Embargo blues

Embargo blues

So says President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, East African powerbroker, Twitter enthusiast, and Salva Kiir’s most resilient regional ally. Thus far the UN Security Council hasn’t disappointed either Kiir or Museveni. Last month the Council voted to renew the UN mission in South Sudan but declined, yet again, to impose an arms embargo. Is that a good or a bad thing? Does it matter at all?

South Sudan’s latest civil war, its fourth since 1955, is now in its third year. All sides have had access to external weapons sources, which members of all sides’ forces have used to violate ceasefires and perpetrate atrocities. Security Council members — including, ostensibly, the U.S. — have threatened an arms embargo several times, and after widespread fighting broke out again in the capital in early July, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon himself took the unusual step of calling for one – a call echoed, unusually, by the regional grouping IGAD, despite the opposition of key IGAD member Uganda.

Each time, however, the Security Council has stepped back. Understanding why is hindered by the opaque, closed-door politics of the Council’s Sanctions Committees. Nonetheless it’s clear that the Russian Federation has repeatedly opposed an embargo – part of Russia’s wider efforts to oppose the legitimacy of UNSC sanctions regimes over the last five years – and that the U.S. has been ambivalent, using the threat of an embargo in draft resolutions but repeatedly stepping back from following through, a stance which reportedly reflects deeper dissension amongst U.S. policymakers about the legitimacy and utility of sanctioning South Sudan’s government and key military officials. The latest resolution authored by the U.S. and voted through with the abstention of four countries including Russia and China, is yet again conditional, threatening a future vote on an arms embargo only if Juba obstructs an expanded UN peacekeeping force.

I’m a previous contributor to the Small Arms Survey’s Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) project, which amongst other things monitors weapons flows and sanctions in both Sudans. Last month, as the Security Council mulled the situation in Juba, the HSBA published two papers on the older, disreputable twin of the South Sudan sanctions regime: the sanctions and embargo imposed since 2005 on Darfur, north of the border. The papers’ conclusions on the Darfur embargo are entirely unsurprising. Put simply: it doesn’t work, and the Security Council has stopped caring. A decade on from its imposition, the arms embargo on Darfur remains (1) inoperative; (2) violated almost weekly, entirely without legal or political enforcement or consequence, either from Member States or the Security Council itself; and, consequently, (3) largely irrelevant either to the Darfur conflict’s political negotiations or to mitigating its humanitarian consequences. The main paper’s concluding section reflects briefly on the reasons for this near-total failure, largely stemming from the paralysed politics of the Security Council and the fragility of the UN’s purchase in Sudan; and suggests that some of the same factors may account for the Council’s paralysis over the South Sudan embargo.

I’ve heard from several sources that some members of the Security Council have cited the HSBA paper as part of their justification for opposing a South Sudan arms embargo. Whatever one’s views on South Sudan, this is cynical even by the usual standards of Security Council politics. Not just because the HSBA paper’s concluding section is primarily a reflection on the common roots of the Council’s current sanctions paralysis over both Darfur and South Sudan, rather than a prediction about the likely efficacy or usefulness of a future South Sudan embargo. But because the failure of the Darfur embargo, the HSBA paper makes clear, is primarily a political problem, not a technical one. The Darfur embargo may face challenges inherent in its design, but it’s being breached not primarily through legal ‘loopholes’, but in outright violations. It is inoperative because there are no repercussions for such violations. And there are no such repercussions because some members of the Security Council have for over a decade made it impossible for any enforcement measures to get Council approval. It’s entirely circular for Council members to use their own undermining of one embargo regime to argue against another one.

The cynicism of this rhetoric is clear when one looks elsewhere at how the Council deals with the technical challenge of enforcing sanctions measures – where it precisely uses political and economic will to overcome sanctions’ technical and logistical challenges. It might be difficult, for instance, for other countries to physically stop the Sudanese government from moving weapons within its own territory into Darfur. But there are plenty of other cases where Member States can’t directly intervene on activity that takes place within a sanctioned country’s sovereign territory – cases in which they can nonetheless generate negative consequences for the entities and individuals involved. That’s the point of sanctions. States may not, for instance, be able or willing to impose a naval and air blockade on Iran and North Korea to stop prohibited arms exports to willing buyers. But few suggest that as a reason to abandon the measures – instead, the Council routinely puts the companies and people involved on its sanctions list, seeking to freeze their assets and impede their international mobility.

As it happens, I think in general that most current UN arms embargoes don’t work very well, either in a technical sense of preventing weapons supplies, or in an instrumental sense in terms of changing embargoed groups’ behaviour. I do think that those seeking to design and enforce an embargo on South Sudan, therefore, could draw lessons from why other embargoes, including the one next-door on Darfur, haven’t worked in either sense. But as the HSBA paper makes clear, the lesson from Darfur is not that the Security Council can’t enforce the Darfur embargo, but that it won’t. If we conflate can’t with won’t, we miss the real lessons from the Darfur experience about how both sanctions regimes might work better, at least in a technical sense.

