Faced with the dire U.N. warning of a possible genocide, the United States was set this week to finally embrace an arms embargo against South Sudan to cut back the military might of its warring parties and, potentially, help spare the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire of escalating civil war. But the effort, which was delayed by Washington for over two years, may now be too little too late.
The South Sudanese military, which built up its arsenal during three years of civil war, is poised to launch an offensive as the annual dry season — prime time for fighting — resumes in December. And U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, struggling to mount an international response to the killing, has shelved its planned sanctions after American diplomats failed to secure the nine votes necessary for U.N. Security Council approval.
On Wednesday, November 30, Keith Harper, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council, told diplomats in Geneva that South Sudan’s government has mobilized 4,000 troops to carry out attacks against towns in the country’s southern Equatoria provinces, where he said at least 1,901 homes have been destroyed in fighting over the last two months.
“We have credible information that the South Sudanese government is currently targeting civilians in Central Equatoria and preparing for large-scale attacks in the coming days or weeks,” Harper said.
An arms embargo, even if delayed, could still reduce the scale of military fighting over time, asserted Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), lamenting that the United States could have done this immediately when the violence started in 2013.
But in New York, officials said Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., has put off new plans to call for a Security Council vote for the arms embargo. The American-drafted resolution, shelved Tuesday, also would have imposed targeted sanctions against top South Sudanese officials, according to Security Council diplomats.
The U.S. strategy for South Sudan in the 15-nation council faces resistance not only from traditional rivals, including China, Russia, and Venezuela, and from the African states of Angola, Egypt, and Senegal, but is also opposed by close American allies, including Japan, which is reluctant to confront South Sudan while hundreds of its own peacekeepers are there. Malaysia has also expressed reservations over the text.
A separate U.S.-backed push by the United Nations to send more than 4,000 additional U.N. peacekeeping reinforcements to South Sudan, primarily based in Juba, has been fiercely resisted by the country’s officials, fueling pessimism over the prospects of them ever deploying. A key potential contributor, Kenya, has meanwhile pulled out of the U.N. operation. Nairobi is protesting a recent decision by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to fire the mission’s Kenyan force commander for failing to protect civilians during a bout of fighting violence in Juba last summer that effectively marked the de facto death of the country’s peace process.
“The Security Council has lost its way on South Sudan,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping with the European Council on Foreign Relations. The combined effort of American diplomats and their Security Council partners, he said, “feels more like symbolic diplomacy than anything real.”
Gowan noted that the council’s focus on pouring reinforcements into Juba, which has calmed since the summer, may be misdirected. “It’s no longer a question of securing Juba,” he said. “An increased presence of U.N. peacekeepers in Juba is not going to affect the spreading chaos. The violence has already moved out to other regions.”
The United States has expressed it remains committed to seeking the passage of an arms embargo. But this week’s setback provided a painful illustration of the waning influence of the Obama administration in its final weeks in power. The administration sat on a far better chance to push for the embargo last summer, when South Sudan’s government was facing global condemnation for its attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and international aid workers. The threat of an arms embargo was held off for more than two years as Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, has been reluctant to pull the trigger, arguing internally that it could undermine a democratically elected government’s ability to defend itself against an insurgency that has also committed massive human rights abuses.
Rice has also voiced concern that an embargo would be ineffective because South Sudan’s neighbors, including its military ally Uganda, would not enforce it even if one were imposed. But Rice and other senior U.S. officials have since given their blessing to a U.S. push for an arms embargo, reflecting mounting concern that South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has largely abandoned the peace process and plans to resolve the country’s political standoff through a return to war.
South Sudan descended into civil war in December 2013, when forces loyal to Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, opened fire on followers of his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer. The violence inside Juba targeted Nuer civilians for slaughter, prompting Machar to organize armed resistance to Kiir’s rule. That launched a civil war that evolved from a political struggle for power into an ethnic conflict pitting the majority Dinka against the nation’s other tribes.
No country played a larger role in the creation of South Sudan than the United States. As revealed by former 4-star General Wesley Clark in the video on the right, Sudan was one of the “7 countries in 5 years” to be toppled under George W. Bush‘s presidency, carrying out the foreign policy goals of Dick Cheney, Halliburton, and hawkish neo-conservatives in the Project For the New American Century (PNAC).
It was President George W. Bush’s appointment of former Senator John Danford as Special Envoy for Sudan in 2004 and Danford’s diplomatic efforts that helped bring about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that finally ended the war between the north and south of Sudan that had raged on for nearly two decades. The U.S. continued in its commitment to supervise in implementing the CPA under President Barack Obama, the culmination of which was South Sudan’s gaining, peacefully, its independence in 2011. The new nation was one of Hillary Clinton‘s signature projects as Secretary of State. Last August, President Obama managed to pressure the Kiir and Machar to sign a ceasefire agreement, though it wouldn’t take long to be violated and abandoned by both sides, plunging the country back into violence and chaos.
