Inside the White House Fight Over the Slaughter in South Sudan

Many in the administration believe an arms embargo is essential to stopping South Sudan's bloodshed. Why had Susan Rice been blocking it?


Salva Kiir Mayardit, South Sudan's president, founding father, and longtime darling of Washington's political class, stands accused of presiding over security forces responsible for killing thousands of civilians in a 13-month-long civil war that has heightened fears of genocide and fueled international calls for the imposition of a U.N. arms embargo to stem the bloodshed.

Salva Kiir Mayardit, South Sudan’s president, founding father, and longtime darling of Washington’s political class, stands accused of presiding over security forces responsible for killing thousands of civilians in a 13-month-long civil war that has heightened fears of genocide and fueled international calls for the imposition of a U.N. arms embargo to stem the bloodshed.

But Susan Rice, the U.S. national security advisor and a long-standing champion of South Sudan, has for months resisted appeals from key allies, including Britain and France, and from members of President Barack Obama’s national security team — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — to push for the weapons ban, according to more than one dozen foreign diplomats, human rights advocates, and congressional officials interviewed by Foreign Policy.

Power — perhaps the administration’s most fervent interventionist — and Kerry have argued internally that Kiir has ignored Washington’s diplomatic appeals to halt the killing for long enough and that it is time to impose more coercive measures, including an arms embargo, to change his behavior, according to those sources.

An arms embargo, Rice believes, would undermine a democratically elected government’s ability to defend itself against an insurgency led by Kiir’s former vice president, Riek Machar, that has also committed heinous mass atrocities. Rice also is concerned that an embargo would be ineffective because South Sudan’s neighbor and military ally, Uganda, would not enforce it even if one were imposed, the sources claimed.

“I understand that the blockage came from NSC,” said one U.N. Security Council diplomat, referring to the White House National Security Council. “Both Power and Kerry are much more open to sanctions, possibly even including an arms embargo, than the NSC. We have the sense here in New York that they wanted to move forward but they were hampered by Washington.”

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the confidential nature of the deliberations, said the United States recently indicated a willingness to consider such measures. And they are seeing the first signs that Rice may be growing more willing to embrace an embargo, or at least raise the specter of such a measure down the road to pressure Kiir and Machar to make peace.

Last week, nearly eight months after the United States issued its first call for U.N. sanctions to rein in the warring parties in South Sudan, Washington sent a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council’s four other big powers — Britain, China, France, and Russia — that threatens to impose an asset freeze and a travel ban on top government and rebel leaders responsible for committing atrocities or thwarting regional efforts to strike a peace deal, according to U.S. officials.

A senior Obama administration official said that the resolution would also open the door to the “prospect” of an arms embargo at some time in the future. But the draft — which threatens to impose unspecified additional penalties on the warring parties for continuing violence — includes no specific reference to an arms embargo, according to two diplomatic sources.

Even if the United States decides to press for an arms embargo in a separate resolution at some stage in the future, it is unlikely that it would do so for months, possibly not until March or April, a period that coincides with the end of South Sudan’s traditional fighting season, according to the council diplomat. It also remains unclear whether China, which concluded a large arms sale to South Sudan earlier this year, and Russia, would allow an arms embargo to pass.

Neither Russia nor China, which traditionally resist calls for sanctions, have threatened to block action on an arms embargo in the Security Council but they have informed their U.N. colleagues that the Africans should take the lead in determining whether to impose sanctions on the parties.

Power, however, recently expressed concern in an off-the-record briefing to humanitarian relief organizations and human rights activists about potential opposition from China and Russia, which has grown increasingly confrontational with the United States since the start of the crisis in Ukraine. But other observers say there is reason to believe that Beijing and Moscow might be willing to take a tough stance with South Sudan.

Russia, which traditionally has had strong ties to Khartoum, the South’s traditional rival, has seen relations deteriorate with Juba since its forces shot down a U.N. plane piloted by four Russian nationals. Embarrassed by revelations that the China North Industries Group Corp., Norinco, delivered $38 million in weapons to South Sudan in June, Beijing halted future weapons sales to the country. “No more weapons are heading to South Sudan,” Lan Kun, a press attaché at China’s embassy in Juba, told Bloomberg.

