The United Nations arms embargo on South Sudan imposed by the security council last week is a positive, if long overdue step. South Sudan’s war has been defined by incredible brutality against civilians – gruesome massacres, executions, wholesale destruction of homes and property, sexual violence including gang rapes, arbitrary detention, and torture. The fighting has forced nearly four million people to flee their homes; half are now refugees in neighboring countries.
When the scale of atrocities became apparent in the months after the fighting broke out in December 2013, Human Rights Watch called for a comprehensive arms embargo. For over four years we worked with South Sudanese and international partners to press for UN action. The UN panel of experts, set up to monitor the sanctions regime imposed on South Sudan in 2015, called for an arms embargo in each of its reports documenting the sale and transfer of weapons – including attack helicopters and amphibious tanks – for three years.
Last week, after years of growing frustration over failed efforts to end the war, the UN security council narrowly voted to pass the resolution. Côte d’Ivoire, the only African government to vote yes, deserves special credit for this and other positive action in the council. The six abstentions included Ethiopia, whose ambassador cited “progress” in the peace process, and China, who has sold weapons to South Sudan in the past.
The embargo sends a message to the warring parties in South Sudan: The world is fed up with the abuses against civilians and will hold its leaders to account. It is now up to regional neighbors like Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda to ensure implementation. To date, these countries have not enforced UN sanctions against the eight South Sudanese men currently subject to travel bans and asset freezes.
Will regional governments take a different tack with the arms embargo? As members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional bloc, these countries have invested in bringing an end to the atrocities. If they really want to protect South Sudan’s civilians, they need to enforce the embargo and cooperate with the UN panel of experts to show they are doing so.