Updated Aug 16, 2018

Sanctions proving key to tempering South Sudan’s civil war

President of South Sudan Salva Kiir and South Sudan rebel leader Riek Machar sign a power-sharing deal on August 5, 2018, in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) threatened serious measures to end the brutal five-year civil war in South Sudan in May, and after continued peace agreement violations, imposed sanctions on July 13. Measures included an embargo to prevent the supply, sale and transfer of arms and related military support to the country. It also included a travel ban and asset freezes on select individuals.

Where it stands: Cautious optimism surrounds these efforts for peace. Recent progress has led to a permanent ceasefire and power-sharing agreements among parties to the conflict, including the two main rivals, President Salva Kiir’s government and Riek Machar’s rebel group.

Background: The armed conflict has led to grave human rights violations and mass atrocities against civilians. These include ethnic-based killings, abductions, rape and sexual violence as well as the destruction of villages, with at least 232 civilians killed and 120 women and girls raped in just one month this spring.

The goals of the sanctions are twofold: to stop the flow of weapons feeding the country’s violence, and to force the conflict leaders to follow a peaceful path in resolving their differences.

Some UNSC members, such as Ethiopia, felt the sanctions would risk the peace efforts on the ground and believed they weren’t aligned with the peace process mediator, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). There is also concern that re-instating Machar as vice president wouldn’t be enough to curb Kiir’s power, given the collapse of a similar power-sharing agreement between the two leaders in 2016.

Despite these concerns, the sanctions have started working. They at least put pressure on the conflicting parties to accept the IGAD mediators' proposed peace initiatives, which in addition to the permanent ceasefire agreement include amnesty for rebels, the deployment of regional forces to supervise the accord, and the establishment of a self-monitoring mechanism. The parties also agreed on outstanding governance issues.

What to watch: Agreement violations have become the norm, and could resume if the UNSC doesn't put enforcement mechanisms in place. All UN member countries — especially South Sudan’s neighbors — must also cooperate with the sanctions committee and panel of experts. Only then will South Sudan’s peace efforts be setup to succeed.

Meressa K. Dessu is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. Selam Tadesse is a researcher at ISS.

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