There Are No Quick Fixes in South Sudan

Displaced people seek refuge at the UN mission after fleeing violence between the South Sudan government and opposition. Juba, South Sudan, July 22, 2016. (Isaac Billy/UN Photo)

South Sudan’s capital Juba has in the past month witnessed the heaviest fighting since the country’s civil war began in December 2013. In a particularly violent period in July, scores were killed and at least 120 women raped, including just outside the United Nations base. The violence has rightly led to questions again being asked about the future of the peace process and international engagement with South Sudan.

Last Friday, the Security Council extended the UN’s peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and will issue a new mandate on August 12. The focus is now on the possible deployment of an African Union intervention force. Throughout these processes it is important to not lose sight of the different conflict dynamics in South Sudan, for which there are no quick fixes. The crisis will not be solved with a more strongly worded mandate, particularly as UNMISS has all along been operating under Chapter VII—permitting use of force—of the UN Charter.

When I visited South Sudan in June this year, most locals and members of international organizations I spoke with expected the violence between supporters of President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar to worsen. The hope was that the civilian population was so tired of fighting and the international community’s pressure real enough to coerce Kiir and Machar to commit to forming a functional transitional government.

While peaking recently, fighting has in fact persisted in many areas of South Sudan since the signing of the peace agreement in August 2015. This is reflected in fatality numbers recorded in conflict data sets and reporting by human rights observers, which are nonetheless only able to grasp a fraction of the atrocities committed. Those pushing for the most recent international peace process to succeed may have frequently neglected this reality for political reasons.

While the violence has subsided in those states that were previously most affected, new conflict hot spots have emerged in Western Bahr el Ghaza and the Equatorias region. These developments also signify that there is more than one conflict in South Sudan, despite the different dynamics being overshadowed and/or integrated into the violence between the two major political groups. Both sides have been accused of serious human rights violations—in all likelihood amounting to war crimes—as well as crimes against humanity.

With the renewed escalation of fighting in Juba, civilians fled to UNMISS, which has a mandate for protection of civilians (PoC). Before this violence, about 170,000 internally displaced people sought refuge at these sites, whose many challenges have been discussed on the Global Observatory, and also by me writing elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the ongoing mediation of the peace negotiations by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and IGAD-Plus—taking in representatives of the AU, the UN, China, United States, United Kingdom, and European Union—has faced significant obstacles owing to manifold breaches of the peace agreement by its signatories, including continued violence and Kiir’s unilateral decree on partitioning the country into 28 states, as well as the neglect of local dynamics by many involved in the process.

The return of Riek Machar—since replaced with General Taban Deng Gai by Kiir—was cited as “noticeable progress” for the peace agreement in the latest report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. This seemed to pay little attention to the security implications of assembling two opposing and highly traumatized armies just outside the capital, with one set to be stationed in close proximity of the POC site and the main UNMISS base.

This situation led to a de facto remilitarization of the imminent surroundings of Juba, putting internally displaced persons as well as UNMISS staff (including civilians) in the crossfire. It seems that political motivations trumped security concerns. In addition, the stark focus on the supposed personal struggle between Kiir and Machar seems to neglect actual power structures in Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the territorially fragmented leadership within Machar’s SPLA-in-Opposition and the conflict’s wider spectrum of armed actors. Many doubt it is wise to hold on to the peace agreement when the government representatives lack credibility and  its forces continue to target civilians, while the opposition’s leadership hardly represents the entire group anymore.

With the failure of the peace agreement struck in New York, an arms embargo may finally be possible, as the lowest common denominator on which the UN Security Council can agree. The UN’s Panel of Experts on South Sudan has noted that both sides have “continued to seek to arm their forces” and that “the continued influx of arms has had a devastating impact on civilians.” However, evidence-based research from the Small Arms Survey on the existing Darfur arms embargo shows that effective implementation remains unlikely. The UN embargo in South Sudan does not prevent weapons from reaching armed actors in Darfur and the lack of enforcement has led to a complete loss of its credibility.

Regardless, there are already significant arms on the ground, which means that an embargo could not have the immediate impact of alleviating security threats; nor could it address the pressing scarcity of food and medical aid. The issues in South Sudan are intrinsically linked to global arms trade dynamics and the inability to control where weapons—whether small or large—end up. In July 2015, for example, the Panel of Experts observed the presence of an Austrian-produced intelligence surveillance aircraft in Juba, providing enhanced capabilities to government forces.

Additional troops might help UNMISS better fulfill its protection mandate, but there will still be limitations on what a peacekeeping force can achieve in a vast militarized country where human life currently counts for so little. With UNMISS tasked with supporting the peace process, the decision of Germany, Sweden, and the UK to pull out police officers from the mission was devastating to the credibility of the international commitment and dispiriting to those UN staff and the people of South Sudan left behind.

With hostilities ongoing, the path was left clear for the AU to discuss a proposed intervention force into South Sudan at its recent summit in Kigali. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation have upheld the legality of the AU proposal in light of its Constitutive Act’s principle of “non-indifference” and the AU’s responsibility for the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission of South Sudan’s transitional government. Still, the fate of the intervention remains to be seen, particularly as Kiir has threatened to use force against it.

The renewed conflict is particularly humbling to international actors who may have contributed to sustaining a “violent kleptocracy” in South Sudan’s leadership. It calls for a serious rethinking of the mechanisms needed to ensure local justice, accountability for crimes committed, and an inclusive and legitimately South Sudanese peace process. While concerns over the safety of peacekeepers and civilians—including meeting the humanitarian needs of the latter—must be quickly addressed, achieving lasting peace in South Sudan will take time.

Hannah Dönges is a Doctoral Researcher and PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.