For the time being, the United States is taking its lead from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, or IGAD, an east African coalition of eight countries that has been leading mediation efforts between Kiir and Machar. The two sides have been waging an ethnic-based civil war that has led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians, driven 2 million from their homes, and put the country on the brink of famine. The United States, the U.N., and other key African and European governments have placed responsibility for the violence squarely on the shoulders of Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Machar, an ethnic Nuer, saying they have selfishly pursued power at the expense of their own people.

“We have felt from the beginning that the regional lead is vital and provides the best chance of a long-term, sustainable solution” to the crisis in South Sudan, according to the senior administration official.

But the group, which will meet on the sidelines of an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital at the end of the month, has been divided and has sent contradictory signals to the parties. For instance, IGAD leaders threatened in early November to impose a raft of sanctions, including an arms embargo, on South Sudan’s warring rivals if they failed to comply with a cessation of hostilities agreement by Nov. 28. Although they didn’t, IGAD took no action in response and has declined to formally ask the U.N. Security Council to impose such measures. The group’s chief mediator, Seyoum Mesfin, meanwhile, has made it clear he opposes sanctions. That has given the administration cover for its own indecision.

The slow pace of American diplomacy on South Sudan has infuriated human rights advocates and congressional critics of South Sudan, who say there is an urgent need to act quickly to stem the flow of arms, particularly at a time when the warring parties have intensified their fighting since the outset of the country’s dry season. It is clear that IGAD — which includes participants in the conflict like Uganda, which has fought alongside the government — will never agree to an arms embargo, critics say. It is time, they stress, for the United States to take the lead and press for action in the U.N. Security Council.

The import of new weapons into South Sudan, a country already awash with weapons, “will almost certainly fuel further attacks on civilians,” a coalition of 29 South Sudanese and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to President Barack Obama.

“An arms embargo would help to halt the supply of weapons to individuals and groups who have committed serious violations of human rights, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and protect civilians at grave risk,” the alliance wrote.

David Abramowitz, vice president for policy at Humanity United, a San Francisco-based philanthropic organization that promotes peace efforts, cited broad support for an arms embargo and rapped the Obama administration for its reluctance to move forward “for reasons that are unclear.”*

“We are increasingly frustrated that the United States can’t overcome its own internal differences around whether to act decisively by imposing an arms embargo,” Abramowitz said.

Asked about Rice’s dispute with Kerry and Power, officials from the National Security Council and the U.S. mission to the United Nations denied any divisions within Obama’s national security team over its South Sudan policy or over the virtue of using sanctions to compel Kiir and Machar to settle their differences peacefully.

The United States has sought to “synchronize” any move in New York on sanctions with efforts by African leaders, and is working in particular with IGAD to mediate a political settlement between Kiir’s forces and the rebels, said the senior administration official. The official described “full consensus” within the administration about how to end the violence in South Sudan.

“From the start, we have carefully calibrated our timing, and we socialized the resolution when we felt it would have the best prospect of bringing about peace,” the official told FP.

The official said hastily imposed sanctions might provide a short-term, feel-good solution to critics who are clamoring for action. But, the official said, that is unlikely to foster a sustainable settlement of the political dispute between the warring South Sudanese leaders.

Another U.S. administration official said the resolution distributed to other key U.N. powers would open the door to the “prospect of an arms embargo” and also “hold political spoilers and human rights abusers accountable for their actions.”

South Sudan’s civil war has cast a pall over one of the greatest bipartisan achievements of the United States in Africa in recent decades. In 2005, before South Sudan’s birth, the administration of former President George W. Bush brokered a peace deal ending one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars, a decades-long fight between the Arab government in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and southern Sudanese animists and Christians. The deal culminated with South Sudan’s independence in 2011.

But the world’s newest nation descended into its own civil war in late December 2013. While Washington has blamed both Kiir and Machar, it has shown greater reluctance to inflict penalties on Kiir, a long-standing friend of the United States whom Bush once praised as a “strong leader.” While Kiir’s relationship with Obama has been chillier, he was still invited to a Washington summit of African leaders last year.

Kiir has hardly returned the favor. Over the past year, the former liberation leader has shrugged off American peace appeals, while security forces under his command have attacked U.N. peacekeepers, expelled a U.N. human rights official, and cracked down on journalists.

