Will a New Arms Embargo Contribute to an Elusive Peace in South Sudan?

After years of consideration, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan last week. It’s the latest international response to the rapid breakdown of another short-lived attempt at peace in the country’s almost five-year-long civil war.

The U.S.-drafted resolution got the minimum nine votes it needed to pass and no votes against, but six countries abstained: Russia, China, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Kazakhstan and Equatorial Guinea. In addition to the arms embargo, the resolution renewed sanctions the council had previously imposed in 2015 – a travel ban and assets freeze – on two high-ranking people from both sides of the conflict.

These sanctions are no surprise. Last month, the Security Council issued the warring parties an ultimatum – reach a “viable political agreement” by June 30 or face additional sanctions.

On June 27, they signed a ceasefire that went into effect on the 30th. Within hours it was violated.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, which the U.S. heavily supported and celebrated as a major foreign-policy win. But in December 2013, President Salva Kiir accused his then-Vice President Riek Machar of attempting a coup. The country’s been embroiled in civil war ever since.

The conflict, which has taken on ethnic undertones, has been punctuated by at least nine attempts at peace. According to the Economist, only one ceasefire lasted beyond one month.

Meanwhile, civilian coping mechanisms are quickly dwindling – despite massive amounts of aid – as the people face hyperinflation, famine, instability and violence. According to the UN refugee agency, there are now more than 2 million South Sudanese refugees. “It is the largest refugee crisis in Africa, and the third largest in the world, after Syria and Afghanistan,” the agency says.

Since the beginning of last week, the leaders of the warring parties have made multiple attempts to reach a power-sharing deal, in which Machar would be re-instated as vice president.

“It has been agreed that there will be four vice presidents: the current two vice presidents, plus Riek Machar [who] will assume the position of first vice president, and then the fourth position will be allocated to a woman from the opposition,” South Sudan’s foreign minister Al-Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed told reporters on July 8, according to Agence France-Presse.

The next day, Machar’s group issued a statement rejecting the deal. This week’s power-sharing deal proposed that Machar would be one of five vice presidents. The deals are similar to one that was signed in 2015 and lasted for about a year. As of yesterday, negotiations have stalled.

Meanwhile, parliament last week voted to the extend the president’s term until 2021, just after the UN released a new report that says government forces and combatants aligned with them killed and raped hundreds of civilians.

“South Sudan’s people have endured unimaginable suffering and unspeakable atrocities,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said. “Their leaders have failed them. They are desperate to get the most basic food, medicine, and shelter. But above all, they just want the violence to stop.”

South Sudan’s UN Ambassador Akuei Bona Malwal called the arms embargo “a slap in the face of those organizations who are trying to bring peace in South Sudan,” while others have warned it will be ineffective.

“[The] arms embargo will not stop South Sudan from acquiring weapons,” Gordon Buay, a South Sudanese diplomat at the country’s embassy in Washington, told The Washington Post. “Instead, it will bring South Sudan closer to China and Russia.”

Experts have also expressed concerns that enforcing the arms embargo will be difficult if neighboring governments in the region don’t uphold it. The UN Security Council wanted to send a message to the warring parties through stiffer sanctions, but whether that message will be delivered or received is not guaranteed.