The Trump administration has taken an unexpectedly productive approach towards resolving South Sudan’s civil war, both through its own initiatives and through cooperative efforts with key states, international and regional organizations. Over the last several months, the administration has applied coordinated political and economic pressure on South Sudan leaders to reach a lasting peace agreement. Despite these efforts, the peace process remains stalled, even as atrocities continue. And while South Sudan’s political and military leadership is the primary obstacle to peace, neighboring African states also have undermined these efforts. Likewise, China’s reluctance to rebuke an African ally in which it has invested heavily—especially in oil—as well as Russian obstruction at the U.N. Security Council further offsets pressure on the government and opposition to end this conflict.
This month, the South Sudan government saw the imposition of a U.S. arms embargo, new economic sanctions, and waning political support. Still, the government and various armed groups failed to reach a lasting peace agreement after two weeks of negotiations in Addis Ababa. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African trade and development organization, hosted the negotiations (officially the Second Phase of the High-Level Revitalization Forum) earlier this month. The Forum’s objectives included restoring a permanent ceasefire and fully implementing a near moribund August 2015 peace agreement. Although the parties failed to achieve these two objectives, they did make some progress and will reconvene in March to continue negotiations.
Led by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, the Trump administration has been surprisingly engaged in efforts to end this conflict. Haley traveled to South Sudan last October, following USAID Administrator Mark Green’s September visit. Moreover, U.S. efforts to end the conflict have been positively un-Trumpian, featuring well-coordinated policies and consistent messaging to South Sudan’s government, a willingness to challenge an authoritarian leader and champion human rights, and multilateral engagement with European and African states as well as regional organizations such as the African Union and IGAD.
Nonetheless, the conflict—defined by appalling violence and a near complete disregard for human rights—continues. Last Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Commission issued a new report identifying more than 40 senior South Sudan officials who may bear individual responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity. At the same time, a lasting political solution under the current government seems increasingly unlikely, as does proposed power sharing arrangements between the government and the opposition.
U.S. Arms Embargo
On Feb. 2, the State Department announced an immediate restriction on the export of defense articles and defense services to South Sudan, stating: “The United States is appalled by the continuing violence in South Sudan that has created one of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises.” Although largely symbolic, as the U.S. does not provide arms to South Sudan, the decision demonstrates the Trump administration’s ongoing frustration with South Sudan’s leaders for failing to end a civil war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives, displaced 4.3 million people, and devastated the country. The arms embargo follows Ambassador Haley’s October visit to South Sudan, where she met with President Salva Kiir. Haley made the Trump administration’s position very clear, stating the U.S. had lost trust in Kiir’s government for fueling the country’s civil war.
Congress and human rights groups showed broad support for the arms embargo. Democratic and Republican members of the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan commended this decision, having long called for an arms embargo. Likewise, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce (R-CA) praised the administration for imposing the arms restrictions. Human Rights Watch called the decision “long overdue,” while the Washington Post editorial board described the embargo as “better late than never.”
In response to the arms embargo, South Sudan recalled its Ambassador to the U.S., and in Juba, the country’s capital, hundreds of South Sudanese gathered outside the U.S. embassy to protest the decision and accused the U.S. of supporting the armed opposition.
Economic Sanctions and Political Survival
Following the U.S. arms embargo, the European Union sanctioned former Army Chief of Staff Paul Malong, Minister of Information Michael Makuei Lueth, and Malek Reuben Riak, who held a number of high-ranking positions in the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces. The U.S. sanctioned these three individuals last September, whereas Canada sanctioned them in November. Malong, Lueth, and Riak allegedly committed serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including targeting and killing civilians. The Trump administration also urged neighboring African states, the African Union (AU), and the U.N. Security Council to sanction those responsible for undermining the South Sudan peace process.
The AU—an entity typically not inclined to impose sanctions—indicated that it was open to do so. Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the AU Commission, said that he supported sanctioning those responsible for the ongoing violence, saying “enough is enough” and “the time has come” to sanction those blocking peace. Predictably, the South Sudan government lashed out at the U.S. and AU, claiming that the sanctions will spoil the chance for lasting peace.
Despite these developments, whether an arms embargo or sanctions will pressure South Sudan leaders to end the conflict remains an open question. The EU has applied an arms embargo on South Sudan since the country gained independence in 2011. Nonetheless, U.N. experts note that weapons continue to flow into the country from various sources, including actors in neighboring countries Uganda and Kenya, as well as eastern European countries, such as Ukraine. Special Advisor of the Secretary-General for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng also noted the flow of weapons and ammunition into South Sudan, stating, “International partners have to start targeting the accomplices, intermediaries of the South Sudanese parties.” Likewise, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged the U.N. Security Council to issue a comprehensive weapons ban, although China and Russia previously have resisted this move.
Faced with coordinated economic and political pressure from the U.S., AU, and others, South Sudan leaders looked to regional allies and countervailing actors to offset this criticism. One place they looked is China, as the Chinese Ambassador to South Sudan He Xiangdong called for African people to resolve the South Sudan crisis in African ways, while refusing to mention the arms embargo or the sanctions. South Sudan officials clung to this approach, as South Sudan’s First Vice President Taban Deng Gai said the country no longer looks at the U.S. as its close ally. Instead, he said South Sudan would look to strengthen its ties with China and Russia.