For instance, much well-informed discussion of the South Sudan embargo and the HSBA Darfur papers, including from the most recent arms expert on the Security Council’s own South Sudan sanctions monitoring Panel, has rightly stressed the fact that the Darfur embargo has failed in a technical sense primarily because it only covers one part of a sovereign country which is itself a weapons producer, and can therefore manufacture and ship (at least) small arms and ammunition domestically into the Darfur region without external assistance. By contrast, South Sudan is not (yet) a weapons or ammunition producer, and all sides are reliant on cross-border arms supplies, including from Uganda to the south and Sudan to the north.

Is Darfur’s case entirely different? As well as domestic Sudanese arms supplies, Darfur’s rebel groups until at least 2010 obtained arms across Darfur’s borders from two neighbouring countries — Qadaffi’s Libya and Déby’s Chad — at least in part with the complicity of elements of those regimes. Like Uganda and Sudan in the case of the IGAD+ peace negotiations on South Sudan, so Libya’s and Chad’s leaders were at that time also the key brokers of Darfur peace talks, with a (failed) 2004 ceasefire negotiated in N’Djamena, and 2007-8 talks in Sirte and Tripoli. Despite the consistent reporting of the UN Panel on Darfur that government elements in both countries were arming Darfur at the same time as ostensibly trying to bring about peace,  neither country, nor their directly responsible nationals, suffered any consequences from the Security Council. Much the same dynamic can be seen in the international community’s attitude towards Uganda and Sudan – praised for their “constructive efforts” in the IGAD+ process, while knowing full well that elements within each country’s government have been shipping attack helicopters and ammunition to Kiir’s and Machar’s forces respectively.

Children’s toys in Leer, Unity State, South Sudan, including (bottom) an aircraft, Kalashnikov rifle and machine gun with bipod. June 2014.

Importantly, though, this isn’t just a counsel of despair for the likely future of a South Sudan embargo. The most significant lesson is arguably what happened next in Darfur. Arms flows from Chad and Libya substantially dried up after 2011, the HSBA paper finds. Not because the borders closed or weapons became less available (quite the opposite, in the case of the chaos of post-Qadaffi Libya). But because the politics of Darfur changed for these countries. N’Djamena reached a rapprochement with Khartoum in 2010, and Ghaddafi was deposed in 2011, along with his penchant for backing regional rebels. Cross-border smuggling continues, but the much larger volumes of arms supplies, sponsored by elements of those states’ security forces, have not. The overwhelming message of the paper’s findings on Darfur is that it is politics, not technical design, which primarily makes an embargo succeed or fail. And indeed some observers are quite optimistic about the politics on South Sudan, particularly alleged shifts in posture from Russia and China in the Security Council, and from Sudan in the region. (Though Uganda remains hardball; the ambivalence of Sudan’s support for Machar can be read both ways; and Russian/Chinese abstentions on the threat of an embargo in the Security Council’s latest resolution suggests their pre-vote diplomatic guarantees – as on Darfur – may not be entirely reliable).

Equally, the Darfur case shows how even the most domestic of military supply chains – those ostensibly hardest for other countries to influence – are almost always reliant on foreign assistance vulnerable to foreign disruption or interdiction. Foreign suppliers of components and technical know-how for domestic arms production; international brokers and transporters of arms and dual-use goods; overseas companies maintaining and refurbishing weapons systems and platforms; a penumbra of international actors – from Athens to Pulkovo – sustain what appear to be entirely domestic air and ground warfare supply chains for SAF forces in Darfur. The same is true of South Sudan’s arms-supplying neighbours. Even if Uganda were to disregard a future South Sudan embargo, for instance, and ship further Mi-24 attack helicopters to Juba, a range of other countries could arguably control their companies and citizens who refurbish, ship, fuel, crew and maintain those helicopters. Regardless of the existence or technical efficacy of an embargo prohibiting the physical movement of weapons across a border, due diligence in global military supply chains could nonetheless ground weapons logistics, or make particularly strategic weapons platforms unusable.

SPLA-IO patrol near Gwit, Unity State, South Sudan, June 2014

Whether one thinks an arms embargo is a good idea or a bad idea, it should be judged on its instrumental merits: will it reduce or prevent atrocities, incentivize negotiation, bring parties to the table? If so, then some technical tools are almost always available. Whether they succeed or fail is a matter primarily of political will. Personally I think that reliance on political will is a reason to be pessimistic in the case of a South Sudan embargo. For over a decade, the Security Council has failed, willfully in the case of some of its key members, to stop arms reaching Darfur’s armed actors. That failure may help explain why it may fail again in the case of South Sudan. But it cannot justify any such future failure.

[Top image: an operating table amidst the ruins of the Protection of Civilians (PoC) Site at the UN base in Malakal, Upper Nile: all that remains from either of the PoC site’s clinics — serving some 60,000 people — which were entirely destroyed during an attack and looting on the 18 and 19 February 2016, along with the temporary homes of around 20,000 people. All photos (c) Author]


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