Faced with a dire U.N. warning of a possible genocide in South Sudan, the United States was set this week to finally embrace an arms embargo against the world’s newest country to ratchet down the military might of its warring parties and, potentially, help spare the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire of worsening civil war.
But the effort, which Washington delayed for more than two years, may now be coming too late. The South Sudanese military, which built up its arsenal during three years of civil war, is poised to launch an offensive as the annual dry season — prime time for fighting — resumes in December. And U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, struggling to mount an international response to the killing, has been forced to shelve its planned sanctions after American diplomats realized they couldn’t muster the nine votes necessary for U.N. Security Council approval.
On Wednesday, Keith Harper, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, told diplomats in Geneva that South Sudan’s government has mobilized 4,000 troops to carry out attacks against towns in the country’s southern Equatoria provinces, where he said at least 1,901 homes have been destroyed in fighting over the last two months.
“We have credible information that the South Sudanese government is currently targeting civilians in Central Equatoria and preparing for large-scale attacks in the coming days or weeks,” Harper said.
An arms embargo, even if delayed, could still reduce the scale of military fighting over time, said Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO). “I wish the United States could have done this right away when the violence started in 2013,” he told Foreign Policy in a Skype interview from Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
“The possibility of genocide is high,” Yakani said.
But in New York, officials said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has put off new plans to call for a Security Council vote for the arms embargo. The American-drafted resolution, shelved Tuesday, also would have imposed targeted sanctions against top South Sudanese officials, according to Security Council diplomats.
The U.S. strategy for South Sudan in the 15-nation council is at risk of unraveling. It faces resistance not only from traditional rivals, including China, Russia, and Venezuela, and from the African states of Angola, Egypt, and Senegal. But it is also opposed by close American allies, including Japan, which is reluctant to confront South Sudan while hundreds of its own peacekeepers are there. Malaysia has also expressed reservations over the text.
A separate U.S.-backed push by the United Nations to send more than 4,000 additional U.N. peacekeeping reinforcements to South Sudan, primarily based in Juba, has been fiercely resisted by the country’s officials, fueling pessimism over the prospects of them ever deploying. A key potential contributor, Kenya, has meanwhile pulled out of the U.N. operation. Nairobi is protesting a recent decision by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to fire the mission’s Kenyan force commander for failing to protect civilians during a bout of fighting violence in Juba last summer that effectively marked the de facto death of the country’s peace process.
“The Security Council has lost its way on South Sudan,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping with the European Council on Foreign Relations. The combined effort of American diplomats and their Security Council partners, he said, “feels more like symbolic diplomacy than anything real.”
Gowan noted that the council’s focus on pouring reinforcements into Juba, which has calmed since the summer, may be misdirected. “It’s no longer a question of securing Juba,” he said. “An increased presence of U.N. peacekeepers in Juba is not going to affect the spreading chaos. The violence has already moved out to other regions.”
The United States remains committed to seeking the passage of an arms embargo. But this week’s setback provided a painful illustration of the waning influence of the Obama administration in its final weeks in power. It also reflected what some council diplomats view as a halting American diplomatic strategy that was marred by a failure to invest sufficient time in convincing wavering council members to support the measure.
The U.S. mission to the United Nations did not immediately provide comment for this story Wednesday.
“I think they have completely bungled it,” said one observer who closely tracks the negotiations but would speak only on condition of anonymity. “They should have done the legwork and reached out to these countries before telling them they planned to table [the resolution].”
A Security Council diplomat said the United States had made other tactical errors, piling on a raft of targeted sanctions against senior South Sudanese government officials that made it harder for countries, particular those with troops on the ground, to accept the arms embargo. The diplomat said the United States sat on a far better chance to push for the embargo last summer, when South Sudan’s government was facing international condemnation for its attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and international aid workers.
“They kind of missed an opportunity,” said the diplomat, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “I think they may be paying a price for their hesitation.”
The United States held out the threat of an arms embargo for more than two years, but Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, has been reluctant to pull the trigger, arguing internally that it could undermine a democratically elected government’s ability to defend itself against an insurgency that has also committed massive human rights abuses. Rice has also voiced concern that an embargo would be ineffective because South Sudan’s neighbors, including its military ally Uganda, would not enforce it even if one were imposed.
But Rice and other senior U.S. officials have since given their blessing to a U.S. push for an arms embargo, reflecting mounting concern that South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has largely abandoned the peace process and plans to resolve the country’s political standoff through a return to war.
South Sudan descended into civil war in December 2013, when forces loyal to Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, opened fire on followers of his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. The violence inside Juba targeted Nuer civilians for slaughter, prompting Machar to organize armed resistance to Kiir’s rule. That launched a civil war that evolved from a political struggle for power into an ethnic conflict that pits the majority Dinka against the country’s other tribes.
“The warning signs are there,” Adama Dieng, the U.N. chief’s special advisor for the prevention of genocide, told the Security Council on Nov. 17, following a visit to South Sudan. “Throughout my visit, conversations with all actors confirmed that what began as a political conflict has transformed into what could become an outright ethnic war.”
“Action can and must be taken now to address some of the factors that could provide fertile ground for genocide,” Dieng added.
A shaky U.S.-backed power-sharing arrangement between Kiir and Machar collapsed in July, after a surge of fighting between their forces in Juba led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and Machar fleeing the country. The United States subsequently cut off Machar, effectively throwing Washington’s support behind a government that has increasingly ruled solely on behalf of Dinkas. Machar, meanwhile, has called on his armed followers to resume resistance to Kiir and has pledged to return to South Sudan.
Since July, violence has spread from Juba to greater Equatoria — where more than 200,000 people have fled a government offensive between July and October — and the Western Bahr el-Ghazal, Upper Nile, and Unity states. In Yei, armed forces linked to the government, and drawn primarily from the Dinka tribe, have reportedly carried out a brutal campaign of rapes, extrajudicial killings, abductions, torture, looting, and the burning of homes, according to a report published this month by a U.N. panel of experts. Members of South Sudan’s other tribes “see no viable forum to express political dissent, pursue reform or ensure their basic security,” the panel reported.
In Central Equatoria, which encompasses Juba, armed opposition groups have responded by carrying out reprisals against Dinkas. That has spurred threats by Kiir to lead the army’s military offensive across the region.
“[T]he war is increasingly characterized by the targeting of civilians on a tribal basis, given that it has evolved into what is widely perceived to be a zero-sum confrontation between the Dinka and non-Dinka tribes in many areas,” the U.N. panel concluded. The situation, the panel warned, holds the possibility for a “catastrophic escalation of violence.”
Alan Boswell, a researcher for the Small Arms Survey who recently returned from the border between South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said eyewitnesses fleeing Central Equatoria described Dinka paramilitary forces ravaging other ethnic communities where “the rebellion is making headway.”
“Ethnic cleansing has characterized this entire war,” Boswell told FP, relaying eyewitness descriptions of “villages looted and abandoned and civilians killed based on ethnicity.”
Yakani of CEPO told FP that warring parties have stockpiled enough weapons and firepower to spur “massive fighting that could lead to the commitment of atrocities.” In Yei and other trouble spots, fighting has barred communities from gaining access to their farms, and “the humanitarian situation is getting worse every day,” he said.
A breakdown in security, marked by a surge of armed robberies across the country, has increased in recent months, Yakani said. But the greatest fear among locals, he said, is of a “massive military confrontation.”
Yakani added: “The citizens are losing hope in the peace agreement.”
FP Africa editor Ty McCormick contributed to this report from Nairobi.
Photo credit: ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images