Is the International Community Abandoning South Sudan?

The world’s youngest nation has plunged deeper into crisis — and fallen further off the international agenda. Overshadowed by Ebola, ISIS and protests in Hong Kong, a new round of peace talks resumed last week to end the ongoing civil war in South Sudan. Mediated by the African Union, the negotiations between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, aim to broker a power-sharing deal and halt the violence that has engulfed South Sudan since Kiir dismissed Machar in December. The international community must take a more active role in this process.

There are obvious security and humanitarian implications of continued instability in what is now considered the world’s most fragile state. An estimated 1.7 million South Sudanese civilians have been uprooted by violence, some fleeing across the nation’s porous borders while many others seek refuge in UN compounds and other de-facto camps for internally displaced people. The conflict has exacerbated food insecurity throughout the country, prompting the UN to declare an acute level 3 emergency. South Sudan’s crippling underdevelopment leaves it with little capacity to contend with the consequences of this war, which is jeopardizing efforts to integrate South Sudan into the East African Community, a regional economic bloc that recently initiated trade negotiations. Worse, neighboring countries such as Uganda and Sudan have become involved in the conflict, risking a larger military confrontation and potentially destabilizing the entire region.

But beyond the urgent political and humanitarian imperatives to intervene in this crisis, the UN, U.S. and European Union must consider their more basic obligations to South Sudan. Over the past five years, these stakeholders have funneled billions of dollars into the country, undertaking an ambitious state-building campaign that has rivaled those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly overnight, Juba transformed from a remote outpost into a hub for multilateral aid and development organizations. The U.S. was instrumental in helping broker the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the Sudanese Civil War and facilitating the subsequent independence referendum, which gave birth to a sovereign southern republic in 2011. The role of the international community in helping the South Sudanese secure and build their own country raises important questions as to whether it is doing enough currently to help them achieve peace.

This is not to suggest that foreign donors and international agencies are absent. The U.S. recently pledged $83 million in humanitarian assistance, bringing its total aid allocation to South Sudan this year to $720 million. Britain has sent more than $200 million in aid. UNHCR and other agencies have ramped up operations in the country. But these efforts, in focusing on providing relief to victims of the violence, are only mitigating the symptoms of the crisis, rather than addressing the underlying causes of their suffering.

Such a response illustrates the pitfalls of the “new humanitarianism” that Alain Destexhe, a former Secretary-General for Medecines Sans Frontieres, argues has become a feature of the post-Cold War era. This “new humanitarianism” is characterized by donors dispensing large sums of humanitarian aid not as a supplement, but a substitute for taking decisive political or military action to end civil wars or other man-made disasters. The troubled legacies of international attempts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan will likely reinforce this trend. But simply providing aid to South Sudan is not sufficient, especially when the government can simply expel humanitarian workers or enact laws that strictly regulate the activities of local civil society organizations. Improvements in public health or social services gained through donor-funded programs are, at best, fleeting when pervasive insecurity encourages local authorities to divert a majority of public funds to security and law enforcement.

So while the international community may have a clear material interest in stabilizing South Sudan, it also bears a larger ethical responsibility to help secure a durable peace. The UN and its most influential member states have already claimed an active stake in the country’s future. The people of South Sudan need a more forceful demonstration of this commitment — and they need it now, more than ever.