South Sudan stands on the brink of collapse. The economy is in shambles, with an inflation rate of over 600 percent. Parts of the country are already facing famine conditions, and more than 40 percent of the population needs emergency food aid. More than one million people have fled as refugees, and almost two million are displaced internally. And the credibility of South Sudan’s leaders has been severely compromised by failure to implement the peace accord signed last August, continued abuse of their own civilians, and well-documented allegations of corruption.
The peace agreement, if not dead, is certainly on life support, which the outbreak of violence in July and the flaring up of violence across the country affirm. Neither President Salva Kiir nor former Vice President Riek Machar were enthusiastic about it to begin with, and leaders felt no real consequence for walking away.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, is on the fast track to becoming a failed state.
The international community has taken on basic government responsibilities, providing lifesaving aid to a significant portion of the population, while the government in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, procures arms, and kleptocrats skim off the top of what little revenue is still being collected from oil sales. One might think that under these circumstances, the government would facilitate efforts to help the South Sudanese people. That is far from the truth. Ironically, the government has thrown up obstacles to aid delivery at every turn, imposing a burdensome permit process for the movement of commodities and onerous registration fees and taxes for nongovernmental organizations, and looting food warehouses.
The horrific attack on the Terrain compound in Juba in July, where aid workers, including Americans, were beaten, shot, and gang-raped by government soldiers, is a further example of not only the government’s complete disregard for efforts to save civilian lives, but its blatant hostility for those trying to do so. In fact, more than 60 aid workers have died in South Sudan, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarians to work.
Well-meaning efforts to reach a political solution have resulted in little improvement to date. The United Nations Security Council’s recent decision to increase the number of peacekeepers in South Sudan is a welcome one, since many of the 200,000 people sheltering in UNMISS-guarded bases would likely be dead if not for its presence. However, the flawed response to the violence in Malakal in February and again in July in Juba illustrates that the mission is a Band-Aid, not a cure.
So what is the answer? First, the United States must come to terms with the fact that South Sudan is no longer a reliable partner, as the government soldiers’ shooting of American embassy vehicles and targeting of Americans at Terrain demonstrate. Reframing our relationship will help us take decisive action on issues like an arms embargo. Rather than using the threat of an arms embargo as a tactic to obtain compliance, and failing to follow through, we can and should urgently advocate for one in the U.N. Security Council as a tool to enhance security and stability on the ground. This would strengthen U.S. efforts to convince governments providing South Sudan with lethal military equipment and expertise that feed the conflict to institute restrictions on the export of such arms and services.
Second, we must convince regional actors that it is in their interests to take a stronger stance on issues related to Juba’s cooperation with the U.N., sanctions, and implementation of the peace agreement. Ultimately, South Sudan’s collapse is an African problem that requires Africans to take charge. If the Intergovernmental Authority on Development — the regional body that has taken the lead on diplomatic efforts — can no longer lead, the African Union must step up. A unified African position before the Security Council calling for tough measures would be difficult for even the most intransigent members to ignore.
Finally, we must support accountability. An important element of the peace accord was an African Union hybrid court that has yet to be set up. If we cannot get that mechanism off the ground, we must look for other means to bring human rights abusers to justice. While the International Criminal Court may not be popular in Africa these days, the African Union itself has documented horrific crimes against the South Sudanese people that cannot be ignored.
Millions of innocent lives are on the line, and our actions now must be in response to the South Sudan we have instead of the South Sudan we wish we had.