As conflict rages on in South Sudan, the position of the international community has become increasingly uncomfortable. On 6 March, the mediating body leading peace negotiations, the International Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), announced the decision to adjourn and postpone peace talks indefinitely. In a devastating blow, even if unsurprising, talks came to yet another standstill when leaders President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar were unable to strike a compromise on issues of power sharing and the organisation of security forces. Despite the extensive amount of international involvement in the Sudanese peace process, regional and global actors have – long before the country gained its newfound independence – repeatedly failed to pressure the warring parties to agree.
After decades of deadly armed struggle, South Sudan’s independence in 2011 was initially celebrated as a major success for South Sudanese people and international peacekeeping alike. However, many of these hopes have been dashed since December 2013, when the world’s youngest country became re-embroiled in a civil war. The conflict broke out when President Kiir accused his former Vice President Riek Machar of staging a coup, dividing security forces along ethnic lines.
Both leaders are responsible for major human rights violations and inciting widespread violence, including reports of ethnic cleansing, pitting the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups against each other, and the widespread recruitment of child soldiers. After nearly fifteen months of conflict and seven failed cease-fires, the warring parties have continued to call the international community’s bluff, ducking pressures to establish a power sharing agreement that would end the conflict.
Ultimately, the mechanisms of accountability that could hold government and rebel forces to their word have broken down to reveal stark holes in our international humanitarian frameworks. Recently, the most robust international effort to exert pressure on the parties was the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) resolution to impose sanctions on individuals who are obstructing the peace process, though it was notably absent of any restriction on arms. This decision came after a report from UNICEF last month revealed a surge in the rate of children abducted to be used as soldiers, with a recent instance of over 89 young boys who were taken in the conflict-ridden Upper Nile State.
Undeniably, this creates a difficult space for international actors. The United States, in particular, has served as key support for Mr Kiir’s administration and the South Sudanese cause more generally. However, it has become overwhelming clear that neither leader possesses a genuine desire for peace or to cease hostilities. With the dry season approaching, violence is expected to rise, especially in key oil-producing states like Upper Nile. The current situation in South Sudan has developed into a complex humanitarian crisis, with 1.5 million people currently internally displaced and another 500,000 refugees. In the context of political impasses and active civil war, South Sudan grounds many of the key ethical and political questions we ask in the study of International Relations in a stark reality. What is the responsibility of the international community in the face of intractable internal conflict? What tools at our disposal have the best chance of influencing a sustainable peace? Must this process come from the inside?
What is clear is that the power struggle between Mr Kiir and Mr Machar is allowing for the perpetuation of conflict and a swelling humanitarian crisis, at the great expense of the South Sudanese people. Considering that IGAD’s ‘last chance’ deadline of the fifth of March has now come and gone, some decisive international action is crucial. As global actors become increasingly frustrated, further sanctions will likely be the next step. While the UNSC’s latest resolution stopped short of naming specific individuals, experts say both Mr Machar and Mr Kiir could be included in the travel ban and asset freeze.
Representatives of South Sudan, including Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin, have been highly critical of the UNSC’s decision to impose sanctions, claiming they constitute punitive measures that could further derail the peace process. However, too many allowances have already been made. In response to the latest failed round of negotiations, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne of Ethiopia and IGAD chair, stated that the situation has become ‘unacceptable, both morally and politically’ and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed his ‘profound disappointment’.
Unfortunately, even if an agreement between Mr Kiir and Mr Machar is achieved, it is unlikely to produce the type of inclusive and transparent institutions necessary for real democratic change. Rather, as the head of the Sudd Institute Jok Madut Jok, noted: ‘The two men [Kiir and Machar] will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for.’ However, if South Sudan is going to move forward, it is hard to imagine the possibility of building a united and sustainable government that includes either of the two leaders.
From the perspective of global actors, beyond sanctions—which have a weak track record peace making—the alternatives available would involve major intervention in sovereign state affairs. As such, any hope of removing either leader from the peace table would likely mean continental or regional action. On 7 March, Reuters news agency leaked a draft report from the African Union Commission of Inquiry that recommends just such a solution. Withheld from from the public for two months for fear that it would disrupt the last round of negotiations, the report suggests that both Mr Machar and Mr Kiir should be, ‘barred from participation in the transitional executive’. It proposes a 5-year transitional plan, led by the UN and AU, and recommends all state oil-revenue should be moved into an account under the control of the African Union Development Bank. This option is extreme as well as incredibly unlikely if it requires either leader to voluntarily release their grip on power.
Ultimately it is unclear what the future of the young state holds. PM Desalegne’s stated that the peace process will need to be ‘reinvigorated’ and ‘reformed’, which offers some reason to hope that a change in strategy is coming. Whatever transpires politically, the conflict has produced a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. This will require vast material and human resources, as well as committed and competent leadership. If the South Sudanese are to be given a real chance to build peace, the international community will have to take a stronger ethical and political stand. Justice will have to be served, but just how this will be done remains a mystery.