Contingent of Nepalese Peacekeepers Arrives in Juba from Haiti - February 2014. Photo credit: United Nations Photo

The Ninth Time Is Not A Charm: Elusive Peace in South Sudan

Following months of meditation and efforts by South Sudanese and international negotiators, a long-awaited peace agreement was finally signed last week, and a cease-fire began over the weekend. However, barely hours after the official beginning of the cease-fire, the South Sudanese army and rebels accused each other of breaking the cease-fire and compromising the peace agreement.

This new peace deal is not the first the warring parties put their names on a cessation of hostilities. (see, for example, August 2014 and February 2015) and, like its eight predecessors, this new cease-fire looks like it may also be doomed.

Where are the cease-fire monitors?

Mere hours after the cease-fire came into effect, the army and rebels lobbed accusations at each other, disputing the veracity of each other’s claims. Rebels accused the army of shelling their positions along the White Nile river, while the army claims there are no military operations in the particular area cited by the rebels. IGAD – the guarantors of the peace-deal – have been unable to confirm these claims, in spite of the establishment in Juba, the capital, of the IGAD Monitoring and Verification Mechanism for South Sudan in 2014.

The inability to monitor the cease-fire is a serious issue, as it provides warring parties the opportunity to fabricate claims to suit their narrative and opens up the possibility of further combat.  Unable to independently verify the claims from both sides, the international community is left to grapple with a situation where the only option is to condemn actions on both sides, and exhort them to respect the cease-fire – this approach hasn’t worked the last eight times, and it’s hard to imagine how the peace deal can be fully implemented without real-time independent monitoring of the security situation.

Billions of dollars of humanitarian aid have been poured into South Sudan in the last decade. If the international community wants a peace deal and a cease-fire to hold, verification and monitoring mechanisms must be in place. Unfortunately, the situation in South Sudan is so contentious, and there is so little trust between the two sides, that anything short of robust monitoring of military and para-military activities will likely provide just enough space for the belligerents to continue on the destructive path they are on.

Addressing the root causes of the conflict

This is a less straight forward but equally – if not more – significant area of concern. The peace agreement signed last week includes provisions for a power-sharing agreement – which would see Mr. Riek Machar back as vice-president, a role he held when he was accused by President Kiir of plotting a coup – as well as elections within 30 months and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. What the agreement doesn’t do, however, is provide meaningful opportunities to address the innumerable human rights abuses and war crimes that have been perpetrated by both sides of the conflict.

While it’s obvious why it’s not in the interest of either Mr. Machar or Mr. Kiir to want these crimes to be brought to justice, the creation of conditions for sustainable peace has to include a process to address grievances – given the extraordinarily brutal nature of the conflict in South Sudan, it’s difficult to imagine how a – presumably toothless – Truth and Reconciliation Commission could help restore a sense of justice and equity. Without this, and given the atmosphere of utter distrust between South Sudanese groups, long-term peace is compromised.

Power politics and IGAD

Regional power politics are at play within the IGAD organization, particularly Ugandan and Ethiopian influence, which weakens the organization’s ability to be a strictly neutral partner for peace. In spite of the expansion of IGAD to include a broader diversity of international stakeholders (the so-called “IGAD PLUS” includes the African Union, UN, China, U.S., UK, European Union, Norway and the IGAD Partners Forum. Still, it is nevertheless somewhat tarnished by its perceived lack of objectivity.

International pressure and sanctions

Finally, the UN Security Council and key international stakeholders – especially the United States – have issued stern warnings about further targeted sanctions and a potential arms embargo. Now that the cease-fire has already been broken – at least by one side, but likely by both sides – it will be interesting to see how and when the international community will choose to further sanction the South Sudanese belligerents. Now, the key question going forward is whether or not the UNSC and the USA finally make good on its threats? And if so, what effect that might have on getting the belligerents to respect the peace deal?