On May 6 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry declared sanctions against two members of opposing parties responsible for the ongoing violence in South Sudan. The conflict erupted in the capital city of Juba on 15 December 2013 within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which split into two rival factions: supporters of South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and a rebel group led by Kiir’s former vice president, Riek Machar. A recent human rights report from the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reveals that both sides of the conflict are responsible for violations of human rights and international law, bizarrely concluding that despite “serious questions” about whether South Sudan can provide adequate accountability mechanisms, the government of South Sudan should take action to punish those responsible.
The fighting began in government and military installations but soon overflowed into civilian areas. Machar’s supporters were initially crushed by the government. To consolidate the victory, government forces began entering communities where the majority of Machar’s supporters were thought to be. Since Machar’s supporters are largely Nuer, the government began door-to-door killings in Nuer neighborhoods, provoking further violence and attracting the attention of human rights monitors. The upheaval is estimated to have killed thousands and displaced over 1 million people. While the opposing parties set up a ceasefire in January, both have since been accused of violating it. In early April, US President Barack Obama signed an executive order for sanctions to be laid against those responsible.
Under the executive order, both entities and individuals may be sanctioned for committing human rights abuses, preventing peace talks, or otherwise compromising peace and stability. The current sanctions were pressed against two military officials believed to have played a key role in bringing the country to a state of crisis: the rebel General Peter Gadet and Major-general Marial Chanuong Mangok commanding the presidential guard. Both have been accused of leading attacks resulting in massive civilian casualties. The sanctions imposed a travel ban and froze any American assets the two generals may have had. While symbolically significant, the sanctions have been criticized as being too weak since neither of the two men hold important assets in the US, and with their limited English, have not indicated any desire to travel there. The two generals do have family members in several East African countries, and are much more likely to see sanctions from a few of South Sudan’s six neighbors as a threat.
The international community’s efforts to pressure leaders of the warring parties to make peace have so far been largely cosmetic. The American sanctions are highly unlikely to create the kind of pressure that will bring the two sides to the negotiating table or even discourage cruelty against civilians. Accountability for crimes against humanity has become a distant prospect in South Sudan, as it has in so many ongoing conflicts around the world.