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Mar 13, 2018 | Commentary


The approximately 4-year conflict between the Government of South Sudan, rebel groups and opposition political factions has driven the country deeper into the compounding problems of economic failure, governance dysfunction, and cycles of violence. Famine has set-in and is expected to worsen in the coming months and a refugee and IDP crisis of epic scale has beset the region. With documented atrocities on all sides of the conflict and increasing frustration with failure of serious progress towards a resolution of the conflict there are increasing calls for additional targeted punitive measures.

Targeted sanctions have become a preferred tool to compel change. To date sanctions already imposed on a handful of South Sudanese officials by the USA, Canada, EU and UN have had little effect on the conflict. This track-record raises important questions about doubling down on similar measures; mainly how useful are more of these same types of sanctions in achieving the goal of bringing the current conflict to an end?

Despite the high cost neither the government nor the various opposition/rebel factions have been able to find a peaceful way forward, most believe the stakes are as high as it gets – survival. This is an important starting point for thinking about the problem. Given this context, the behavioral influence and deterrent calculus behind the idea of targeted sanctions likely do not have the same kind of effect they were originally conceived to have. Worse, paired with little comprehensive strategy, and a rhetoric framing individuals as villains and by extension their respective communities, targeted sanctions in South Sudan have taken on the trappings of summary punitive measures imposed by internationals.

For the most part, those who have been sanctioned to date do not feel the impact of the these measures. Either they do not possess sufficient wealth or do not move their wealth in ways susceptible to existing sanctions regimes.

Sanctions targeting top figures so far have also overestimated the power these individuals possess to end and/or prevent violence taking place on the ground.  None of those targeted could likely bring an end to the conflict tomorrow if they chose to. Likely no one has the relative bargaining strength to end conflict. There is simply too great and wide an array of important figures and groups. Rather, these measures embolden and create defensive posturing, often giving justification for the positions of leaders who use violence as they rally their respective communities to the defensive. Because South Sudan is a patronage society, with community leaders feeding large networks of people, targeted sanctions can impact communities and ethnic groups associated with those leaders. As such sanctions risk creating the perception of targeting specific ethnic groups.

For any sanctions to be effective in possibly deterring the actors from perpetrating violence and prolonging this conflict on all sides, they should be conceived and applied more strategically and balanced against all parties who’ve engaged in or encouraged violations of international or South Sudanese laws and norms. These measures need to move beyond the same group of individuals who’ve been repeatedly targeted with limited result and expand towards the perpetrators of violence or corruption who have both citizenship and assets outside of South Sudan. It is in these jurisdictions where the very international actors pushing for sanctions and asset freezes will then be required to enforce them.

Smarter sanctions could provide one piece of a toolkit for regional and international actors in attempting to stem the profiting from South Sudan’s civil war and to show a larger commitment towards action on the part of those actors calling for an end to that conflict. However, these tools are ultimately not a substitute for the mediation, complicated justice mechanism and humanitarian support that those who have suffered should be accorded.

Considering the historical record, most of the issues facing South Sudan could be expected for new and emerging states. South Sudan is one of the first states to emerge in the new global normative environment post-2000, as such new approaches are essential. More of the same will beget more of the same. As a result, although not an easy proposition, it is imperative that the voice’s and perspectives of the broader South Sudanese community be accounted for in an inclusive way in the creation of mechanisms meant to support peace, justice and accountability.



Matthew Leriche is the Director, Global Leadership Center and Assistant Professor Global Studies, Ohio University. https://www.ohio.edu/global/glc/index.cfm 

Erica Marsh is a researcher working in East Africa with experience investigating issues of sanctions compliance.