Since the founding of the nation of South Sudan five years ago, its citizens have gone from a brief moment of exhilaration and promise to the cruel reality of tribal violence, depredation and despair. Their leaders have failed them, and so has the UN Security Council, which is once again scrambling for a solution to end rampant killing and other abuses. One move the Council could make immediately is to impose an embargo on arms shipments, especially to the government forces that have been largely responsible for the bloodshed.
The present crisis, in which at least 73 civilians have died, began last month when fighting broke out in Juba, the capital, ending the latest in a series of brief cease-fires in a civil war between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those backing Riek Machar, the former vice president.
Last month, an investigation by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, placed most of the blame for the violence, which it said included mass rapes, on Kiir’s forces. Hussein said that while some civilians were killed in the crossfire, others were summarily executed by government forces that appear to have singled out members of the Nuer, an ethnic group loyal to Machar. The investigation also found that these same forces committed most of the 217 cases of sexual violence, many involving minors.
The 13,000 UN peacekeeping troops and police officers in South Sudan have been ineffectual, unable even to protect civilians in United Nations-run refugee areas, called protection-of-civilian sites. During an attack in February on one of those sites in the northern city of Malakal, peacekeepers made major tactical errors that contributed to a massacre that claimed an estimated 30 lives and was planned or at least supported by government forces. Some of the peacekeepers at Malakal were found to have retreated from their posts or waited for written instructions from headquarters before acting.
The Malakal episode was only the most recent evidence that the peacekeeping operation, dogged by failures in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian war, is dysfunctional and in need of an overhaul, especially when it comes to protecting civilians. Even on an ordinary day in South Sudan, women who need to leave the camps to get food for their families at the market cannot do so without the risk of being raped.
Severing the supply chain of weapons, as well as the trade in tanks and artillery, could actually get Kiir’s attention.