People wait to be registered prior to a food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Thonyor, Leer state, South Sudan, February 25, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Are words finally turning into action on South Sudan? In a communiqué issued today, regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) announced it has decided to impose individual sanctions, referring the matter to the African Union (AU) for further punitive action. AU chairperson Moussa Faki previously warned that AU sanctions are under consideration. While individual sanctions from the region would be a first in South Sudan, the AU has taken similar steps in Mali, Burundi, and Madagascar.

On Friday, the United Nations extended the life of a special Commission on Human Rights that is probing crimes in South Sudan for a year, the latest in a series of positive steps by the UN to deal with the protracted crisis.

The week before, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to keep thousands of peacekeepers in the country, expressing concerns about the delay in setting up a hybrid court for South Sudan and – of particular significance – threatened to impose an arms embargo on the country.

These actions reflect the mounting frustration at the United Nations and in the region over the complete failure of South Sudan’s leaders to end their abuse of civilians there. While in Addis Ababa earlier this year, the UN Secretary-General lamented that he had “never seen a political elite with so little interest in the well-being of its own people.”

A UN arms embargo is long overdue. The European Union has had one for years and the US recently imposed its own unilateral arms embargo, signaling its recognition that imported weapons will lead to more atrocities. But the UN has yet to impose one; a previous attempt failed because too many states abstained. The new threat of an arms embargo in a legally binding, unanimously adopted resolution is a positive step, but time will show if the Security Council is ready to make good on their threat.

Meanwhile, South Sudan’s warring parties are failing to follow through on a host of commitments including to demobilize child soldiers, to set up a hybrid court for justice and to allow access for unfettered humanitarian aid. That’s why Friday’s resolution to continue the commission's mandate is so important. The Commission has already identified at least 40 senior South Sudanese military officials responsible for war crimes and will be able to continue its invaluable work to collect and preserve evidence of crimes. Their most recent report documented in meticulous detail evidence of continued killings, rape, and sexual violence, as well as the widespread destruction of villages – mostly at the hands of government soldiers and militia.

As long as South Sudan’s leaders continue their crimes, the UN Security Council should be empowered by the growing chorus from the continent to take more concrete measures to curb these ongoing abuses.