By Liam Nolan, Blog Writer

On December 23rd, 2016, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution to place embargoes on arms sales to South Sudan in order to prevent ethnic violence in the country from escalating. However, eight countries (Russia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Venezuela, Angola, Egypt and Senegal) abstained from voting on the resolution, ultimately causing  it to fail.  

When South Sudan’s civil war began in 2013, the ethnic backgrounds of the conflict’s two principal actors played a large role in their rhetoric, with both men gathering support from their respective tribes. Both sides have been polarizing the populace using hate speech. It’s been working. A UN commission on human rights noted deepening ethnic divisions across the country.

Reports say both sides may be committing war crimes. Former Vice President Riek Machar’s rebels are accused of the targeted rapes and killings of Dinka women and children, the burning of villages, and forced starvation. President Salva Kiir’s government forces have been accused of similar crimes. Government forces have been accused of kidnapping and murdering people who are, primarily, Nuer.

Several key UN officials and human rights organizations have expressed fears about the ethnic violence in the country escalating into a genocide, making the resolution’s failure even more horrifying. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has decried the violence in the country, noting that civilians are those most negatively effected by the flow of arms into South Sudan. Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, has spoken out several times about the atrocities, primarly perpetrated against civilians, currently occurring the country, nothing that “we are running out of adjectives to describe the horror”.  

The reaction to the resolution’s failure has been immensely negative. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the council, “…history is going to be a very harsh judge…” In addition to the condemnations of countries around the world, groups such as Amnesty International and Human rights Watch have criticised the UN for failing to adopt the resolution.

The main justifications of those abstaining centre around two ideas. Firstly, the embargo might be ineffective. There’s certainly data to suggest that arms embargoes are not always effective, particularly if they lack enforcement. The arms embargo in Darfur, for example, has been frequently violated. Secondly, an embargo might actually be harmful to the political process in the country, further deepening divisions within South Sudan. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) suggested against imposing an embargo on South Sudan as President Kiir has chosen to accept the deployment of the Regional Protection Force and open an inclusive national dialogue. Many of the countries that abstained from voting noted IGAD’s recommendations as one of the main reasons behind their decision.

Despite the validity of these concerns, there are some major problems with these arguments. Firstly, there is data that shows that arms embargoes—though less effective on their own—tend to be more effective in conjunction with peacekeeping forces. Since there are already thousands of peacekeepers in South Sudan, and the Security Council has authorized additional forces, there’s a much higher chance that an arms embargo would be effective were it implementedSecondly, the peace process in South Sudan has stalled repeatedly over the course of the war. There’s a tremendous struggle to get the peace process going because “there is no political will to end the crisis,” so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the process stalled again. If it does, there’s no telling how many lives an arms embargo might have been able to save.

To read more about STAND Canada’s stance on the situation in South Sudan, click here to read our policy recommendations.

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