How European and Chinese Arms Diverted to South Sudan Fueled Its Civil War

A new study, four years in the making, details the secret global supply chain sidestepping international arms embargoes on South Sudan.

South Sudanese anti-government forces display ammunition which they say was confiscated from government forces during fighting in September, in Panyume, South Sudan. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images)
South Sudanese anti-government forces display ammunition which they say was confiscated from government forces during fighting in September, in Panyume, South Sudan. (Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images)

A four-year-long investigation has revealed how arms and equipment from European Union member states and China funneled into East Africa and a web of front companies have fueled the deadly conflict in South Sudan.

The new report, released by the London-based Conflict Armament Research organization, shows how South Sudan’s neighbors sidestepped international arms embargoes to re-transfer weapons to both sides in the country’s devastating civil war, which has killed an estimated 383,000 people and sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies.

Researchers analyzed hundreds of weapons and over 200,000 rounds of ammunition, the vast majority of which were manufactured in China.

The report highlights how a vast global supply chain of arms exporters and companies spanning Europe, Asia, and Africa have sustained South Sudan’s five-year civil war, and paints a forensic picture of how international arms embargoes were thwarted. It also brings new scrutiny to Uganda, which potentially violated European Union arms embargoes to funnel ammunition from Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia to South Sudan’s military—although Kampala now paints itself as a neutral broker in South Sudan’s latest peace talks.

In one instance detailed in the report, a network of companies run by U.S., British, Israeli, and Ugandan nationals shipped a U.S. military jet and Austrian-made surveillance aircraft to the South Sudanese military in 2015 and 2016 in a likely violation of U.S. arms export controls.

In another instance, two offshore companies registered in the Seychelles brokered ammunition shipments from Romania via Slovakia through Uganda to South Sudan in 2014 and 2015. Both Romania and Slovakia are members of the European Union, which imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan in 2011 immediately following the country’s independence from Sudan.

In each case, the report stresses there is no evidence the U.S. or European governments were aware these shipments were being re-transferred to South Sudan.

The embassies of Uganda and South Sudan did not respond to a request for comment on the report’s findings.

The United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan in July in an effort to end the country’s civil war. “We need to stop the flow of weapons that armed groups are using to fight each other and to terrorize the people,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who championed the effort, said at the time.

Justine Fleischner, a lead researcher for the report, said that even though a U.N. arms embargo is now in place, it could take a long time for a country saturated with weapons to start seeing some of the effects. She said the research shows that a few large shipments of Chinese ammunition “have the capability to sustain this low technology conflict for years,” even though the Chinese halted ammunition shipments to South Sudan in 2014.

“It will take years for [the U.N. embargo] to have an impact in terms of physical access to ammunition,” she said. But she added the embargo was significant because it cut off South Sudan’s access to international support on logistics and maintaining military and surveillance aircraft, which “can be game-changers in these conflicts.”

The South Sudanese civil war began in 2013, two years after it declared independence from Sudan with backing from the United States. Since then, the conflict has spiraled into complex internecine warfare, with over a dozen warring factions and a succession of failed peace talks, driving the country further into humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates that 6.1 million South Sudanese—over half of the country’s population—require food aid, and 2.2 million have been displaced by conflict.

In September, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leaders including Riek Machar, his former vice president, signed a power-sharing peace deal to bring about an end to the conflict, but policymakers in Washington are deeply skeptical the deal will stick, or that South Sudan can emerge from the conflict as a stable and functioning state.

“This state is so profoundly dysfunctional that cobbling it together is going to be extraordinarily difficult,” said Joshua Meservey, an expert on Africa at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. He said Kiir and Machar have given no signs they are willing to undertake meaningful reforms to build up the country, including disarming and demobilizing warring forces, allowing unfettered humanitarian access to the most war-torn regions of the country, rooting out widespread corruption, or laying a road map to free and fair elections.

“It’s likely that this [peace deal] could hold for a little while, but it’s all window dressing in my mind until they undertake truly substantive reforms and changes.”

FP’s Jefcoate O’Donnell contributed to this report.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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