The double-edged sword of sanctions

On 3 March 2015, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously adopted Resolution 2206 on South Sudan. Among other things, the resolution seeks to impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for undermining the South Sudanese peace efforts.

The resolution, which was drafted by the United States (US), expresses deep concern at the failures of the warring parties to ‘engage in a palpable peace process’.

It also proposes punitive measures such as travel bans and asset freezes against individuals and entities (government and rebel groups) that are responsible for threatening the peace, security or stability of the new nation.

The resolution also reserves the option of an arms embargo against the warring parties. The question, however, is whether targeted sanctions can create compliance and the desired outcomes for South Sudan. At a basic level, can such sanctions be supported and enforced by South Sudan’s neighbours given both their shared and competing interests?

The interests of neighbouring countries might shape or undermine the process

In her explanation to the Council, the US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power, argued that a sanctions regime against South Sudan was aimed at enhancing the leverage of the Intergovernmental Authority of Development (IGAD) in mediating a compromise. She added that this would ensure that parties know ‘that they will be held to account if they fail to compromise to reach agreement, but also that they would be held accountable … if they do again … fail to implement that to which they have signed’.

In response to the UNSC, South Sudan’s Ambassador to the UN, Francis Deng, criticised the move, calling it ‘counter productive’ and maintaining that the president and government of South Sudan needed encouragement, not condemnation. The 5 March deadline for a new peace deal having elapsed (although IGAD is mulling over the possibility of a new peace process), it looks increasingly probable that targeted sanctions would be imposed.

Enforcing these, however, could be a double-edged sword. Sanctions can be a strategically and symbolically important way to exert leverage. Implementing measures such as asset freezes and travel bans, however, calls for joint effort and active involvement from South Sudan’s neighbours, since most of the country’s elite have personal interests – including homes – in the region.

Ethiopia has modest economic interests in South Sudan compared to Uganda and Kenya

The interests of the respective neighbouring countries might therefore shape or undermine the enforcement process. IGAD member Uganda intervened in support of the government of President Salva Kiir because of its economic interests: South Sudan is Uganda’s biggest trading partner, with the latter exporting food, coffee, vehicles and labour worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually to South Sudan. Another neighbour, Kenya, also shares concerns over its own lucrative trade with Juba in areas such as banking, insurance, aviation, construction and hospitality.

Khartoum, on the other hand, depends on South Sudan for the oil transit and refining fee to prop up its economy. Ethiopia, a key player in the mediation process, has modest economic interests in South Sudan compared to Uganda and Kenya, but is, importantly, concerned with security and strategic interests – among these the western border region of Gambella, whose population shares the same Nuer ethnicity that supports the rebel leader Riek Machar.

A significant number of citizens from all of these neighbouring countries are employed in South Sudan, and attempts to impose sanctions might threaten these countries’ interests if South Sudan were to assume reprisal measures.

Sanctions will only work if they are complemented by other diplomatic instruments

Sanctions may also further complicate efforts to end the 15-month conflict, especially if government officials use these as a pretext to stir up nationalistic feelings and blame foreign powers for the country’s woes (as has been the case in Zimbabwe). Indeed, sanctions of whatever form are likely to have unintended consequences, especially when those affected hold senior government positions.

If those targeted by sanctions feel threatened, they could increase the diversion of state resources and strengthen repression measures. While some argue that sanctions imposed on South Sudan would harm only the targeted politicians and military men, others believe that those targeted would continue to benefit illicitly from the country’s petrodollars by using third parties and other means. As such, sanctions might not necessarily induce compliance.

As South Sudan continues to witness intermittent armed violence between the two conflicting groups, the usefulness of targeted sanctions as a tool to promote compromise among South Sudanese warring parties remains contentious. It would be very difficult to stop the flow of arms into South Sudan given the region’s porous borders, let alone that the country is already awash with such weapons. A common understanding is needed between the UNSC and South Sudan’s neighbours on modalities of enforcing the targeted sanctions, while minimising negative consequences.

The key seems to ensure regional corporation. Moreover, targeted sanctions will most likely work if they are complemented by a range of other diplomatic instruments, such as foreign assistance incentives or the possibility of the accused being taken to a legal tribunal or the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Emmanuel Kisiangani, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Nairobi

For more in depth analysis on South Sudan, download the East Africa Report 'Reviewing options for peace in South Sudan' by Emmanuel Kisiangani