Analysis: Can Sanctions Save South Sudan?

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Written by Andrew Friedman

Talks in Addis Ababa between South Sudan’s government and rebels continue against a backdrop of 1000-plus dead and more than 200,000 displaced in weeks of ethnic and political fighting.

In addition to the need for the negotiating teams to consider the tremendous cost in human life and misery, the international community has added sanctions to the ever-increasing list of incentives for peace.

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council, speaking from a meeting in Banjul in The Gambia on Dec. 30, stated that it would “…take appropriate measures, including targeted sanctions, against all those who incite violence, including along ethnic lines, continue hostilities (and) undermine the envisaged inclusive dialogue.”

Now that talks have begun, the council seems heartened, but still skeptical of the role the negotiating parties play in the ongoing fighting, calling “…upon the leaders of South Sudan to abandon any attempt to seek military advantage prior to entering negotiations, and instead to declare a cessation of hostilities and engage in unconditional, inclusive and holistic political talks in good faith.”

While the potential for sanctions is one reason that leaders from both camps should work towards peace, the history of sanctions, both general and targeted, have a mixed history on the continent.

Can sanctions save South Sudan? To understand the history of sanctions in Africa it is first necessary to understand how sanctions are used and what they are used for.

Economic sanctions fall broadly into two categories: sanctions against states and sanctions against individuals.

Sanctions against states are generally used to get a repressive or uncooperative regime to change course or to prevent access to specific items. While general bans may be used in collaboration with international movements to ensure economic stress on economies, more targeted sanctions require such international movements to have any semblance of success.

One of the most prominent examples of general bans was worldwide anti-apartheid movement. The horrors of apartheid led to an international movement that brought about economic sanctions and disinvestment by a great number of states and companies. This would finally force South African nationalist government to understand that the only way out of its economic woes and international pariah status was a transition to inclusive democracy.

When asked in 1993, before the country’s new constitution would solidify majority rule, if economic sanctions helped end the system, Nelson Mandela replied, there was “…no doubt.”

Despite this success, such general sanctions have at best a mixed record on the continent. While South Africa ultimately moved towards inclusive democracy, sanctions against Zimbabwe have not been similarly successful.

Additionally there are those that argue that sanctions against Zimbabwe have prolonged President Robert Mugabe’s rule by allowing him to paint himself for domestic and regional audiences as a stalwart, bravely standing against western hegemony and new imperialism despite the country’s disastrous economy.

There is a similarly mixed record for the more targeted sanctions against states. History has shown that such sanctions are most successful when they are accompanied by a broad-based international movement and consensus. Recent events in Syria illustrate the weakness of individually targeted sanctions without international consensus. While the U.S. and European Union have banned the sale of weapons to the Assad regime; Russia and Iran have continued to patronize the embattled tyrant.

The closest historical parallel for  targeted sanctions on the African continent goes back to the Cold War, where allegiance to either the U.S. or Soviet Union resulted in patronage from one side and isolation from the other. Such is the case when targeted sanctions and isolation are not the result of international consensus, making items banned by one country available from another superpower.

The second type of sanctions — sanctions against individuals — are being threatened in South Sudan should the violence continue to spiral out of control.

Such sanctions against individuals unconnected to the state’s government such as Riek Machar or his cohorts are considered effective but have particularly troubled human rights lawyers. Machar is the rebel leader and former South Sudan vice president fired by President Salva Kiir in July and later accused of executing a coup attempt.

According to Christina Eckes of the Amsterdam Centre for European Law, such economic sanctions, which amount to losses of tremendous amounts of financial resources and potentially international pariah status, are done without the benefit of a right to defense and have become a prominent tool in recent years.

In this case Machar could be assessed sanctions that cause him to lose access to his money without being able to defend himself in a court or other tribunal. This is a troubling prospect for peace as it assigns individual blame for the violence without the benefit of a fact-finding tribunal.

The African Union, along with the United Nations and other international bodies, is concerned that the situation in South Sudan is getting worse.

Both tribal and political conflicts that have long been overshadowed by a common enemy in the North are playing themselves out with extraordinary violence.

This is not only a major issue in South Sudan going forward. It serves as a troubling warning to other repressed geographic areas on the continent that are saddled with arbitrary borders, an unresponsive central government and a dream of independence.

Long-held conflicts and tensions do not dissipate with independence. They merely simmer under the surface until something makes them erupt. The potential imposition of economic sanctions is but one way that the international community can work to stem the fighting and ensure success at the negotiating table.