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Jul 13, 2015 | Commentary

A Simple Remedy For a Complex Problem

The sanctions, building on previous targeted regimes announced by the USA, EU and Canada are a narrow and simplistic remedy to a deep and complex situation.

The situation is one of systems and structures of violence that have long histories and dynamic causes, not just individual perpetrators. The attempt to find villains and impose a specific conception of international justice has not worked in other situations such as in Sudan; why then would it work in South Sudan with even more limited measures.

While some individuals certainly have played more of a role than others as catalysts to the conflict, the narrow focus on military leaders ignores the deeply political nature of this conflict. It also abstracts actors from the systems that direct and frame actions.

The conflict in South Sudan is one of political creation rooted in a longstanding confrontation between different leaders and leadership groupings, all of whom believe their actions are not only just but essential for the future of their people and the idea of the nation only just liberated from a previous oppression. The cleavages between the former Vice President Riek Machar and the President Salva Kiir go back a long way, for example. It is after all a fight over the political dispensation of a new South Sudanese state, between leaders that have been contesting for dominance back to the early days of civil war in the 1980s. These long and deep issues cannot be confronted by naming and shaming.  

Targeting Individuals not Structures and Dynamics

Along with long histories of animosity and atrocity, various structures in the government and wider society have enhanced the nepotistic and ethnically defined nature of key institutions of the emergent state. Most dangerous were those structures that developed in the security and economic institutions of the embryonic South Sudan going back to the early post Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA – 2005) days.

South Sudan’s security services became more of a threat to peace than the guarantor of security and national defence they were meant to be. Far from solely the fault of the military leadership itself, the politics of using the army, police and other services as a political space to purchase the loyalty of those that would pose a threat undermined much of the effort to build an effective and professional security sector. Most problematic was the associated creation of parallel security structures, each under the leadership of a community’s respective leader, seeing the President, former Vice President, and/or others effectively building their own security entities within the security sector.

This was a recipe for disaster. In the instance political competition and deeper animosity boiled over, these structures almost guaranteed escalation and entrenching conflict between communities. Thus the drivers of this conflict and impediments to peace are more complex than the sanctioning of six individuals suggests. A remedy thus requires a similarly complex regime of measures and focus on groups, individuals, institutions and social dynamics, admittedly a tall order.


Focus on Military and not Political figures and Undermining Peace

Possibly the worst consequence of this sanction regime is that the sanctions were poorly timed and it seems scuttling a real opportunity for progress towards peace. The sanctions announced by the Security Council are of course far from the only work being done to secure peace. There are several peace initiatives currently underway, endeavoring to progress toward such a solution. As recent as June it seemed major progress was being had on most fronts. Much of the hard work to make progress towards peace has been by many accounts set back by the impatient acts from upon high.

The peacebuilding purpose of the March 3rd 2015 sanctions as set out in Security Council Resolution 2206 (2015), was correspondingly perverted by a belief that further violence or resistance to a peace agreement can be deterred by targeting a handful of military figures. Their political masters have been left to continue the bravado and posturing of their brinksmanship over power sharing, as much a driver of the violence as any attack on the battlefield. While military leaders have been framed by these sanctions as recalcitrant, many politicians have been the more extreme in provoking the repeated failure of talks. Rather than work to build on the engagement of many military leaders these sanctions ostracism and create disincentives for continued engagement. In short they may compel increased extremism rather than support moderation and pragmatic compromise.

Any intervention in a conflict must be based on a balance of benefit, where the potential positive impact outweighs the potential negative consequences. The potential for these limited sanctions to help end fighting and cement peace was slight if non-existent. Their potential negative consequence was emboldening the stubborn resolve of leaders to pursue a military victory. Just as some progress had been made, including reconciliation between the government and most of the dissident group of political leaders known as the G10 (Former Detainees). The worst case scenario is that the sanctions have entrenched a belief that only victory on the battlefield can secure their negotiating position.

Taking some perspective, it’s worth asking, since the first sanctions of these kinds were issued over a year ago what has come of those sanctioned?

  • So far all of those sanctioned continue to hold their positions and remain just as relevant to their respective political leaders not to mention increasingly admired by their supporters.
  • No one was deterred from continued battle, with major atrocity continuing since the sanctions of the USA, EU were first issued in 2014.

