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Time for sanctions against South Sudan
7 February 2018

The African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations (UN) all seem to agree that it is time for the belligerents in South Sudan to be punished. During a consultative meeting on 27 January 2018 on the sidelines of the 30th AU Summit these three crucial organisations said in a statement that the ‘time has come for sanctions on the spoilers of peace in South Sudan’. Yet it remains to be seen whether such measures will materialise, given the history of internal divisions over sanctions throughout the five-year-long war in Africa’s newest state.

A six-month report of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) to the AU Assembly in Addis Ababa last month noted that about 2 million people were internally displaced while 2 million others were refugees in neighbouring countries owing to the ongoing fighting in South Sudan.

And there is no sign of the conflict’s letting up. Since war broke out in December 2013, South Sudan’s warring parties have violated at least five major ceasefire deals, signed in January 2014, May 2014, February 2015, August 2015 and, most recently, December 2017.

Since war broke out in December 2013, South Sudan’s warring parties have violated five major ceasefire deals
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The question now is whether the international community is ready to follow through on its threats and actually impose the necessary sanctions needed to enforce peace in South Sudan.

New peace talks with warring factions

As the second round of talks to revive the stalled peace agreement of August 2015 gets underway from 5 to 16 February 2018, both the South Sudanese and the international community are hoping for lasting solutions. The first round of these talks, from 18 to 20 December 2017, might have been a first step, but it did not translate into any real commitment on the part of the warring factions. A few hours after representatives of the ruling party and opposition groups signed the ceasefire deal on 21 December, there were already reports of violations.

There is no guarantee that the new round of talks will be any more effective. The strong and divergent opinions among the warring parties over the governance structure and representation during the ongoing peace talks raise fears that the signatories could again disregard any agreement that might follow these talks.

There is no guarantee that the new round of talks will be any more effective
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The talks currently taking place are aimed at reviving the comprehensive peace deal of August 2015, which the PSC regards as ‘the only viable option towards addressing the current political, social, economic and security challenges facing South Sudan and [achieving] sustainable peace’.

The deal stalled following the outbreak of violence in July 2016 between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar’s factions – barely three months after the two rivals had formed a transitional government, in April 2016, as required by the agreement. Machar went into exile in South Africa but his troops remain the major opposition force in the region. Machar’s exile created a leadership vacuum, leading to the proliferation of different armed groups; thereby increasing the number of factional leaders.

The call for enforcement measures

The recent calls for sanctions are in line with the decision of the PSC meeting on 20 September 2017 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. The PSC urged the AU Commission to ‘urgently elaborate possible measures and submit them to Council by December 2017 against all those who continue to obstruct efforts towards the restoration of peace and security in South Sudan’. This was not done.

AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres have made several statements on the need for sanctions following the recent violations. IGAD also released a strongly worded communiqué on 27 January 2018 on its readiness to ‘take all necessary measures, including targeted sanctions against individual violators and spoilers’.

However, there is scepticism over whether the AU, IGAD and the UN will actually impose sanctions in South Sudan, given the longstanding divisions within these organisations over the sanctions issue.

There is scepticism over whether the AU, IGAD and the UN will actually impose sanctions
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Criticism of the IGAD-led mediation

Certain South Sudanese stakeholders and observers consider the IGAD mediation a failure, but for different reasons. The ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) representatives say IGAD’s mediation failed because it tried to include too many actors. They complain that, as a single unit, they now have to negotiate with a vast number of opposition groups. Yet inclusivity in the peace process remains crucial in order to reach a binding and durable peace in the region.

Inclusivity in the peace process remains crucial in order to reach a durable peace in the region
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Some opposition groups and analysts contend that the IGAD mediation is influenced by neighbouring states’ ties to Kiir. The view that Uganda supports Kiir’s government is not new. Some observers also implicate Sudan and Kenya in providing safe havens to opposition fighters. These contradictions have an impact on IGAD’s readiness to actually impose sanctions on South Sudan.

