Why the US is now calling for an arms embargo on South Sudan

UN Ambassador Samantha Power cited the intensifying threat of ethnic cleansing and genocide in asking for a UN Security Council resolution halting weapons imports to the war-torn country.

Justin Lynch/Associated Press
Students line up Nov. 15 outside a classroom with a map of Africa on its wall, in Yei, in southern South Sudan. The formerly peaceful town, surrounded by farms, was once a beacon of coexistence, but is now a center of the renewed civil war.

The Obama administration’s decision to seek an international arms embargo and new sanctions on South Sudan reflects the sharpening civil discord and mounting ethnic violence in the world’s newest country.

But it may also be personal.

The decision to seek a UN Security Council resolution on South Sudan was announced Thursday by the United States’ envoy to the UN, Amb. Samantha Power, a noted human rights interventionist who has sharply criticized past cases of the international community wringing its hands but then failing to act to stop a looming genocide.

With UN officials warning that conditions are ripening for broad ethnic cleansing and even a full-scale genocide in the rump state of just over 11 million people, it may be that Ambassador Power was keen to proclaim “Not on my watch!” before leaving her post as a new Trump administration enters.

Speaking at a council session Thursday on South Sudan, Power cited evidence offered by UN officials of mounting ethnic violence and said, “We are reminded of all the warning signs the UN missed – in places like Srebrenica and Rwanda back in the '90s.” She then added: “Given the accumulation of warnings, we have lost the right … to act surprised in the face of even greater atrocities in South Sudan. None of us can say we didn’t see it coming.”

Slide toward atrocities

Indeed UN officials starting with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are warning of a pernicious slide toward “mass atrocities” occurring in South Sudan.

“Every genocide early warning system is flashing red in South Sudan today,” says John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, an atrocity-prevention policy group based in Washington. “All of the classic elements are present for mass atrocities to unfold,” he notes, including “a fairly substantial uptick in hate rhetoric,” high-profile killings targeting specific ethnic groups, and formation of ethnic-based militias.

“When atrocities are targeted at specific communities on the basis of their identity, that is genocide,” he adds.

US action now reflects frustration with the South Sudanese government over “delays and obfuscations” on expanding a UN protection force and checking rising hate speech and crimes that became “simply too much to bear,” Mr. Prendergast says.

But Power’s presence at the UN may have played a role as well. 

“It is not always visible to the outside, but her human rights advocacy has never waned one iota on any countries in which mass atrocities are a real or potential threat,” he says.    

South Sudan was received with much fanfare as the world’s newest country after it broke away from Sudan in 2011. But a political rivalry between the fledgling nation’s President Salva Kiir – a Dinka tribesman – and then-Vice President Riek Machar – of the Nuer ethnic community – deteriorated into a civil war along ethnic lines by 2013.

More than 150,00 South Sudanese have fled to neighboring Uganda just since July, while hundreds more have been killed.

Targeted sanctions

Reports circulated Friday that in addition to the arms embargo, the US would seek targeted sanctions on Mr. Machar, as well as the South Sudanese government’s Army chief and information minister. 

A peace accord reached last year was never implemented, and violence flared anew in July when a meeting in the capital of Juba between the two political rivals collapsed into renewed fighting.

Since then, ethnic minorities report a rising tide of killings, rape, and displacement, fueled by an intensifying campaign of hate speech on social media.

Shadowy groups with names suggesting their tribal or ethnic affiliation are posting chilling threats on sites like Facebook and Whatsapp, rights experts say. And increasingly, the threats are being carried out.

In her council statement, Power cited a post on Facebook by a group calling itself Angry Youth of Former Northern Bhar El Ghazal and directed at people living in the south Equatoria region, the scene of rising ethnic violence.

“We are going to take a quick revenge attack against Equatorians anywhere, any place from now on,” the post read. “We will find you and kill you. We will despicably and barbarically kill you.” 

Communities now riven by strife

Such hate speech and feeding of ethnic divisions didn’t exist a few years ago, regional experts say. But they add that parts of South Sudan where members of the country’s five dozen tribes and minority communities previously lived in peace are now torn by horrendous violence.

Young men pulled from their homes are being shot if they don’t have the right tribal scarring. Adult and children have been hacked to death by machete, and in one particularly horrendous case, a group of villagers was rounded up, bound, and placed in a thatched hut that was then set afire.

“The signs are all there for the spread of this ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians that could evolve into genocide, if something is not done now to stop it,” the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, told the Security Council this week after a visit to South Sudan. He spoke of “targeted killings … rape, and the barbarous use of machetes to hack families to death.”

Until recently, the US was opposed to resorting to an arms embargo. But frustration over lack of progress with behind-the-scenes diplomacy apparently led to a change of heart.

Mr. Dieng expressed support for an embargo, but prospects for action on the US proposals appear dim: Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the council, quickly dismissed the idea of either an arms embargo or targeted sanctions.

But Prendergast of the Enough Project notes that neither power mentioned vetoing the resolution and could end up abstaining, which would allow the resolution to go through.

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