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In Hindsight: South Sudan Arms Embargo

With the adoption of resolution 2428 on 13 July, the Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan until 31 May 2019. The imposition of an arms embargo on South Sudan is a major development. Some Council members had proposed an arms embargo more than four years ago—then-elected member Australia raised this in the Council in May 2014, for instance (S/PV.7168)—but until this July, the proposal had failed to garner sufficient support.

As this year’s negotiations on resolution 2428 demonstrated, the arms embargo on South Sudan remains controversial. The resolution received the bare minimum of nine votes required for adoption absent a veto from a permanent member, with abstentions by six members (Bolivia, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Russia). One notable factor that made the adoption possible was the support of Côte d’Ivoire, which in doing so broke ranks with the other two African members of the Council.     

A previous effort by the US, the penholder on South Sudan, to push for an arms embargo on South Sudan failed in 2016. However, resolution 2304 of 12 August 2016, which authorised the deployment of a regional protection force (RPF) in South Sudan, stated that the Council would consider imposing an arms embargo if the government of South Sudan were to obstruct either the deployment of the RPF or the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in the fulfilment of its mandate. This was controversial for China and Russia, among others, who did not support this trigger for considering an arms embargo and felt that there had been a lack of appropriate consultation with the South Sudanese government about the deployment of the RPF. On the other hand, members such as France, Spain, and the UK would have preferred for the resolution to impose an immediate embargo in light of the deteriorating security situation. The resolution was adopted one month after Juba descended into violence following the collapse of the power-sharing agreement between President Salva Kiir and then-First Vice President Riek Machar. These divisions in the Council were reflected in the vote tally on resolution 2304, where the 11 votes in favour were accompanied by abstentions from China, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela.

With the South Sudanese government continuing to hinder the operations of UNMISS, the US was ready by late November 2016 to put to a vote a draft resolution for an embargo (and additional targeted sanctions), but subsequently withdrew the draft, apparently because the nine votes required for adoption were not forthcoming. In addition to those countries that were strongly opposed to the embargo, reservations came from less expected places, including Senegal, which chaired the South Sudan Sanctions Committee, and close US ally Japan. Some sources maintained that Japan’s ambivalence was driven by the fear that supporting the embargo could subject its peacekeepers in South Sudan to potential retaliation. (Japan withdrew its peacekeepers from South Sudan in 2017.)

Despite the lack of support, the US tabled a draft resolution for an arms embargo and additional targeted sanctions on 23 December 2016. It received only seven affirmative votes (France, New Zealand, Spain, Ukraine, the UK, the US and Uruguay), along with eight abstentions (Angola, China, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Senegal and Venezuela). Why the US proposed the draft when a negative outcome was likely is not entirely clear. It may have been done out of principle, to demonstrate that it had at least made an effort to stem the flow of weapons to the conflict parties in the waning days of the Obama administration. In this regard, US Ambassador Samantha Power said the following in her explanation of vote: “At a certain point, drifting along and internalizing the constraints imposed by those Council members who do not want to take action in the face of the violence, that is not an option. We learned that from Rwanda, Srebrenica and chapters past” (S/PV.7850).    

The US position on the arms embargo had shifted from one of ambivalence in 2014 and 2015 to full support after the large-scale violence in Juba in July 2016, whereas France, the UK and several of the elected members had consistently supported an arms embargo. Media reports indicated that US National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who served as her country’s ambassador to the UN from 2009 to 2013, had been opposed to the embargo because of concerns that it would disadvantage the government more than the opposition.

The dust had hardly settled on the failed 23 December 2016 draft resolution when members again began discussing a potential arms embargo in early 2017, prompted by the further deterioration of the security and humanitarian environment in South Sudan amidst a faltering political process. In a 23 March 2017 briefing, France, Ukraine, the UK and the US mentioned an arms embargo and targeted sanctions as tools available to the Council, while Egypt and Russia reaffirmed their opposition to sanctions against South Sudan (S/PV.7906). Similar divisions on an arms embargo were evident in Council meetings throughout the year and into 2018.

When the Council negotiated resolution 2406 of 15 March extending the UNMISS mandate for one year, one of the more contentious issues was whether and how to reference the threat of a possible arms embargo to address the violence in South Sudan. Some members were initially reluctant to include such a reference, but it was retained in the final draft with some modifications. The final version says that the Council will “consider all measures, including an arms embargo, as appropriate, to deprive the parties of the means to continue fighting and to prevent violations” of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA), which had been signed three months earlier, on 21 December 2017, by all parties to the 2015 peace agreement as well as new parties to the conflict.

Those members supportive of the resolution maintained that the embargo would help to diminish the level of violence and protect civilians. Their views were consistent with those of the South Sudan Sanctions Committee’s Panel of Experts, which has repeatedly recommended an arms embargo and said in its 12 April final report (S/2018/292) that “an arms embargo is technically feasible and would have a positive impact on the political and security environment”. Members uncomfortable with the embargo were concerned that coercive measures could undermine the peace process. They emphasised the importance of following the lead of the region, particularly the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, whose Council of Ministers issued a press release on 30 June in Nouakchott, Mauritania, in which they said that “given the latest developments in the peace process and the need to implement the permanent ceasefire and achieve an inclusive peace agreement, it is not helpful to pursue punitive measures at this stage”.

However, continued violations of the CoHA in the first half of 2018 bolstered the conviction of those supporting an arms embargo that another effort should be made to pursue this measure to help protect civilians. On 31 May, the Council adopted resolution 2418 renewing the sanctions regime until 15 July. The resolution also requested the Secretary-General to report by 30 June on whether any fighting had taken place since the adoption of the resolution and whether the parties had come to “a viable political agreement”. It decided that the Council will consider applying additional targeted sanctions or an arms embargo, or both, within five days of receiving the Secretary-General’s report. The resolution was adopted with nine votes in favour and six abstentions (Bolivia, China, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Russia). The parties to the conflict agreed to a permanent ceasefire on 27 June in Khartoum (the Khartoum Declaration) but fighting continued to be reported. On 5 July, Council members were briefed in closed consultations on the Secretary-General’s assessment (S/2018/653), which observed that there had been credible reports of fighting and that UNMISS had documented “gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”.

On 6 July, the US circulated a draft resolution imposing an arms embargo (and additional targeted sanctions). A version of this draft was adopted as resolution 2428 on 13 July. Ambassador Nikki Haley (US) said at the explanation of vote: “The goal of the draft resolution is simple. If we are going to help the people of South Sudan, we need the violence to stop, and to stop the violence we need to stop the flow of weapons…” (S/PV.8310).

It is too early to draw conclusions about the impact of the arms embargo on the conflict or whether recent developments on the political front will bear fruit over the longer term. Following the 27 June Khartoum Declaration, the parties signed an Agreement on Outstanding Issues of Governance and Responsibility Sharing in Khartoum on 5 August. However, a final overarching agreement still needs to be signed by the parties. Council members recognised in elements to the press on 10 August that “considerable challenges remain on the path to peace, stability and security”.

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