Obama has made 3 successive and rather dismal appointments to the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan position, the first being retired Air Force Major-General Scott Gration, who was woefully unqualified for the role. He had no knowledge of Sudan, no diplomatic experience, and did not speak Arabic or possess any other relevant language skills.
By the time Ambassador Gration was actually in office, he demonstrated extraordinary and dangerous ignorance on Darfur issues. He quickly sided with the regime on the question of early returns of displaced persons, without any understanding of the danger facing people forced to leave the relative security that the camps afforded. For that ignorance he was taken sharply to task by a humanitarian Inter-Agency Management Group (IAMG) in summer 2009.
Undeterred by the evidence of his ignorance, Gration went on to display his thoughts on diplomacy with the Khartoum regime in September 2009:
“We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.” (September 28, 2009)
These words certainly encouraged Khartoum immensely in its continued ethnically-targeted campaign of destruction in Darfur, and set the stage for the events of late 2010 and early 2011 in the run-up to the Southern self-determination referendum. On Abyei in particular — joined by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current Secretary of State John Kerry — Gration urged the government in Juba to “compromise” further on the boundaries of Abyei, despite the existence of a final and binding ruling on Abyei from the Permanent Court of Arbitration — binding arbitration that Khartoum had agreed to in July 2009.
This ruling was favorable to Khartoum and significantly reduced the area of Abyei entitled to participate in what was to have been a January 9, 2011 self-determination referendum, which would have seen an overwhelming vote to join South Sudan. But encouraged by Gration and others in the Obama administration, Khartoum had by the time of the referendum resolved to seize all of Abyei militarily, which it did — after substantial and clearly visible military preparation — on May 20, 2011.
Just as destructive as Gration in the attitudes and policy views he espoused was Obama’s second special envoy, Princeton Lyman. Lyman was in charge of Sudan policy throughout the early months of 2011 and knew full well of Khartoum’s military preparations to seize Abyei. He said nothing of consequence, and after the actual seizure on May 20, also said nothing of significance — no demands that Khartoum withdraw militarily, specifying consequences if they did not. All that the U.S. and international community offered the people of Abyei, denied their right to a self-determination referendum as guaranteed by the CPA’s “Abyei Protocol,” was an Ethiopian brigade of peacekeepers, which has done little more than preserve the status quo.
Unsurprising, emboldened by the entirely successful military seizure of Abyei, Khartoum soon after initiated hostilities in South Kordofan. The most consequential early violence was in the capital of the state, Kadugli. Almost from the first we had many highly credible reports—including from an Agence France-Presse correspondence on the scene—of mass killings of Nuba, the general name for the African tribal populations of the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. House-to-house searches, traffic barricades, and arbitrary arrests of people of Nuba ethnicity defined these early days. So too did mass graves, capable of holding thousands of bodies.
The current Obama administration special envoy for Sudan, Donald Booth, is unlikely to survive the transition to a Trump administration (though that administration is very likely to be so disorganized on foreign policy that many diplomats may simply be frozen in their positions for weeks or months). His comment in the Sudan Tribune must stand as a parting effort to explain eight years of failure to halt what candidate and first-term President Obama found expedient to call genocide:
“[Abdul Wahid al Nur’s] refusal to negotiate has been a perennial problem for international efforts to end the conflict in Sudan, but it has become especially damaging as other parties to the conflict begin moving toward peace.”
Booth seems to have forgotten or never bothered to learn the history of the terrible failure of “shotgun diplomacy” that was the 2006 Abuja Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), presided over by an impatient Bush administration special envoy, Robert Zoellick. Nothing did more to divide the Darfuri rebel groups, only one of which signed the agreement — and the least valuable in securing peace.
The motives of the U.S. intervention in Sudan are linked to their interest, as always, in oil, as the country was producing over 500,000 barrels per day, which were held by China, therefore, the subsequent motive in causing destabilization in the nation was to weaken the anti-U.S. government of Khartoum, Republic of Sudan, and lessen the influence of China.
The result of Washington’s intervention has been the country’s deterioration into a civil war, which threatens to spread to other countries throughout Central and East Africa, and the despair of the people who now face potential famine and ethnic cleansing.
“The warning signs are there,” the U.N. advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, told the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 17, following a visit to South Sudan:
“Throughout my visit, conversations with all actors confirmed that what began as a political conflict has transformed into what could become an outright ethnic war.
Action can and must be taken now to address some of the factors that could provide fertile ground for genocide.”
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