Since war broke out two years ago, South Sudan’s government and rebel leaders have made a mockery of international efforts to broker peace, missed crucial deadlines to set up a transitional government and are directly responsible ongoing shocking violence against civilians.
Now, it’s time for one of the few options left for the international community to push for peace in South Sudan: an arms embargo.
United to End Genocide and other human rights groups have long been calling for an arms embargo as an important measure to help stop the flow of weapons fueling the abuses in South Sudan. But the call has gained new impetus with the final report by the United Nations Panel of Experts outlining ongoing abuses traced directly to the top of government and rebel ranks and strongly recommending that the UN Security Council take action to finally implement an arms embargo.
“There is clear and convincing evidence that most of the acts of violence committed during the war, including the targeting of civilians … have been directed by or undertaken with the knowledge of senior individuals at the highest levels of the government and within the opposition.”
-UN Panel of Experts
The experts report traces the lines of command and flow of arms to ongoing egregious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, mass rapes, and forced disappearances. Fighting and abuses have in turn worsened the humanitarian situation through blocked access, destruction of crops, and raiding of cattle.
The report details how weapons from Ukraine, Uganda, and Sudan have enabled new attacks and complicated the quest for peace. Ukraine, currently a member of the UN Security Council is perhaps the worst offender, providing the government of South Sudan with at least three attack helicopters at a price of $43 million.
The experts report says these helicopters “have facilitated the expansion of the war and have emboldened those in the government who are seeking a military solution to the conflict at the expense of the peace process.”
The latest actions by the government and rebels only provide further reason for an arms embargo. Most glaringly, the deadline for setting up a transitional government, as agreed by both sides in an August 2015 peace agreement, passed on January 22.
This was far from the first deadline missed in international efforts to broker peace in South Sudan, but it was perhaps the most promising since the outbreak of fighting in 2013. It adds to an ongoing string of ceasefire violations on both sides and the failure to make any progress in setting up an agreed-upon hybrid court, crucial for ensuring accountability.
The consequences of inaction are already astounding. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, 3.9 million face severe food shortages, including nearly 700,000 children under the age of five who face acute or severe malnutrition.
The international community, led by the United Nations, the African Union, China, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and a group of South Sudan’s neighbors, has done much to push toward peace, from supplying millions of dollars in humanitarian aid and providing peacekeepers to using a mix of diplomatic and economic pressures to broker the August 2015 peace agreement.
But, to date, an arms embargo has not been part of the efforts. With the latest missed deadline and the report of the group of experts threatening to unravel all these international efforts, an arms embargo cannot wait any longer.
An arms embargo is not the only step that needs to be taken to end the fighting and heal the scars suffered by the people of South Sudan over the past two years. President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar should face targeted sanctions as urged by the Panel of Experts. A hybrid court must be set up to ensure those responsible for grave abuses are held accountable. And aid must be allowed to reach those in greatest need.
But taking away the weapons that are fueling the fire of war is a first step in putting out the flames. A UN Security Council arms embargo on South Sudan is long overdue and, unfortunately, needed more than ever.