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The UN Is Fed Up With South Sudan's Leaders — and They Might Actually Do Something About It

The United Nations Security Council is inching closer to imposing sanctions on individuals in South Sudan and instituting an arms embargo.

by Samuel Oakford
Mar 26 2015, 2:00am

Photo by Jason Patinkin/AP

Fed up with the failure of South Sudanese leaders to broker an end to more than a year of bloody conflict, the United Nations Security Council is inching closer to imposing sanctions on individuals in the country and instituting an arms embargo.

On Monday, the Council released a US-drafted statement reiterating its "profound disappointment" with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, Kiir's former vice president. The two have yet to agree on a transitional government, despite promising to do so on February 1.

"In this context, the Security Council reiterates its willingness to impose sanctions against those who threaten the peace, security or stability of South Sudan," said François Delattre, France's UN ambassador. France holds the Council's presidency in March, and Delattre read the statement on its behalf.

Fighting in the world's youngest country broke out in December 2013 when troops loyal to Machar took up arms against government forces in Juba, the nation's capital. Battles soon engulfed large swaths of the country, often splitting it on ethnic lines. Machar, like many of his armed followers, is a Nuer. Kiir and most of his forces are members of the Dinka ethnic group.

According to the International Crisis Group, an NGO that monitors conflicts, more than 50,000 people have died in violence in South Sudan. Forces nominally under both Kiir and Machar have been implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Related: Rape and sexual violence are being used as a weapon in South Sudan, says UN 

In January 2014, the two sides reached an agreement in Addis Ababa to cease hostilities. That truce, like subsequent agreements brokered in the Ethiopian capital, have all been broken almost immediately.

The most recent round of talks, meant to build on the February framework, broke up on March 6 with no deal, angering regional leaders who have now spent more than a year in Addis Ababa.

South Sudanese government leaders have bristled at the idea of sanctions, which they claim would cripple the country's economy. UN Security Council members and observers say targeted measures would have no such effect, and may instead be a small step toward breaking the cycle of impunity that has beset the country for years.

'These guys haven't even been engaged, they don't even show up to meetings — it's sort of unbelievable.'

The United States was instrumental in bringing about independence for South Sudan in 2011 — Kiir often wears a Stetson hat gifted to him by former President George W. Bush — and the US diplomatic corps is now leading efforts on the Council related to the conflict.

"In a sense, it is paradoxical that a country that is caring so much about South Sudan is embarking on measures that can also be counterproductive to the purpose they want to promote," Francis Mading Deng, South Sudan's ambassador to the UN, told VICE News.

Deng said sanctions on midlevel officials would be an "exercise in futility," and to target those in positions of high authority would be tantamount to "endangering the peace process."

"They would be distracted, rather than bringing about peace," Deng said.

A similar logic — that sanctions would disrupt peace talks — has been employed to stall the release of an African Union commission of inquiry investigating conduct in the conflict. Critics say those talks show no signs of achieving anything, and, moreover, the South Sudanese shouldn't be used as hostages in a chess game between Machar and Kiir.

Related: The war in South Sudan could cost $158 billion over 20 years 

Deng's comments to VICE News echoed ones made by Kiir in a defiant speech last Friday, in which he said he would continue to take the fight to Machar and not give ground on a power sharing agreement.

"Let them hit on any wall and on whomever they want," he told a crowd in Juba, referring to proposed sanctions. "I can't be threatened by this issue."

American officials, once close to the government in Juba, are now at odds with South Sudan's leadership.

"I understand why individual leaders of South Sudan might be interested in trying to convince people that targeted sanctions impact the entire population, but, by design, they do not," a US official told VICE News on condition of anonymity.

"The travel bans and asset freezes for political spoilers and human rights abusers, which is what resolution 2206 envisions, would only impact those in South Sudan who perpetuate violence and refuse to make the compromise necessary for peace," the official said, referring to this month's resolution establishing a sanctions mechanism.

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and a longtime observer of Sudan and South Sudan, told VICE News that sanctions are necessary in order to send a message to leaders that have simply loitered about at peace talks.

"These guys haven't even been engaged, they don't even show up to meetings — it's sort of unbelievable," de Waal said.

But he added that both Kiir and Machar are accustomed to having their way. That, he said, is partly due to a US relationship with South Sudan that never set a tone for accountability, either before or after independence.

"Until very recently the US extended the South Sudanese a level of moral and political indulgence that was profoundly unhealthy and ethically troubling," de Waal said. "As a result they felt the rules didn't apply to them and they felt they could get away with murder."

Related: Slow response follows forced conscription of hundreds of child soldiers in South Sudan 

After the country achieved independence, billions of dollars in aid money flowed in with few strings attached. At one point, oil provided around 99 percent of Juba's annual budget. Observers, including de Wall, say an alarming portion of the oil money was either stolen outright or used to pay off intransigent elements in the country. Anecdotes abound of government ministers owning multiple luxury cars and expensive properties abroad.

The UN mission in South Sudan, UNMISS — which currently shelters some 112,000 displaced people — was also seen by critics as being too close to the government in Juba. Hilde Johnson, the UNMISS chief in charge at the outset of fighting in 2013, said last year that she was caught unaware by the bloodshed.

De Waal said the international community "failed to make the organic connection between running a state on the basis of kleptocracy and self-enrichment, and the crisis. It's as if these two issues aren't related."

Despite the past shortsightedness of the US and other council members, de Waal says they are right to threaten — and to impose — sanctions.

"The targeted sanctions that are in prospect, including an arms embargo, absolutely should be there," he said.

Deng, the UN ambassador, said he respects the intentions of the US, even if he thinks they lead to the wrong measures.

"When they talk tough or want to impose tough measures, it's not out of hostility," he said. "It may appear that way, but it is out of their belief that they want to help the people."

De Waal, who knows Deng personally from the South Sudanese ambassador's previous decades of work for the UN, says it pains him to see his friend toeing the party line.

"Francis Deng is a good man among thieves," de Waal said, "and I think it is unfortunate that he's ending a very honorable career defending the indefensible."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford