50,000 People Are Dead. So Why Won’t Obama Push for an Arms Embargo in South Sudan?

Now that South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar is back in Juba, American lawmakers believe only an arms embargo can guarantee peace.


South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar returned to Juba this week, eight months after he and his rival, President Salva Kiir, signed a peace deal that required him to go back to the capital and resume his post as first vice president.

Washington has cautiously accepted Machar’s delayed return as a crucial step toward lasting peace in the country, where more than 50,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced since infighting between Machar and Kiir burst into large-scale conflict in late 2013.

But on Wednesday, Donald Booth, U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, warned the United States would not hesitate to push forward with both sanctions and an arms embargo if the warring parties fail to work effectively with each other on the path toward peace.  

“We have everything at the table,” Booth told lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill, the same day the United States committed an additional $86 million in aid to the country. “We are prepared to look at sanctions, we’re prepared to look at an arms embargo.”

But for now, Booth said Washington will push forward with a public financing accountability program to track spending from both sides of the conflict in order to reduce the likelihood of arms purchases.

“We all agree there are far too many arms in South Sudan, and they certainly don’t need any more,” Booth said. “If we can use the financial side to get at preventing additional weapons from getting into South Sudan, that would be an easier way to do it and a more effective way to do it.”

American lawmakers, frustrated by how long the deadly civil war and inefficient peace process have dragged on, aren’t sure that will be enough. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, questioned why Washington would hesitate to push for an arms embargo now that both Machar and Kiir are in the same place.  

“One of my frustrations through all of this is that we have not utilized the arms embargo,” he said. He added that it is one of the only means he believes could reduce the risk that Machar’s return will further destabilize Juba and push the country back into chaos.

“They’re now confined in the capital, and one miscommunication could spark an absolute explosion,” he said. “The loss of human life in that crossfire would really be catastrophic.”

In fact, a miscommunication is largely to blame for the nearly two-and-a-half-year conflict in South Sudan, which began after rumors spread that Machar was plotting to overthrow Kiir in a coup. Scuffles in a military barracks quickly turned into widespread ethnic killings in the country, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 with tremendous support from the United States.

In the early days of the conflict, scores of men from Machar’s Nuer ethnic group were rounded up and slaughtered by Kiir’s forces, which were largely Dinka. Machar’s forces retaliated, and since then both sides have carried out large-scale abuse against civilians. Machar has been accused of recruiting thousands of child soldiers, and civilians say government soldiers loyal to Kiir used amphibious government tanks to hunt for innocent Nuer when they tried to hide in the country’s swamps. Once the soldiers caught the Nuer, humanitarians say, they would be raped and killed.  

Booth said an arms embargo would be impossible without support from South Sudan’s neighbors and from other members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia, which has been unwilling to move forward with it.

But an American who works on South Sudanese policy and is familiar with the Security Council negotiations, told Foreign Policy that it was “disconcerting” to hear Booth’s lack of enthusiasm for the viability of an arms embargo.

“Other council members believe very strongly that the United States is not pursuing this wholeheartedly,” said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve relationships with policymakers working on South Sudan. “Every council member I’ve spoken with has said that if the U.S. doesn’t want it, it’s not going to happen. So it’s funny the U.S. is blaming the council dynamics when the U.S. is not really behind this.”

“It’s not going to be an easy lift at the council, but if they don’t want to put the diplomatic weight behind it, they won’t see the results behind it,” he said.  

Machar agreed to return to South Sudan when he signed August’s peace deal, and by November, Washington was adamant that the security situation was safe enough for him to return. Machar disagreed, and refused to go back. In an October interview with FP, Machar described as suicidal Booth’s suggestions that he return to Juba, then delayed doing so for an additional six months. He finally agreed to go back on April 18, but was delayed again and again after he tried to bring additional weaponry from Ethiopia.  

Before Machar went home on Tuesday, the State Department accused Kiir of obstructing the rebel leader’s return. It also accused Machar of adding new, elaborate demands to his previously negotiated conditions for going home.

Now the United States and other donors are treading carefully around the two leaders, hoping they can reconcile their differences for long enough to enact the transitional government and stabilize the country before diving into massive reforms.

For some lawmakers, that’s not a good enough excuse.

“There shouldn’t be arms coming in from either side,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who sat in on the hearing although he does not serve on the subcommittee on Africa. “Why are we allowing war criminals and war profiteers to dictate our policies while they deliberately lie, cheat, and steal from us?”

Photo credit: SAMIR BOL/Getty Images

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