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U.N. Security Council imposes arms embargo on South Sudan, despite concerns it might jeopardize peace process

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is welcomed at the Juba Airport on July 9 by supporters upon returning from peace talks. (Andreea Campeanu/Reuters)

Last October, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited South Sudan and warned President Salva Kiir that the United States was watching the conflict there closely and found itself at “a crossroads” over its relationship to the country.

“We have to decide how we're going to look at South Sudan going forward, and that will be based on how he goes from here,” The Washington Post reported Haley saying about Kiir at the time. “And based on his actions the United States will act accordingly.”

On Friday, following years of discussions over how to slow down the conflict in the war-torn country, the U.N. Security Council narrowly passed an arms embargo against South Sudan. Haley pushed through the U.S.-drafted resolution, which also places a travel ban and asset freeze on the former South Sudanese army chief and a current deputy defense chief.

“It’s a huge day and a real reason for South Sudanese who have been under attack for so long to celebrate,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy U.N. director at Human Rights Watch. 

South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war since late 2013, just two and a half years after it won independence from Sudan. The conflict, which stemmed from a long-standing rivalry between Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar, has been brutal, with all sides accused of carrying out atrocities.

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A U.N. report published this week said that in recent months, government troops and those aligned with them raped women and girls and killed hundreds of civilians. More than 4 million people have been displaced and at least 50,000 people have died, although it's been too difficult to count the dead, and the real toll could in fact be much higher. The United States did not always support the idea of an arms embargo against Juba, but in late 2016, Samantha Power, who served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the Obama administration, tried and failed to pass one, even as the United Nations warned that genocide could be imminent.

Ahead of the vote Friday, Haley told the Security Council that “South Sudan’s people have endured unimaginable suffering and unspeakable atrocities.”

“We need the violence to stop,” she said, accusing the leaders of failing their own people. The resolution got the nine votes it needed to pass, although six countries, including Russia, China and Ethiopia abstained, citing fears that it could hamper ongoing attempts to reconcile the warring parties.

Gordon Buay, the charge d'affaires at the South Sudanese Embassy in Washington, told The Post that for the South Sudanese government, “that arms embargo has no effect at all.”

The “arms embargo will not stop South Sudan from acquiring weapons,” he said. “Instead, it will bring South Sudan closer to China and Russia.”

Buay also said that South Sudan may now try to build “a factory to manufacture light weapons.”

Kate Almquist Knopf, director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said that “the government in South Sudan should be focused on how to feed its people, which it can't even do in its capital city at the moment, and not on how to produce arms.” She also said the arms embargo is “long overdue” and that the government in Juba “continues to use its meager resources to procure weapons to use against its people in truly heinous ways.”

In recent weeks, there has been some cautious hope that Machar and Kiir will reach a new agreement that could put an end to the conflict. A 2015 peace deal briefly brought Machar back to Juba in 2016, but he fled again a few months later. The two men met in person in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in June, but little progress has been made in ongoing talks. Ahead of the vote Friday at the United Nations, South Sudanese Ambassador to the U.N. Akuei Bona Malwal spoke to the Security Council, saying the embargo would serve as “a slap in the face of those organizations who are trying to bring peace in South Sudan.” But on Thursday, South Sudan's parliament approved Kiir's staying in power until 2021, a move that the opposition could also see as crippling to any peace talks.

Casie Copeland, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it was no coincidence that the arms embargo came after Haley visited Juba and put pressure on South Sudanese officials. 

“She made clear what she needed to see from the South Sudanese government to reset the relationship and in her view the South Sudanese were given an opportunity to do that and did not,” Copeland said. “Domestically it's a big win. There's a been a lot of criticism of the Trump administration on their human rights policies, and this puts Haley on the side of human rights groups.”

The United States had already imposed its own arms embargo against South Sudan in February. Buay insists that this latest move will only worsen relations between the United States and South Sudan.

“The U.S. is actually pushing South Sudan to Moscow,” Buay said. “Wait for one week to see South Sudan changing its foreign policy strategy.”

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