In addition to counting on China and Russia to block coercive measures at the U.N. Security Council, the South Sudanese government is betting that its neighbors—especially Uganda and Kenya—will not enforce the arms embargo or sanctions in a meaningful way. Thus far, the government has been right. And while such sanctions-busting transactions usually occur in a much quieter manner, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni made clear that his government would disregard the embargo and sanctions. Museveni openly assured President Kiir not to fear U.S. arms restrictions, pledging that his government would do its best to ensure the facilitation of all weapons and associated services destined for South Sudan.
Disappointing Peace Talks and the Subsequent Blame Game
Heading into the peace talks, Ethiopian Foreign Minister and Chair of the IGAD Council of Ministers Workineh Gebeyehu said the forum was the “very last chance” for South Sudan leaders to end the conflict. Likewise, IGAD Special Envoy for South Sudan Ismail Wais urged the parties not to violate a shaky December ceasefire and warned of sanctions for those individuals that did.
Despite these warnings, the negotiations started poorly, as government delegates boycotted the Feb. 5 opening session. The government delegation decided to boycott the session when it was stopped from bringing 40 representatives into the venue, as IGAD only allowed for 12. The South Sudan government also refused to approve the Declaration of Principles meant to guide these talks, citing concerns over Article 28 of the Declaration, which called for taking punitive measures against individuals who block the implementation of the peace deal. Whether through political calculation or genuine conviction, the government’s main opposition, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) signed this declaration.
After the inauspicious start, the negotiations trudged along until Feb. 12, when fighting broke out between the government and the SPLM-IO in the town of Nasir in northeastern South Sudan. Each side blamed the other for the violence and gave a different account of the incident. In response, the SPLM-IO delegation walked out of the negotiations. Later, it joined eight other opposition groups in accusing the government of violating the ceasefire and not taking the peace talks seriously. All parties resumed negotiations the following day.
A few days later, the talks reached another impasse as the parties could not make progress on key security and governance issues. IGAD announced the close of the forum on Feb. 16, noting that negotiations would resume in March. Unsurprisingly, the talks faltered over power sharing, including the opposition’s demand that President Kiir not lead the transitional government that would follow the successful conclusion of the peace talks. For its part, the government claimed that the opposition’s demand to dissolve and reform the security sector was unacceptable and would result in “statelessness.” South Sudan civil society and youth groups expressed disappointment that the parties could not reach a deal to end the conflict, while women organizations and representatives from the South Sudanese diaspora demanded greater involvement in what was deemed an inclusive process.
Following the concluding session, the Troika countries of the U.S., United Kingdom, and Norway issued a statement urging the parties to do more to address security and governance issues and to reconvene as soon as possible. IGAD also pledged to intensify its efforts to assist the parties in finding the compromises necessary to reach a lasting solution. All parties to the conflict reaffirmed their commitment to revitalize the 2015 peace agreement and to refrain from actions that would undermine this process.
However, this commitment is already under strain, as both the government and the opposition issued statements blaming one another for failing to reach a peace agreement. Only hours after the conclusion of the talks, South Sudan’s Minister of Information blamed the opposition for making “impossible demands,” while a group of nine opposition parties issued a statement accusing the government of lacking the political will to address core issues necessary to resolve the conflict. Majak D’Agoot, formerly a Deputy Minister of Defense and now a member of the SPLM-Former Detainees, blamed the government for the failed peace talks, but also criticized the opposition and urged both Kiir and SPLM-IO leader and former First Vice President Riek Machar to leave politics altogether.
Remembering the South Sudanese People
A few days before the peace talks began, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres stated that he had “never seen a political elite with so little interest in the well-being of its own people.” The humanitarian conditions in South Sudan certainly bear out this statement.
The U.N. estimates that 7 million of the country’s roughly 12 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. In turn, continued violence, instability, and a shortage of essential goods forces many of these people to flee their communities, leading to what has become the worst refugee crisis in Africa since the Rwandan genocide almost a quarter-century ago. Nearly 2.5 million South Sudanese have already fled the country and the UNHCR expects the number of refugees to surpass 3 million by the end of the year. Within South Sudan, the UN estimates that there are nearly 2 million internally displaced persons.
Women and children continue to suffer the worst of the conflict. Rape and sexual violence is endemic and carries a strong social stigma, while the recruitment and use of child soldiers also remains prevalent. UNICEF estimates that 19,000 child soldiers are present in the armed forces and armed opposition groups, even after the release of more than 300 child soldiers on Feb. 7. UNICEF also estimates that 250,000 children could starve by July unless they receive humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, humanitarian groups report that food security continues to worsen, with already high levels of hunger and malnutrition rising.
U.S. policymakers cannot allow the callousness of South Sudan’s leaders to overshadow the suffering of the South Sudanese people, the overwhelming majority of whom have no connection to the power politics of the country’s elite. In situations such as South Sudan’s, there are few good options for engaging with a political and military elite so indifferent to the suffering of its people. Still, a handful of policy options can push the parties towards peace and alleviate some of the suffering. These policies include continuing to pressure South Sudan’s political leaders to make peace, while also delivering humanitarian assistance to the South Sudanese people. Withdrawing U.S. aid—a move the administration contemplated last fall—is not a feasible option, nor would this move necessarily prove decisive for a political elite largely unconcerned with the wellbeing of its people. Instead of suspending or decreasing aid, humanitarian assistance must flow to the local level to the greatest extent possible. Likewise, given the current political impasse at the national level, local peace agreements between communities offer one of the few possibilities for peace and reconciliation.
Until South Sudan’s leaders can be held accountable—and this time must come—continued political and economic pressure hold the most promise for reaching a permanent cessation of hostilities and a lasting peace.