The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion South Sudan’s government-made famine

Women hold their acutely malnourished children in a stabilization center last week in Ganyiel Panyijiar county, South Sudan. (Albert Gonzalez Farran/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

George Clooney and John Prendergast are co-founders of the Sentry.

Official, U.N.-declared famines are a rare phenomenon. The last one worldwide was six years ago, in Somalia. Famines are declared officially when people have already begun to starve to death. It is the diplomatic equivalent of a seven-alarm fire. That is where the youngest country in the world, South Sudan, finds itself today, as 100,000 face immediate starvation and another 1 million are on its brink.

The maxim is true that famine does not result from purely natural causes but is usually “man-made.” Such a description, however, avoids any real accountability for those who have caused the crisis. South Sudan’s famine would be more accurately described as “government-made.”

The most immediate cause lies in the tactics used by the South Sudan government and its principal rebel opponent in fighting the current civil war. Government and rebel forces attack civilian targets much more frequently than they attack each other. They target the means of survival of civilian populations deemed to be unsupportive. In particular, they raid cattle in areas where cows represent the inherited savings and means of commercial exchange. Massive cattle raids result in complete impoverishment of entire communities and unleash cycles of revenge attacks that poison relations between neighbors and entire ethnic groups. The government has also concentrated recent attacks on areas where agricultural production traditionally fed large parts of South Sudan, not only resulting in massive human displacement but also devastating local grain production, which leads to hyperinflation in food prices.

But destroying the means of food production is only one part of the equation that causes famine. If the South Sudan government allowed humanitarian organizations unfettered access to the victims of the attacks, which include approximately 3 million people who have been rendered homeless, then the aid agencies would have been able to prevent a famine from occurring. But instead, the government has obstructed access by these organizations in a variety of ways, as have the rebels, thus resulting in huge pockets of populations — including tens of thousands of children — who have received little to no assistance at the height of their need.

The South Sudanese people fought for decades for their independence from a rapacious, discriminatory Sudanese regime. The government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir in Khartoum, which seized power in a coup in 1989, regularly attacked the means of food production and used starvation as a weapon against the rebellious South Sudanese populations, just as it is still doing in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in Sudan. This resulted in localized famines and about 2 million South Sudanese deaths during that North-South conflict. Now that the South Sudanese have won independence, the government of Salva Kiir in Juba is using the same destructive strategies that Bashir used against them.

South Sudanese will starve to death by the thousands, maybe by the tens or hundreds of thousands. As the images of starving babies begin to emerge, hundreds of millions of dollars in relief assistance will be delivered, as long as the South Sudan government follows through on Kiir’s promises to allow unfettered humanitarian access. But if the only response to these images is a humanitarian one, and the structural causes of this famine are not addressed, then this cycle of death will begin again next year, and the year after. Yes, the world must do all it can to treat the symptoms of this emergency, but there is also an opportunity, with increased attention because of the famine, to finally begin to address the root cause of the crisis.

In South Sudan today, war crimes pay. There is no accountability for the atrocities and looting of state resources, or for the famine that results. Billions in U.S. taxpayer dollars have supported peacekeeping forces and humanitarian assistance already, and one peace process after another has tried to break the cycle of violence. But nothing attempts to thwart the driving force of the mayhem: the kleptocrats who have hijacked the government in Juba for their personal enrichment.

The Sentry, an initiative we recently co-founded, conducted an investigation into the wealth accumulated by Kiir and other officials who oversaw a military offensive that contributed to the current famine. We found that immediate family members of these officials enjoy luxurious lifestyles abroad, living in lavish estates while South Sudanese suffer.

George Clooney and John Prendergast: War crimes shouldn’t pay in South Sudan

There has been no effort to counter the networks that benefit financially and politically from the crisis. The international community needs to help make war costlier than peace for government and rebel leaders and their international facilitators.

Choking the illicit financial flows of the kleptocrats is the key point of leverage for peace available to the international community, given the vulnerability of stolen assets that are offshored around the world in the form of houses, cars, businesses and bank accounts. The most promising policy approach would combine creative anti-money laundering measures with targeted sanctions aimed at freezing those willing to commit mass atrocities out of the international financial system.

A steep price should be paid for creating famine and benefiting from war. Even while the world responds to the famine, it’s time also to address root causes and make those responsible pay for their crimes.