At a schoolyard in the middle of a South Sudan displacement camp hemmed in by barbed wire, a 29-year-old teacher named Simon Kai sat idly, with no students to teach.
It was July, and a new wave of violence in the capital, Juba, had just driven thousands more people into this already overcrowded site. The newcomers poured into classrooms, shutting down the school for days.
Kai remembered being a recent arrival himself, thinking he wouldn’t stay for long.
But that was almost three years ago. “We are abandoned here,” he told me, flinging his arms outward in a gesture both angry and resigned.
His plight is a reminder that just because a war ends on paper, doesn’t mean the losing side stops losing.
For many South Sudanese, peace has been punitive. Millions have been displaced by a civil war that began in 2013, two years after the country achieved independence. Juba today is under the control of a corrupt administration and a brutal military. Clashes between armed factions outside the capital are ongoing.
The United States is in a unique position to help cauterize the bleeding in the world’s youngest nation. As a key backer of independence from Sudan in 2011, Washington has a special attachment — and, many would argue, special obligation — to South Sudan. The UN Security Council will discuss an arms embargo next week, which could go a long way toward creating stability.
While American diplomats have used the threat of an embargo as a negotiating tactic for years, it has never been realized for a variety of reasons. These include the difficulties of pushing the measure through a divided Security Council and doubts about how effectively it could be enforced on the ground.
But in a situation as desperate as South Sudan’s, an arms embargo is long overdue. Even if implemented imperfectly, it is certain to save lives by impeding the flow of lethal weapons to a government that has never committed itself to peace in any meaningful way.
Since South Sudan’s civil war kicked off in December 2013, troops loyal to President Salva Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, have battled supporters of the former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer. A 2015 peace deal brokered by the international community brought Machar back to Juba to form a transitional government in April. That fell apart when fighting resumed in July.
Leaders on both sides of the conflict have committed horrific abuses against civilians, and tens of thousands have died. President Kiir’s forces in particular have benefited from heavy weapons, including attack helicopters and amphibious tanks, imported legally during the war from countries including China, Ukraine, and Canada.
All this with near-total impunity.
UN peacekeeping troops charged with protecting civilians have fled under fire. The United States, meanwhile, has tread too carefully in its public statements, calling on both sides to lay down their arms in accordance with the 2015 agreement. Such statements seem to imply that the agreement is still viable, that both sides bear equal responsibility for the recent carnage, and that South Sudan’s leaders have any right to call themselves a government.
But internal UN communications paint a different picture — one that reflects the reality on the ground. South Sudan has no government to speak of. It is led by a coterie of war veterans who have enriched themselves at the expense of the people and used ethnic rivalries to mobilize fighters.
A recent report to the Security Council from a UN Panel of Experts concluded that the July fighting was “directed by the highest levels of the [ruling party] command structure” under President Kiir, in a blatant contravention of the 2015 peace deal.
It added that “South Sudan’s economy has effectively collapsed as a direct result of government policies,” and that “the vast majority of government revenue . . . has funded security expenses and the war effort, including the procurement of weapons, rather than social services.”
Like Kai, almost all of the approximately 30,000 people living at the United Nations-run camps in Juba are of the Nuer ethnic group. And although about 12,000 UN peacekeeping troops are charged with protecting South Sudan’s displaced civilians, assailants still fired into Kai’s camp in July, killing people inside.
Similar security breaches have been reported in displacement camps all across the country, leading Kai to conclude that there is no safe space for him in South Sudan. “There is nothing that will change this situation,” he said.
It will up to the UN to prove him wrong. In August, the Security Council decided it would send an additional 4,000 peacekeepers to Juba, with a stronger mandate than the force already on the ground, stipulating that an arms embargo will be enforced if South Sudan’s government obstructs its deployment.
Kiir’s administration has already worked to neuter the force by demanding a high degree of oversight. In confidential letters to the Security Council since July, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has detailed several instances when UN staffers and troops already on the ground have been threatened with violence, and even physically assaulted, by soldiers. He has pointed to a troubling decline in humanitarian access. And in a letter this week, he said the government has proposed “significant limitations to the scope of the tasks” of the force — limitations that “clearly contravene the intention of the resolution.” No timeline has been set for the new force’s deployment.
Clearly, the obstruction of extra peacekeepers has already begun, which means the conditions for imposing an arms embargo have been met. All that’s needed is the political will.
And since South Sudan’s leaders show no intention of respecting a power-sharing agreement, members of the international community should turn to South Sudanese civilians — whose role in the 2015 peace talks seemed more ceremonial than integral — to chart a new way forward. Because despite years of conflict, South Sudan has no shortage of brilliant and dedicated people. There are civil servants who work for months without pay, small business owners who use meager incomes to support extended families, journalists who keep working under the threat of death, and technocrats who have concrete plans for how to develop their young country.
That South Sudan’s leaders do nothing to support this talent — and, in fact, do exactly the opposite — is a tragedy and a colossal waste. So for the international community, an arms embargo against an abusive government is an obvious first step. It should not be the last.
Jacey Fortin is the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow for 2016/17.