US Interventionist Policy in South Sudan Ineffective at Bringing Needed Improvement

Celia Garrett


The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) arguably represents not only a failure on behalf of the UN but also on behalf of the Obama administration. Despite a deepening US engagement with the UN and South Sudan, the UNMISS’s inability to stem violence and protect even those South Sudanese civilians within UN compounds underlines the peacekeepers’ ineffectiveness. According to Richard Gowan, an expert on UN peacekeeping at the European Council on Foreign Relations, the public failure of UNMISS in Juba in July of 2016 “is an incredible moment of frustration for the US…After the Obama summit and all the emphasis on increased U.S. support to the U.N., it seems that the blue helmets are no better than before.” Writing this in December 2016, Gowan’s claims seem understated. Yasmin Sooka, chairwoman of Commission of Human Rights in South Sudan, warned of a “Rwandan-like” descent into genocidal violence with expected intensification of ethnically-targeted fighting in the coming months. The Obama administration has invested a large amount of political and economic capital in South Sudan, therefore the failure of the UN mission and humanitarian efforts represent a failure on behalf of the administration. A more aggressive international intervention is needed because of the corruption of the South Sudanese government and its “lack [of] the responsibility and the commitment to its citizens” to peacefully protect them. Trump’s America-first policy that would likely include a decrease in UN funding will only worsen the situation in the country.

Apart from UN involvement, the US is the leading international donor to South Sudan, providing significant humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese citizens displaced or otherwise affected since the beginning of the ongoing civil war in 2013. Additionally, the US provides millions of dollars to modernize the South Sudanese army and allocates over a hundred million dollars for civil society and peace-building programs.

Why does the US care so deeply about a small, newly independent country in Africa? What drives the US’ deep commitment to accountable government, peace and stability in South Sudan? As John Kerry said, the US “helped midwife the birth” of an independent South Sudan. It poured billions of aid into backing southern rebels in the Sudanese Civil war and later, into building a new, independent nation. Although one cannot discount US economic interest in Sudanese oil, it is also true that Sudan has been the third largest recipient of American aid since 2005, behind only Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the BBC, “America has a ‘special relationship’ with the country and so felt a ‘special responsibility’ to help.”

Women carry belongings on their heads as they head towards the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Malakal, South Sudan Sunday, Jan 12, 2014. Government forces have controlled the town since before the new year, but some civilians are still afraid for their safety and are seeking protection from further fighting at the UNMISS base. (AP Photo/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin)

The US responded to the UNMISS’s failure in Juba in July 2016 with a UN Security Council resolution extending the UNMISS mandate and significantly increasing UN authority in South Sudan, in spite of opposition by the South Sudanese government. Potentially in violation of the fundamental international principle to respect sovereignty, the adopted resolution (August 2016) dramatically increases the number of troops present and even authorizes lethal force if necessary to protect civilians or pressure armed antagonists. The resolution “represents an unusually robust action by the Council, invoking its rarely used coercive power to militarily intervene when international peace and security are considered to be threatened.”

The US further escalated policy on South Sudan at the end of this November, as the United States decided to enforce a long-threatened arms embargo. This annuls the administration’s previous policy decision in the very beginning of October, when Obama waived CSPA sanctions – prohibiting the US sale of arms to any government that has been identified as recruiting children into its armed forces – on South Sudan.

The failure not only to instill peace and stability but also to protect those safely inside UN compounds confirms the under-resourced mission’s ability to effectively protect civilians in South Sudan. The United States Institute of Peace, citing several US and UN officials who focus on South Sudan, calls for a more assertive policy both on the part of the US and the international community. However, the international community does not support the US’s recent increased interventions, with four countries abstaining from the UN Security Council vote on the mandate in August and forcing US officials in December to shelve sanctions on South Sudan due to a lack of necessary votes on the Security Council. The South Sudanese government will almost surely launch large-scale attacks in the upcoming months, as historically fighting increases during the currently commencing dry season. Payton Knopf, a member of the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan, claims, the South Sudanese “leaders believe that their only salvation is violence against other communities.” Softer intervention (or lack thereof) gives leaders more room to continue committing brutal atrocities and ethnically-motivated killings against the people of South Sudan.

The lack of international support will only fuel Trump’s potential non-interventionist America first policies at a time of predicted genocide and mass humanitarian suffering. However, South Sudanese leaders desperate for any change are encouraged to see a fresh face entering the conflict instead of one who was a part of the Obama administration’s interventionist policy. Trump hardly ever, if at all, spoke of Africa during his presidential campaign. Yet, South Sudanese President Kiir expects strong relations with the Trump administration as does rebel leader Machar. It is not their convictions in Trump’s values and policies that drive their support for Trump, but instead their intense opposition to and distrust of the Obama administration and its extensive involvement in South Sudan. Forced to flee South Sudan and currently in hiding, Machar attempts to hold together a fractured opposition force increasingly finding itself dangerously trapped throughout the country and directly targeted by government forces in Juba, the capital. Machar is desperate for any change in international policy directing behavior in South Sudan. And he is not alone – civilians abused by both leaders and displaced from their homes have been left stranded with no possible solution in sight and no one to blame. They fear the UN camps – unable to guarantee safety and protection as well as centers for the spread of disease – and distrust both Kiir and Machar, who call for peace despite ongoing war crimes and the escalating threat of genocide. Several South Sudanese look to Trump with hope because he is a wild card – he possesses no ties to either Machar or Kiir, the UN mission, or historical interventions and responsibilities in the region.

Trump’s unawareness of South Sudan and his lack of diplomatic experience make him extremely malleable to whoever can convince him to listen and make an argument he can identify with. Machar believes it is his role “to educate [Trump], to tell him – if he will listen, and I think he will listen – to look and see what is wrong in South Sudan…so that he can share good policies that will bring us out from all these problems that we are living in.” However, experts and current American officials doubt not only Trump will develop a deep interest in South Sudan, but also his administration’s support of simply Machar or Kiir.

Torn apart by widespread violence and poverty, South Sudan is desperate for any change. However, Trump will most likely decrease attention and aid to South Sudan as well as UN support and intervention. Trump threatens to undermine the UN, as he promised to scale back US involvement in the UN and the Republican controlled Congress presents a very real possibility to cut US contribution to the UN. The US currently contributes over one-fifth of the UN budget and 28.5% of the peacekeeping budget. Trump’s proposed cuts would impact UN efforts enormously. His statements consistently contradict the UN position and the seeming absence of any fixed foreign policy program leave his approach to the UN highly influenced by those he appoints to key posts in his administration. This only serves to further jeopardize UNMISS without providing any alternative to stabilize the country with accountable government.

In Obama’s most recent press conference, he stated that he feels “responsible for murder and slaughter that’s taken place in South Sudan.” This responsibility is not unique to a country where he has deep personal connections to its foundation, but instead he says it is because “I’m president of the United States [that] I feel responsible.” “I ask myself every single day, is there something I could do that would save lives and make a difference and spare some child who doesn’t deserve to suffer…there’s not a moment during the course of this presidency where I haven’t felt some responsibility.” When Trump faces these decisions, will this same sense of responsibility affect his decisions? It is impossible to know how Trump will react once he takes office in January, however one thing is certain –South Sudan will continue to suffer until the international community more aggressively and effectively intervene on behalf of the people of South Sudan.