Will an Arms Embargo and a ‘Protection Force’ Stop South Sudan’s Civil War?
Don’t get your hopes up
by PETER DOERRIE
The U.N. Security Council on Sept. 14 held consultations on South Sudan’s ongoing crisis. Violence escalated considerably in July 2016, when elements of the army attacked civilians and opposition forces in the capital Juba, despite the government having agreed earlier in the year to a peace deal and a government of national unity.
With more than 300 people killed and soldiers specifically targeting international aid workers, the United Nations is now increasing the pressure on Pres. Salva Kiir.
In a report leaked to Reuters and AFP, U.N. experts argue that the government, not the opposition, was solely responsible for July’s escalation. The report goes on to state that government forces were under direct control of Kiir and Chief of Staff Paul Malong during the engagement, including the storming of the Terrain housing complex, during which several international aid workers were raped and others were beaten.
The report also details efforts by the government to bolster its armory. In addition to small arms and substantial amounts of ammunition, the government also procured two L-39 fighter jets, one of which saw action in July, and held talks with a Lebanese business man to establish an ammunition factory in Juba.
The government’s most important ally continues to be Uganda which, according to the report, serviced and painted the jets before delivering them to their final destination — and also was the origin of the other arms shipments.
Opposition forces in contrast received only minor support — largely small arms and logistical help — from Sudan, South Sudan’s northern neighbor, putting them at a severe disadvantage.
The United Nations’ current peacekeeping mission, which has 4,000 uniformed personnel at its disposal and is in theory mandated to use force if necessary to protect civilian lives, has been shown to be ineffective during recent events.
U.N. representatives have cited obstruction by the South Sudanese government as one of the reasons. Another is probably the current troop providing countries’ unwillingness to risk the lives of their soldiers in a direct confrontation with South Sudanese troops.
The United Nations currently has two options on the table to react to the government’s apparent unwillingness to play a constructive part in South Sudan’s peace process, which can be deployed individually or together. It can put more sanctions on South Sudan, including an arms embargo. And it can deploy a stronger peacekeeping force.
The current plan under discussions calls for a 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force under the current mission’s mandate but with a more aggressive approach toward protecting civilians and the peace process.
The template for such a mission would be the Force Intervention Brigade of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Like the prospective RPF, the FIB is made up of African troops and has been quite aggressive in its approach to armed groups, although with decidedly mixed results.
On the sanctions side, the necessary framework is already in place. In the diplomatic version of a shot across the bow, travel bans and asset freezes were put on six generals — three from each side — in March 2015.
Until recently Russia and China, both veto members of the Security Council, expressed concern with more substantial sanctions like an arms embargo, fearing correctly that this would help the rebels in comparison with the government.
The Security Council consequently signaled that an arms embargo was off the table, as long as the South Sudanese government would cooperate on the RPF, which it promised to do during a meeting on Sept. 4, 2016 in Juba.
But a government spokesperson now walked back this agreement, arguing that his government only “consented” to the deployment, but hasn’t “accepted” it, the distinction being that it reserves the right object to the number of troops deployed, the equipment they bring with them and the details of the operation.
This change of heart has put the question of a complete arms embargo back on the table. But neither an embargo, nor the deployment of the RPF are likely to alter the dynamic of the conflict fundamentally.
While an arms embargo would shift the balance of power slightly in favor of the rebel forces, neither side relies on a continued flow of weapons to sustain its capability to wage a low-level conflict. Access to heavy arms, as well as helicopters and jets have made it easier for the government to deny the opposition operational successes, but given South Sudan’s rough terrain, nonexistent infrastructure and the ethnic nature of the conflict, a military victory is unrealistic in any case.
Add to this the country’s long borders in one of the world’s prime regions for black market arms deals and it becomes clear that an embargo alone won’t go very far, although as the U.N. report points out, it wouldn’t hurt, either.
The RPF in turn, even if the government agrees to its deployment, won’t be operational before well into the next year. With a planned size of 4,000 soldiers, it won’t be able to control much more than Juba and its environs, in the worst case freeing government forces to conduct offensives elsewhere.
And given experiences in Congo, Darfur and Central African Republic, nobody should bet on more peacekeepers translating directly to less violence against civilians, especially given a government determined to keep the conflict going.
So why are Kiir and his inner circle so determined to stay in power, despite the immense cost to civilian lives and South Sudan’s economic prosperity? An interesting perspective on part of the answer was provided by an investigation of The Sentry, an advocacy organization backed by George Clooney.
In a new report, The Sentry accuses Kiir, his immediate family and several of his government’s highest ranking members of embezzling millions of dollars from South Sudan’s oil exports. The government has answered the accusations by threatening to take The Sentry to court in the United States and obtaining the names of the organization’s anonymous informants through court filings, presumably to punish them.
Both arms embargoes and a stronger international presence in South Sudan can certainly be part of the ultimate solution to the country’s conflict. But as long as the country’s political and military leaders on all sides are subject to such perverse incentives as detailed by The Sentinel’s investigation, violence will persist.