U.N. Panel Calls for Sanctions on South Sudan’s Warring Leaders

U.N. Panel Calls for Sanctions on South Sudan’s Warring Leaders

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar bear personal responsibility for massive human rights abuses during the country’s two-year-long civil war and should have their financial assets frozen and be barred from traveling outside the country, according to a confidential report by a U.N. Security Council panel that was obtained by Foreign Policy.

“There is clear and convincing evidence that the majority of acts committed in the course of the war, including the targeting of civilians and violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, have been directed by or undertaken with the knowledge of senior individuals in the highest level of government and within the opposition,” wrote the five-member panel, which advises the council on ways it can better enforce sanctions on individuals who are thwarting peace efforts in the country.

The findings were included in a report to the U.N. Security Council that is expected to be made public later this month. FP reviewed the report in advance of publication. Diplomats described a separate confidential annex to the report that includes recommendations that key South Sudanese government and opposition leaders, including Kiir and Machar, be sanctioned. The annex, which has been shared with the Security Council members, will not be made public.

There is a “preponderance of evidence that both Kiir and Machar maintain command responsibility for their respective forces” and that the warring armies under their authority have “consistently engaged in action and policies” that undermine the country’s peace and security and therefore merit the imposition of targeted U.N. Security Council sanctions, the panel added in the main report.

The report’s findings are expected to add to international calls for holding South Sudan’s leaders accountable for rights abuses. But there were few expectations that it would lead to concrete steps by the council to punish either of South Sudan’s rival leaders, as the United States, Russia, China, and key African leaders remain focused on convincing them to reach a political settlement to end the war.

The completion of the 49-page report comes just days after South Sudan’s government and rebel movement failed to meet a deadline for forming a unity government, the latest in a long string of setbacks in the flailing push to find a peaceful solution to the country’s bloodshed.

The conflict began as a political power struggle between Kiir, from the Dinka group, and Machar, an ethnic Nuer. It quickly erupted into open combat, leaving tens of thousands dead and more than 2.3 million driven from their homes. Nearly 700,000 children under the age of 5 suffer from acute or severe malnutrition, a condition that can have long-standing health problems.

The showdown between the two men and their fighters has “evolved over the past two years into a tribal war, reigniting historic grievances and encouraging military opportunism and revenge,” the report added.

The panel — which is coordinated by former U.S. diplomat Payton Knopf — also reiterated a previous call for the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan because the flow of increasingly deadly weapons into the conflict is leading to greater loss of civilian lives.

The military balance of power has swung decisively in favor of the South Sudanese government, which has channeled its dwindling oil resources into the purchase of helicopter gunships from Ukraine and Uganda.

Ukraine, which currently holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council, sold the South Sudanese government 830 light machine guns and 62 heavy machine guns in 2014, according to the panel. More importantly, Kiev has emerged as Juba’s key supplier of attack helicopters. South Sudan currently has three operational Mi-24 helicopter gunships and is awaiting delivery of a fourth. The helicopters were purchased for more than $42 million from a Ukrainian company called Motor Sich, according to the panel. The prices for those helicopters, according to the report, are “inflated.”

The panel could not say for certain whether Ukrainian nationals were servicing or operating the helicopters inside the country. But the panel noted “multiple occasions” when foreigners, possibly Ukrainian, were seen servicing the helicopters in Juba. For instance, on Nov. 26, 2015, the panel saw “ten Caucasian and three African individuals” working on the helicopters following a military operation in then-Western Equatoria state. Some were dressed in military fatigues and civilian clothing, while one was dressed in a pair of overalls with Motor Sich stamped on the back.

South Sudan is also seeking to finalize the purchase of four additional attack helicopters from a Kampala-based security firm, Bosasy Logistics, with links to Uganda’s national security establishment, according to the report.

“These helicopters have been vital in providing an important advantage in military operations, have facilitated the expansion of the war and have emboldened those in government who are seeking a military solution to the conflict at the expense of the peace process,” the panel wrote.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian mission to the United Nations said his government had cooperated with the panel of experts and confirmed the sale of helicopters. But he noted that the export of weapons to South Sudan, which is not subject to an arms embargo, does not violate any laws.

Following a relative lull in bloodshed in 2014, violence has spiked during the past year, including government offensives in the former provinces of Greater Upper Nile, Unity, and Western Equatoria.

Backed by allied militias, government soldiers last April carried out a “scorched earth” campaign in Koch, Rubkona, and Guit counties in then-Unity state, burning local homes, known as tukuls, killing women and children, and looting livestock.

In March 2015, the Security Council established a regime of targeted financial and travel measures that would be imposed on South Sudan’s government or the country’s armed opposition groups if they abused human rights, undermined the peace process, or interfered with international diplomatic, peacekeeping, or humanitarian efforts. A few months later, on July 1, the council imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on six rival commanders from the two sides.

It remains anything but certain that the council will act on the panel’s recommendation to impose sanctions on Kiir, Machar, or any of their top lieutenants. The United States has resisted calls for the imposition of an arms embargo, arguing that it would unfairly tip the balance in favor of the rebel forces. Angola, China, and Russia are also opposed to new sanctions. But Britain, France, New Zealand, and other council members support an arms embargo.

“This new report’s unvarnished findings confirm that an arms embargo is long overdue in South Sudan,” said Akshaya Kumar, the deputy U.N. director for Human Rights Watch. “The council is now on notice that allowing either side to acquire more weapons will mean more abuses and civilian deaths.”

Photo credit: Samir Bol/AFP/Getty Images