South Sudanese women and children queue to receive emergency food at the United Nations protection of civilians (POC) site 3 hosting about 30,000 people displaced during the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan, July 25, 2016.
Adriane Ohanesian / Reuters

South Sudan’s fragile peace is falling apart. Five years after the country gained independence, it is on the brink of a return to civil war. The international community, which has already invested a great deal in supporting the nascent state, is running out of options to respond, but is considering two possible steps: deploying troops and imposing an arms embargo. Both options could help halt the country’s slide into chaos, provided that there is the political will and commitment to back them up.

SEND IN THE TROOPS

The UN already has a substantial peacekeeping presence of 13,500 troops and police and 2,000 observers in South Sudan. The mission’s mandate is to protect civilians through a variety of means, including political engagement, reporting on human rights violations, and facilitating reconciliation between local communities. But the UN peacekeepers’ most visible effort is at Protection of Civilians (POC) sites. When the civil war began in December 2013, tens of thousands of civilians ran to UN bases seeking protection. Although the UN facilities were not designed to shelter civilians, peacekeepers worked with humanitarian organizations to provide safety, security, and basic services to vulnerable and traumatized people in makeshift camps. Before the latest round of violence, around 170,000 people were living in these sites. Over 10,000 additional displaced persons are estimated to have fled to UN bases for protection from the recent fighting.

With UN forces under considerable strain protecting civilians at their bases, the international community is considering two options to strengthen their numbers. The first is for the UN Security Council to authorize more troops to help secure the civilian camp in Juba and other key sites such as Juba airport. However, a few hundred or even a few thousand more bodies would not enable the modest UN presence to withstand a concerted attack by government forces. Nor would it allow the United Nations to protect civilians outside of the bases.

A general view shows the United Nations protection of civilians site hosting about 30,000 people displaced during the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan, July 22, 2016.
A general view shows the United Nations protection of civilians site hosting about 30,000 people displaced during the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan, July 22, 2016.
Adriane Ohanesian / Reuters

The second option is for the African Union to launch its own more robust military intervention. This AU force would comprise troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda, and would likely be tasked with securing Juba. Although this plan was approved by AU leaders at a recent summit, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, has strongly rejected any further international interventions and is believed to be mobilizing popular protests against the proposed AU force. Meanwhile, his rival Riek Machar, who fled after the fighting and is currently in hiding, refuses to return to Juba unless a neutral force such as the AU intervention is deployed.

Both military options face the same challenge: they are a response to a problem that has no military solution. Additional UN or AU forces may help to protect civilians and improve security in the short term, but the greatest threat to South Sudan’s people comes from the country’s political leaders, who cannot be taken down by military force. This threat can only be resolved by sustained and global political pressure on the parties to the conflict, which brings us to the question of an arms embargo.

STOP THE FLOW

South Sudan is a country awash in weapons, relics of years of the war for independence. At the time of independence in 2011, South Sudan was estimated to have anywhere from 1.9 million to over three million small arms in circulation for a population estimated at just over ten million. That is roughly one gun for every third person in the country. The number likely grew significantly after the beginning of the civil war in 2013.

An arms embargo now would be extremely belated, but it could still help stop a renewed flow of weapons to the fragile country.

Since independence, South Sudan has received a variety of weapons systems from a number of countries, including Canada, China, South Africa, and Ukraine. This support has included attack helicopters, amphibious vehicles, tanks, and anti-tank missiles, as well as small arms and light weapons, according to UN sources as well as organizations such as Small Arms Survey and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). China is believed to have provided $20 million worth of weapons in 2014 alone, according to a UN report. Indeed, the United Nations found that the supply of weapons and ammunition to both sides of the conflict in South Sudan has “been instrumental in the continuation and escalation of the war to its current scale, leading to large-scale violations of international humanitarian law.”

Although the international community has repeatedly remarked on the dangers posed by uncontrolled weapons proliferation in South Sudan, it has taken few steps to mitigate these threats. The UN has repeatedly failed to adopt an arms embargo against South Sudan. The United States has opposed an embargo due to fears that South Sudan’s government would not be able to defend itself from insurgents. China and Russia have also come out against one as well, although their reasoning stems more from their inherent opposition to the imposition of arms embargoes in general than from any specific concern about South Sudan.

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir addresses delegates during the swearing-in ceremony of First Vice President Taban Deng Gai at the Presidential Palace in the capital of Juba, South Sudan, July 26, 2016.
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir addresses delegates during the swearing-in ceremony of First Vice President Taban Deng Gai at the Presidential Palace in the capital of Juba, South Sudan, July 26, 2016.
Adriane Ohanesian / Reuters

But the tide may have turned after the recent violence. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an embargo. And the deaths of two Chinese peacekeepers may have changed some minds in Beijing. Even Russia recently announced its openness to the idea. An arms embargo now would be extremely belated, but it could still help stop a renewed flow of weapons to the fragile country.

For that to happen, the embargo must be more than words. It must be implemented and enforced, unlike the weak version against South Sudan’s neighbor Sudan. This means bringing violators to justice and ending the impunity that has long been associated with UN arms blockade busting, even if that means standing up to powerful countries in the region such as Uganda, which opposes a weapons ban.

Once again, the people are bearing the brunt of conflict in South Sudan. The easy proliferation of weapons and the willingness by both parties to target civilians have had a devastating impact on the citizens of this young nation. Peacekeeping troop reinforcements and an arms embargo may help to push the country back from the brink of civil war, but only if backed by united political pressure from the international community.

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