Such concerns have prompted Guterres to warn neighbouring states against taking sides in the South Sudanese conflict. Speaking during the AU, IGAD and UN consultative meeting on South Sudan, Guterres said: ‘I see IGAD’s role is first of all to make sure that any contradictions that might exist among the neighbours of South Sudan is not translated into an influence in the internal situation of South Sudan. This is true at the level of IGAD and it is also true at the level of other neighbours that are outside IGAD.’

Adama Dieng, the UN secretary general’s special adviser for the prevention of genocide, also decried the fact that large amounts of weapons and ammunition are flowing into South Sudan through Uganda and Kenya. Yet these countries are members of IGAD, the mediators in the South Sudanese crisis.

That said, Uganda has been making an effort to re-unite the SPLM factions, with the support of Egypt. This led to the signing of two roadmaps for re-unification last year – on 16 November in Cairo and 15 December in Entebbe – in line with the Arusha Agreement of January 2015. However, prospects for the successful implementation of these roadmaps are uncertain.

Can the AU do better?

Some analysts have called on the AU to take on a greater leadership role in the peace process. However, the role of the AU is limited. In line with the principle of subsidiarity in the African peace and security architecture, the AU often leaves regional economic communities (RECs) to handle situations in their regions. Indeed, the AU cannot impose effective sanctions on South Sudan without the cooperation of South Sudan’s neighbours, thereby placing the responsibility on IGAD members to impose or support sanctions.

The AU cannot impose effective sanctions without the cooperation of South Sudan’s neighbours
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In light of the regional reluctance to follow through on sanction threats in crisis situations, as has been the case in Burundi, it seems unlikely that IGAD will take the lead. The AU’s imposition of sanctions has so far been restricted to cases where unconstitutional changes of government have occurred. Sanctions are seldom used to try to solve internal battles in individual member states. 

What about the UN?

The UN, despite having deployed the UN Mission in South Sudan, relies on the leadership of IGAD and the AU to mediate in the crisis. This is based on the belief that regional organisations are better suited to address contextual issues in neighbouring countries, and have more knowledge of the situation.

Guterres, during the consultative meeting on 27 January, insisted that ‘the implementation of the very important achievements that were reached … might require tougher measures and I don’t think those tougher measures can be originated outside in the context of the United Nations or the Security Council. I think they need to be originated in the region and I think that the leadership of IGAD is absolutely essential together with the African Union.’

The UN had imposed travel bans and asset freezes, but those targeted are not influential enough
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The UN had imposed travel bans and asset freezes on some South Sudan commanders, but those targeted are not influential enough to end the fighting. In addition, neighbouring states have not enforced these sanctions.

Moreover, some permanent members of the UN Security Council, such as China and Russia, have interests in the region’s oil and have in the past blocked sanctions that jeopardise their relationships and investments on the ground.

While the EU has imposed sanctions and an arms embargo against South Sudan, and the US recently also imposed an arms embargo on the country, these are ineffective without the backing of South Sudan’s neighbours and other international stakeholders.

Indeed, South Sudanese actors are aware of the weaknesses of international mediators and manipulate these limitations to continue their armed conflict.

Hence, to ensure the enforcement of future peace deals in South Sudan, IGAD, the AU and the UN will have to stand firm and make sure there are consequences for non-compliance. This requires setting clear benchmarks with indications of which violations would be punishable by targeted sanctions and/or peace-enforcement measures.

The enforcement measures should include issuing arrest warrants for ceasefire violators, as well as empowering the regional protection force and UN peacekeepers to be more proactive in civilian protection. IGAD and the AU have to be at the forefront of enforcing asset freezes and travel bans on spoilers of peace. The sanctions should be implemented incrementally to the top leadership of warring factions. IGAD and the AU should also lobby for a UN arms embargo on South Sudan that is implemented by all stakeholders. 

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