Faced with a problem like South Sudan, which from the outside seems an intractable morass of personal rivalries, ethnic and religious divisions, and senseless brutality, it is tempting to put your hands in the air and say: ‘There is nothing we can do.’
Often, that's exactly the reaction of people unaffected by the conflict, which perhaps explains why South Sudan – now entering its fourth year of civil war in only its fifth year as an independent nation – receives little international media attention.
The Panel of Experts tasked by the United Nations to examine the existing sanctions regime in South Sudan did not have the luxury of ignoring what's happening in the country.
Their mandate was to take stock of developments in South Sudan in line with the provisions of UN Security Council resolution 2206, which provides for the use of targeted sanctions to change the course of the war. It's a tough job, made harder by the limited nature of the tools at their disposal.
The panel doesn't have tanks. It doesn't have guns. It doesn't even have much in the way of diplomatic clout. All they've got, really, are sanctions – and even then, the panel can only make recommendations. It is the responsibility of the Security Council to actually impose sanctions.
Sanctions are a favourite tool of the international community, but are controversial. Sanctions imposed on entire countries often end up hurting the poorest and most vulnerable, while targeted sanctions against individuals or organisations are notoriously hard to enforce, and of dubious deterrent value. All too often, sanctions are written off as a soft and ineffective response – a means by which the international community can be seen to be taking action, without taking action at all.
But that doesn't mean that sanctions should be written off entirely. In the right context, and with the right implementation, sanctions may contribute towards positive change. South Sudan may just be the right context.
‘Targeted sanctions remain one of the important tools available to the UN Security Council, and when used properly, they have been effective, especially when they take a preventative aim (travel bans, arms embargoes, freezing of assets),’ says Anton du Plessis, Executive Director of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
‘But proper implementation and monitoring is key, and not just for the first few months. The same goes for proper intelligence and understanding of the implications. In complex situations like South Sudan, broad-based (non-targeted) sanctions often cause more harm than good’.
After careful consideration, the panel determined that the most useful application of sanctions in South Sudan was not necessarily to target every individual guilty of war crimes or human rights violations. Instead, it found that sanctions would be best used to target those that make decisions – the individuals who have the power to alter the course of the war. This strategy is designed to reinforce the peace process rather than promote accountability.
‘The Panel recommends ... that, to achieve the Security Council’s stated objectives in resolution 2206 (2015), namely an inclusive and sustainable peace in South Sudan, the [Security Council Sanctions] Committee designate high-level decision makers responsible for the actions and policies that threaten the peace, security and stability of the country, as defined in paragraphs 6 and 7 of the resolution, including those who are responsible for serious crimes under international humanitarian and international human rights law and who have the power and influence either to perpetuate or end the war,’ said the panel in its final report.
This approach has worked before. ‘In Cote d'Ivoire as in Liberia, targeted sanctions acted as a deterrent to further involvement of warlords in violence. They shaped their attitudes and in some instances made them play a very positive and constructive role in the peace building process,’ said a senior official with experience on similar UN panels, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The South Sudan panel's recommendation, should it be implemented, will mark a change of direction for the Security Council. In a resolution in June, the Security Council designated six lower-level generals and leaders who were directly responsible for serious crimes. An assets freeze and travel ban was issued against these individuals, but these sanctions had little impact. For one thing, not many of these lower-level actors travelled regularly or kept money overseas. For another, none were powerful enough to significantly alter the outcome of the war.
The same is not true for the individuals named by the panel in its final report. Although the full list is confidential, it is known that the two most prominent individuals implicated are South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, and leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in Opposition Riek Machar. ‘The Panel has determined, on the basis of a preponderance of evidence, that both Kiir and Machar maintain command responsibility for their respective forces,’ it said in the final report.
Both leaders are thought to have extensive wealth held in overseas bank accounts, and both travel regularly – Kiir for his poor health, and Machar to plead his side's case to the international community (Machar actually lives in Addis Ababa, Africa's diplomatic hub). In other words, both have a lot to lose if targeted sanctions are imposed (and implemented) against them.
Of course, targeted sanctions won't end the war in South Sudan – not by themselves, anyway. But they can play an important role in pressuring decision makers, and as such remain a vital tool in the international community's response to the crisis.
Simon Allison, ISS Consultant