On July 19, the African Union (AU) summit convened in Rwanda to discuss recent events in South Sudan. Earlier in the month, deadly fighting—threatening a renewed civil war—erupted between supporters of South Sudan’s president, Kiir Mayardit, and the country’s former rebel leader and vice president, Riek Machar. At the summit, leaders met to discuss the possibility of sending a coalition force, including troops from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya, to support the struggling UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) (1). The principal source of disagreement between the warring parties –– a 2015 peace deal that precipitated Vice President Machar’s ascension to power last April –– has all but disintegrated in light of recent news that Taban Deng, chief negotiator of the peace agreement for the armed rebels, has replaced Machar. Despite a ceasefire, Machar fled the capital city of Juba to avoid last week’s fighting that left 300 dead (2). As a peace deal, which the international community intervened to create, tenuously hangs in the balance, one must question whether international intervention can solve this latest bout of instability.
Amidst the threat of further violence, members of the international community, especially human rights organizations, have called for an arms embargo on South Sudan. In addition to his support for a coalition force to aid UN peacekeepers, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the UN Security Council to implement an arms embargo in South Sudan and impose sanctions on the factions responsible for the deadly fighting earlier in the month (3). Human rights organizations have echoed the Secretary General’s recommendations, as concerns mount over an unmitigated refugee crisis, in which thousands are currently fleeing South Sudan (4). At the peak of last week’s conflict, which began July 8 in Juba, an estimated 42,000 civilians –– mostly women and children –– were displaced (5). Estimates from the UN refugee agency suggest that the number of South Sudanese refugees displaced in other East African countries this year could exceed one million (6). In a letter sent to the UN Security Council on July 21, thirty human rights groups –– including Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International –– condemned both attacks on civilians and the fighters’ disregard for the law of war. Attacks on civilians, which have forced thousands to leave their homes, have included sexual violence against women and girls and looting of humanitarian aid, according to Secretary General Ban during his July 21 speech (7). Countries such as Uganda that are resistant to international intervention may complicate the Secretary General’s request to the UN Security Council for an arms embargo and targeted sanctions to address South Sudan’s current woes.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni –– a close ally of South Sudan’s President Kiir –– expressed his opposition to an arms embargo during the AU summit in Rwanda. He maintained that such a decision would weaken the South Sudanese army during a crucial time in which violence has resurged (8). At the height of the violence, Uganda deployed its own troops to rescue Ugandan citizens in South Sudan, and in the wake of the violence, the country has accepted more than 3,000 people who have fled there (9). Regional leaders, such as President Museveni, appear generally wary of international intervention, especially considering the 2015 peace deal, which the UN brokered, is partly responsible for the current situation in South Sudan. The most salient source of opposition to this latest bid for an arms embargo, however, will likely be two permanent members on the UN Security Council: Russia and China. Both countries not only generally oppose sanctions and embargoes for strategic, political reasons but also profit generously from the sale of arms to South Sudan. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has tracked global arms sales and found that Russia was the main supplier of arms to South Sudan in 2011, the year the country gained independence from Sudan. Moreover, according to SIPRI, China was the largest supplier of arms to South Sudan in 2014. China did, however, cease shipments once fighting resurfaced that year (10). As of now, while the embargo proposal is under review, it is unclear what position either Russia or China will take.
In the meantime, East African countries opposed to the embargo, particularly Uganda, are calling for a revision to the UN peacekeeping mission. On July 11, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) –– an East African group –– proposed a revised mandate to UNMISS operations. This revised mandate emphasizes the need for a regional force to intervene in South Sudan, acknowledging South Sudan’s insistence that it no longer wants international troops fighting within its borders (11). GAD and the AU would like to model this regional force on the Force Intervention Brigade, which was deployed to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to confront rebel groups there. This force, in coordination with the UN and the South African Development Community, was able to defeat the M23 rebels (12). There is indeed a certain irony to the current situation in South Sudan: The international community that approved the creation of this nascent state might contribute to its demise, if it does not cooperate with regional powers and reach a consensus, detached from strategic interests.
(1) "South Sudan: African Leaders Support Plan to Deploy Regional Troops." Stratfor. Strategic Forecasting, Inc., 19 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(2) "South Sudan Opposition Replaces Missing Leader Machar." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 23 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(3) "In Rwanda, Ban Meets with African Leaders On Situation in South Sudan." UN News Center. United Nations, 15 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(4) The Associated Press. "Human Rights Groups Urge South Sudan Arms Embargo." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(5) Mahla, Deepmala. "The World Cannot Afford to Turn Its Back on South Sudan." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 15 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(6) "UN: South Sudan Refugees Could Hit One Million." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 15 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(7) The Associated Press. "Human Rights Groups Urge South Sudan Arms Embargo." The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(8) "Ugandan President Opposes South Sudan Arms Embargo." Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network, 18 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(9) Dobbs, Leo. "Thousands Flee to Uganda After South Sudan Flare-Up." UNHCR News. The UN Refugee Agency, 19 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(10) Ferrie, Jared. "Would an Arms Embargo on South Sudan Work?" IRIN. Integrated Regional Information Networks, 12 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(11) Long, Nick. "AU Backs Call for 'Robust' African Force in South Sudan." ReliefWeb. United Nations, 18 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
(12) "South Sudan Conflict: African Union Approves Regional Force." BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation, 19 July 2016. Web. 25 July 2016.
Image: © Paskee | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photos-fleeing-fights-mingkama-awerial-lakes-state-south-sudan-january-refugees-arriving-mingkama-port-coming-boat-over-image37881423#res14972580">Fleeing the fights</a>