After a long debate last week, the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on action in the face of continuing massive abuses against civilians in South Sudan. A proposal supported by Washington and its Western allies on an arms embargo was blocked by Russia. The UN’s advisor on genocide prevention Adama Dieng had nevertheless warned during the debates that there was a risk of genocide in the world’s youngest nation. Only two years after its independence, South Sudan plunged into a bloody civil war in 2013 between supporters of President Salva Kiir and those of his former Vice-President Riek Machar, who is now in exile.
Returning from a visit to South Sudan, Adama Dieng told the UN Security Council on November 17 that he “saw all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it". The UN Secretary General’s special advisor on prevention of genocide urged the UN to impose an embargo on arms to South Sudan and impose an asset freeze and travel ban on top South Sudanese leaders.
Also addressing the Security Council, UN Special Representative to South Sudan Ellen Margrethe Løj warned there was a risk of widespread “civil war” in the country. Denouncing incendiary rhetoric and incitement to violence, she said ethnic tensions had worsened and there were sporadic clashes between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of President Kiir and other armed groups in the state of Equatoria, according to a report published on the UN website.
Several delegations, including the US, the UK, France and New Zealand spoke in favour of an arms embargo. "South Sudan is a nation at the precipice," US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told the Security Council. She said it was time to act and that all the “ingredients” were there for a dramatic increase of violence in the country, including a rise in ethnic tensions and the fact that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) does not have the capacity to prevent it. Power also called the Security Council’s attention to South Sudanese leaders’ intimidation of journalists and civil society. She said there were the same warning signs in South Sudan as in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide and in Srebrenica, which the UN had preferred to ignore.
Russian delegate Petr Iliichev rejected all idea of an arms embargo. He said that in the Central African Republic, another country suffering serious ethnic and political conflict, the arms embargo was “not working at all”. He also expressed surprise at the insistence of some Council members (although he did not name them) on an arms embargo when their governments were supplying arms to warring parties in other conflicts.
South Sudan’s Ambassador Joseph Moum Majak Malok recognized that his country was divided and called for support from the international community to restore unity. He said his country’s goal was the inclusion of all ethnic and political groups, provided they “respect the rule of law”. But he said the international response so far failed to make a difference between the elected government of President Salva Kiir and the rebellion led by his rival and former Vice-President Riek Machar. The authorities in Juba, confronting an "armed rebellion intent on overthrowing the government," he argued, should not be deprived of the means to defend themselves.
On Friday night, at the end of the discussions, the Security Council went no further than a declaration, in which it strongly condemned all attacks on civilians, ethnically motivated killings, hate speech and incitement to violence in South Sudan.
The 15 Security Council members called on the government in Juba to act immediately against hate speech and ethnic violence, so as to promote reconciliation amongst the population and open the way for a truth and justice process. They said they were ready to consider additional measures to stop a new escalation of violence, including possible appropriate sanctions.
Meanwhile, the suffering of civilians in South Sudan continues. Those who are not killed by bullets continue to flee their country, seeking refuge in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.