience.
The US, like all nations, doesn’t support states out of love or belief in human rights: it’s always about strengthening interests. South Sudan was framed as a bulwark against Muslim Sudan that had given shelter to Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s and remains close with Iran. Furthermore, China has spent the last decade colonizing Africa and furnishing various regimes with infrastructure and weapons. The US wanted a foreign policy success in the heart of the continent, while warning Beijing to stay off its turf, and for a brief time President Obama was able to claim this. It didn’t last long.
American actor George Clooney was another prominent and politically significant backer of South Sudanese independence. Few questions were asked, however, about the regime that was set to lead the country. Now Clooney is far more honest about the reality and wants to “dismantle the financial networks profiting from Africa’s deadliest wars.” If only these insights had been offered before 2011: “After securing their country’s independence, South Sudan’s political leadership embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury, leaving little for education, health or other services. Soon, this violent kleptocracy degenerated along factional lines.”
The only way the conflict in South Sudan will cease is if enough pressure is placed on its political leaders and military. Any hopes that the African Union would be a positive influence on peace negotiations (and there’s little evidence so far that it has been) were dashed during the recent controversy over Omar al-Bashir and his escape from South Africa after a possible one-way ticket to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his alleged crimes against humanity. The African Union expressed its outrage over the moves to extradite Bashir, claiming the ICC had an obsession with prosecuting Africans instead of pursuing leaders in other parts of the world. So South Sudanese leaders presumably have nothing to worry about.
Four years after South Sudan’s declared independence, the future viability of the state is in question. With millions of citizens facing extreme hunger and displacement, it’s natural to fear what will happen in the coming years. Like the ongoing conflict in Syria, another country that can no longer be described as a unified entity, South Sudan is experiencing an economic collapse and humanitarian tsunami. It’s the civilians who suffer the most and it’s for them that renewed peace talks and negotiations must be intensified. The troubles in South Sudan reflect deep failures from an international community that seems far more interested in celebrating successes than stopping bloodshed.