Last week, the U.N. peacekeeping department presented the council with a confidential white paper — obtained by FP — documenting efforts by South Sudan to impede international efforts to protect civilians. It noted that the South Sudanese government has blocked and delayed the delivery of vital military equipment for peacekeeping contingents from China, Ethiopia, and Kenya. That, in turn, has delayed those nations from deploying security forces to protect civilians, according to the document.

Nearly a year ago, in February, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned that South Sudan’s warring leaders would face “serious consequences” if they didn’t end the fighting. In May, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the South Sudanese capital of Juba, where he warned Kiir and Machar that the United States would pursue sanctions against individuals who thwarted peace efforts.

In an effort to underscore its seriousness, the White House imposed sanctions on Marial Chanuong, the commander of the presidential guard force, and Peter Gadet, a rebel commander who allegedly led an April 15 attack on the town of Bentiu that killed more than 200 civilians.* The measures prevent them from traveling to the United States and freeze any of their assets that are held in American financial institutions.

The Obama administration is under growing pressure — from France, Britain, and other foreign governments, human rights advocates, and congressional critics — to impose wider U.N. sanctions against South Sudan.

Last May, nine senators urged the Obama administration to hold Kiir and Machar responsible for failing to end the fighting. Three months later, House Foreign Relations Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) demanded that Power “swiftly impose robust sanctions against senior members on both sides of the conflict who are hindering the peace process and bear responsibility for human rights abuses.”

But efforts to impose far-reaching U.N. sanctions against South Sudan’s leaders have played out in fits and starts.

On May 6, Power said the United States would “seek in the U.N. Security Council to authorize targeted sanctions.” In September, according to two diplomats, she began gauging support among Security Council nations for broad U.N. sanctions against South Sudanese leaders, including an arms embargo, an asset freeze, and a travel ban against individuals responsible for the worst abuses.

But in a sign of early divisions between Washington and New York, the United States dropped any mention of an arms embargo when it first officially informed the U.N. Security Council, at a Nov. 19 private luncheon with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, that Washington was prepared to introduce a resolution supporting sanctions. And Power has largely sidestepped any reference to an arms embargo in her discussions with foreign diplomats, congressional leaders, and human rights activists, focusing her attention on travel bans and asset freezes.

In a letter in late September to Royce, Power highlighted the need to move swiftly on such targeted sanctions. Power acknowledged obstacles, and that it was unlikely that the United States could secure unanimous support without a formal request to impose sanctions on South Sudan from IGAD. But she described the need for sanctions as “manifest” and expressed hope she could persuade the Security Council to back a resolution imposing tough measures in “a matter of weeks,” according to two U.S. officials who saw the letter.

Observers say there was broad support from within the Obama administration — led by Kerry and Power — to push again in late November for targeted sanctions, before the first anniversary of the start of South Sudan’s civil war. The timing was also linked to the November start of the nation’s dry season, when fighting traditionally picks up in South Sudan.

But ultimately, the United States pulled back and settled for adopting a nonbinding Security Council statement on Dec. 15 that issued an “urgent demand” to Kiir and Machar to embrace peace. The statement warned the two South Sudanese leaders that the 15-nation security body would consider “all appropriate measures, including targeted sanctions against those impeding the peace process.”

The failure to act so far on U.N. sanctions has exposed the United States to long-standing criticism that it applies double standards on human rights, punishing its enemies while letting its friends get away with mass murder without any consequences. It also runs counter to American warnings to take a tougher stance against Kiir and Machar.

“They have been threatening to impose sanctions for a long time,” said Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. representative for Human Rights Watch, which has been pressing the United States to back an arms embargo against the South Sudanese government and the rebels. “The threats are getting old and harder to take seriously now.”

*Correction, Jan. 26, 2015: Humanity United is based in San Francisco; an earlier version of this article said the philanthropic organization was based in Redwood City, California, its previous location. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, Jan. 26, 2015: The attack on the town of Bentiu by South Sudanese rebel leader Peter Gadet occurred on April 15, 2014, not April 17, as was originally stated. (Return to reading.)

Photo credit: AFP/Getty News/ Saul Loeb

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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