The Cable

U.S. Threatens South Sudan With Sanctions … Again

The United States introduces draft U.N. Security Resolution threatening to hit South Sudan's warring parties with sanctions.

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The United States is threatening sanctions against South Sudan, yet again.

For the past nine months, the Obama administration has repeatedly warned South Sudan’s warring parties that they could face a raft of targeted U.N. sanctions if they fail to halt a wave of ethnically targeted violence that has plagued the country for more than a year, and pushed its people to the brink of famine. Each time, the administration has put off action, arguing that the diplomatic timing was not quite right.

On Tuesday, U.S. diplomats put their threat in writing.

They circulated a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council that establishes a sanctions committee, as well as an independent panel of experts, to lay the groundwork for possible travel bans and asset freezes on individuals who obstruct peace talks, promote violence, abuse human rights, recruit child soldiers, and impede the work of peacekeepers and aid workers.

But the work of actually sanctioning individuals or entities would be put off till later.

South Sudan’s civil war has dealt a blow to one of America’s most significant bipartisan foreign-policy achievements: paving the way for South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011. In 2005, President George W. Bush’s administration brokered a political settlement ending one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, a decades-long fight between Sudan’s Arab government in Khartoum and southern animists and Christians. The deal resulted in the creation of the world’s youngest country.

But South Sudan descended into civil war in December 2013, in a fight that pitted the country’s founding father and president, Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, against his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, and fueled a surge of ethnic-based killings.

The United States, the United Nations, and other key powers have condemned the two leaders’ conduct in the war, saying they have put their own personal quests for power above the interests of their people.

Last May, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to warn Kiir and Machar that they could face sanctions if they impeded peace efforts. To drive home the point, the White House that same month imposed sanctions on two rival officers — Marial Chanuong, the commander of Kiir’s presidential guard force, and rebel commander Peter Gadet — who are accused of committing atrocities.

Tuesday’s move by the United States came as a senior U.N. human rights official provided the U.N. Security Council with a briefing on a recent trip to South Sudan.

“Though the scale and severity of the conflict has recently declined, the number of displaced and refugees has continued to grow, reaching 2 million people. There are thousands more civilians dead and further humanitarian law and human rights violations have been committed by both sides,” U.N. assistant secretary general Ivan Simonovic told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday. “Displaced people told me they are frightened. They have nowhere to go. And both sides seem to be rearming and preparing for a new military campaign.”

South Sudan’s U.N. envoy, Francis Deng, appealed to the council not to pursue sanctions, saying it would only “aggravate the situation” on the ground in South Sudan and contribute to an “adversarial” relationship between the council and Juba. “It would be ironic double jeopardy to punish a country that is already suffering from an acute crisis,” he said.

Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the United Nations, first announced back in May that the United States would press for a U.N. sanctions resolution. But the move was delayed as a result of divisions among African leaders. There were also sharp internal feuds between top American policymakers, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who has resisted calls for an arms embargo, and Kerry and Power, who favor it.

The draft resolution circulated by the U.S. raises the prospect of possibly imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan at some stage. In the meantime, it would enlist the panel to begin monitoring the supply, sale, and transfer of arms to individuals and entities undermining the political process or engaging in human rights abuses.

Washington is pursuing “an incremental approach designed to gradually ratchet up pressure on the parties,” according to a U.S. official briefing reporters on the draft.

The official said the U.S. plan calls for having the U.N. Security Council regularly take stock of the parties’ compliance. The idea is to hold the threat of sanctions over the warring parties’ heads as they enter a critical phase in peace talks being moderated by regional African leaders.

If they don’t comply, the resolution expresses intent to impose “any sanctions that may then be appropriate to respond to the situation, which may include an arms embargo and the designation of senior individuals responsible for actions or policies that threaten the peace, security or stability of South Sudan.”

Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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