Last Call to Cash In on a Vicious Civil War
Two-and-a-half years into South Sudan’s fighting, the U.N. might finally make it illegal to sell tanks and attack helicopters to the combatants.
JUBA, South Sudan — Latjor Thiyang was sitting on his bed in a displacement camp protected by U.N. peacekeepers here in the South Sudanese capital of Juba last month when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) crashed into his makeshift home and knocked him unconscious. Moments later, he came to with a river of blood flowing from his head, legs, and one of his arms.
“A rocket has pieces,” Thiyang later explained, producing what remained of the RPG’s shell. “Once it falls or it explodes, there are many pieces, which cause cuts and bleeding.”
Roughly the length of an American football, though slightly slimmer, the shell probably came from a Type 69 RPG intended to destroy tanks, according to a weapons expert who reviewed photographs of the exploded rocket for Foreign Policy. It was most likely manufactured by Norinco, the Chinese state-owned arms dealer, and supplied to the South Sudanese government as part of a 2014 deal with the company worth $38 million for 40,000 such weapons, as well as 2 million rounds of ammunition and 2,394 grenade launchers, the expert said.
Since civil war broke out here in December 2013, the South Sudanese government has purchased hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons and military hardware on the international market, including attack helicopters, armored personnel vehicles, and heat-guided missiles, that have been used to kill an unknown number of civilians — estimates for the total death toll over the last two-and-a-half years range from 50,000 to 300,000 — and to carry out what the United Nations has said may be war crimes. All of these weapons have been acquired legally, since the U.N. Security Council has declined to put in place an arms embargo despite repeated calls by European countries to do so. (Rebel forces also acquired weapons during the course of the war, but in smaller quantities and mainly from Sudan.)
One of the biggest impediments to an arms embargo was the United States, which helped negotiate South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in 2011 and remains an important backer of the young country. Since the beginning of the current civil war — which was supposed to have ended almost a year ago after President Salva Kiir signed a power-sharing agreement with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar in August 2015 — the United States has used its position on the U.N. Security Council to shield the South Sudanese government from an arms embargo. U.S. officials offered various justifications for this position, including that a weapons ban would incentivize the government to escalate the war and that it wouldn’t work unless South Sudan’s neighbors agreed to enforce it. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, whose involvement with South Sudan policy dates back to former President Bill Clinton’s administration, was reportedly one of the staunchest opponents of the proposed embargo.
But after fierce fighting erupted once again last month in Juba, leaving hundreds of people dead and casting doubt on the viability of the August 2015 peace agreement, U.S. officials are finally working behind the scenes to put an embargo in place. Last week, U.S. officials met with their Russian and Chinese counterparts at the U.N. to discuss a draft resolution containing an embargo, as well as a mandate for a new regional peacekeeping force, that could be brought to the full Security Council as early as Aug. 12.
The negotiations come at a perilous moment for South Sudan, with rebels threatening to march on the capital if a regional intervention force is not sent in to secure Juba and enforce a faltering peace agreement. The government, meanwhile, has said it won’t accept a regional force, and a military spokesman has threatened to fight foreign troops that enter the country without permission. More bloodshed could soon be on the horizon, and if the past is any guide, new weapons purchases will surely follow.
Experts say an arms embargo is unlikely to fully halt the flow of small arms or ammunition into South Sudan. Bullets are easily hidden and difficult to trace, making it simple for suppliers to skirt the ban. Likewise, light weapons like AK-type rifles are already common in even the most remote of villages. But where the ban would make a difference, experts say, is in prohibiting purchases of the kind of heavy military equipment — including vehicles and aircraft — that has been used with devastating effect against soldiers and civilians alike over the past two-and-a-half years.
Attack helicopters acquired in 2014 and 2015 gave the government a key military advantage, enabling it to roll back many of the rebels’ gains in the northern part of the country. The government purchased four Mi-24 helicopters during this period, at least three of them from a Ukrainian company as part of a $42.8 million deal. But rebel soldiers were not the only ones targeted. In July 2015, government Mi-24 helicopters fired rockets in what the U.N. called an “attack” on a Red Cross hospital in the town of Kodok, in Upper Nile state, killing two people and injuring 11. Attack helicopters were reportedly used again last month to bomb Machar’s compound in Juba during a week of fighting that left at least 500 people dead, including dozens of civilians.
Other heavy weapons purchased by the government during the war include Cougar- and Typhoon-type armored personnel carriers, supplied by a Canadian company, and what experts believe to be 10 Russian-made amphibious tanks whose seller remains a mystery. All of these vehicles appear to have been used to target civilians. During a scorched-earth offensive in Unity state last summer, for example, the government used amphibious tanks purchased in 2014 to chase “fighters and civilians into the swamps of the Sudd,” a U.N. report reads. Likewise, a 2015 Human Rights Watch report recounted scores of instances where government tanks were used to crush civilians during the same offensive.
An arms embargo would not only prevent the government from purchasing additional attack aircraft, tanks, and amphibious vehicles. It would mean that foreign personnel, like Ukrainian nationals who service the government’s Mi-24 helicopters, would have to leave the country, according to Lucas van de Vondervoort, a former member of the U.N. panel of experts for South Sudan. As a result, some equipment might eventually become inoperable.
An arms embargo would also provide a symbolic deterrent to countries funneling weapons to the warring parties. China pledged to suspend weapons transfers to the government after its Norinco shipment became public in 2014, prompting an outcry from rights groups, but other countries have stepped in to fill the void. Uganda, especially, has become a key supplier of weapons to South Sudan, reportedly purchasing weapons on behalf of its government from Israel, among other countries. The South Sudanese government has also sought to buy four additional attack helicopters worth $35.7 million from a Kampala-based company called Bosasy Logistics. (It’s unclear whether that sale was ever completed.)
On the rebels’ side, Sudan has been the major supplier of arms, at times airdropping weapons and ammunition deep into South Sudanese territory. In 2014, the weapons research organization Conflict Armament Research analyzed hundreds of small and heavy ammunition rounds that had been airdropped to rebels but later captured by the government. It found that a large portion of the ammunition was manufactured in Sudan after the civil war began — meaning that it would have been illegal to transfer had an arms embargo been in place.
The success of the proposed arms embargo will likely turn on the support of other African countries. Russia and China, which have vetoed similar measures in the past, are not expected to block the weapons ban if African countries present a unified front in favor of the embargo at the U.N. Security Council. Egypt could end up being the key vote, as Senegal and Angola — the two other African countries on the Security Council — are in favor of the proposal, according to foreign diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
South Sudan’s minister of information, Michael Makuei Lueth, opposed the idea of an embargo, saying it threatens the country’s sovereignty and would weaken the government more than the rebels.
“This is an elected government being equated with rebels,” Lueth told FP. “We are a sovereign state.… Why should others talk about an arms embargo simply because we are fighting rebels?”
Thiyang and other civilians in South Sudan are likely to suffer the most from renewed conflict. At the U.N. camp in Juba, a bullet was found behind one of the medical clinics that was hit during the recent round of fighting. It was manufactured in Sudan in 2014, according to the weapons expert who examined it for FP.
If an arms embargo is put in place, bullets like these will probably continue to fly. But larger weapons like the RPG that hit Thiyang’s house could become less common as both sides deplete their stocks. For a country perched on the brink of yet another civil war, that could be a step in the right direction.
Photo credit: CHARLES LOMODONG/AFP/Getty Images
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