Not only are the sanctions not likely to compel a change in the behavior of those sanctioned they are even less likely to deter other military leaders, deterrence an associated purpose of this kind of sanctions. Neither Riek Machar nor Salva Kiir are likely to abandon their most important military officers for the sake of an international brokered deal; if they do it will be only to placate, with what is likely to be a lack of any real commitment to hand these figures over to some form of justice after the agreement.

Networks Fuelling the Conflict

Even though many might see these sanctions as looking to treat international aspects of the conflict, the current sanctions also ignore the networks of actors that sit behind the violence.  These networks include financial backers, business associates, nationals of other states engaged in the conflict, South Sudanese diaspora engaging directly and indirectly, etc, etc. If this has been considered it has not been made public. A comprehensive targeted regime that addressed political, economic and military actors thus makes more sense. Sanctions and focus on political leaders has been applied in other crises, so it is worth asking the question why this narrow focus in this case? A fuller explanation of the logic behind the specifics of these sanctions is incumbent upon the Security Council.

Research and work on targeted sanctions suggests that they could be useful to undercut the ability of those perpetrating violence to act, which would mean denying and shaming those that fund, arm and provide political motive. Those sanctioned rarely leave South Sudan and are often more content in their remote villages than even the South Sudanese capital Juba. Even the most notorious of those sanctioned General Peter Gadet’s networks are not that extensive mostly extending to Khartoum and the mid-east where there is certainly no likelihood that a UN sanction regime can have impact evidenced by the continued flaunting of international justice and the UN by President Omar Bashir.

These sanctions considered in these terms do not go deep and far enough to have impact. They do not follow the money, even though this is the crux of this kind of sanction. The cynical perspective is that those sanctioned are easy targets, with little or no ramifications for those imposing sanctions, especially for regional states.

Who are these Sanctions For?

Many in South Sudan are asking who these sanctions are for – South Sudanese or various lobbies in the West? While the direct connection has not been clearly established, for many, these sanctions apparently come as a result of the success of several lobbies in the USA to compel even a modicum of action. It seems, as with other cases such as in Darfur, these lobbies are less interested in consequence and more on the virtue of action itself and the recognition of having compelled some action from the US government, rather than the actual consequence on the ground.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power discussed the sanctions in a recent tweet.

This reveals a punitive conception underlying the support for such sanctions. It has been established that the use of sanctions in this way undermines the legitimacy of action due to poor protection of individual rights.Using sanctions in a punitive manner without judicial process is not only questionable in principle but the function of an international body acting in this way can be seen by many as imposition and lacking legitimacy from the aggrieved in the situation the sanctions are meant to help remedy. Such action thus risks alienating South Sudanese more generally.

As the International Crisis Group commented on the announcement of the sanctions, “Imposing sanctions on these generals at this time would also turn individuals and communities in South Sudan who currently favour a peace agreement against the international community.”

For many South Sudanese, these sanctions are a further mockery of the international institutions that have for years purported to claim the interest of helping South Sudanese. This is the false hope that so often emanates from hollow words and half-action by international organizations and governments, determined to placate political imperatives for normative action but at the same time dare not risk the costly impact on their own interests of more comprehensive intervention. This is likely why we continue to see states unwilling even to focus on the extent to which nationals of their own countries are directly involved in fighting, financing and emboldening the chaos unfolding in much of South Sudan. Only Australia has seriously begun to consider this aspect of the conflict.[1] This is also likely why every act of sanction was done in a balanced way with a clear moral equivalence assumed between government and opposition, international figures fearing taking a position one way or the other; the conflict being seen in simple binary terms, which it is not. The consequence is a clear crisis of credibility and confidence in the international institutions behind these sanctions; the opposite of which is actually one of the reasons given for this round of sanctions.

So What?

Sadly this UN sanctions regime is not likely to translate into much for the average South Sudanese caught in the middle of the carving up of power, territory and authority in the new South Sudanese state.

While targeted sanctions could be a useful tool to compel peace, in their current construction they are at least a benign act that gives some a sense of action, at worst undermining progress to peace while people continue to suffer in a complex political competition with all involved believing in their righteousness.



Matthew LeRiche is a researcher, academic, political adviser and filmmaker. Before joining the Political Science Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland as a visiting assistant professor, he was a Fellow in Managing Humanitarianism at the International Development Department of the London School of Economics. He has been an adviser on defence education in South Sudan supporting wider security sector reform efforts.


[1] There has been a recognition by the Australian government that many South Sudanese – Australians are directly involved in the conflict.. The same is undoubtedly true in other Western states with large South Sudanese communities and/or major business interests in the oil rich state.