George Clooney and John Prendergast are co-founders of the Sentry.
South Sudan’s leaders are perfecting the art of the diplomatic bait-and-switch while fighting over the spoils of a resource-rich state, destroying the world’s newest country in the process. The leaders agreed to a peace deal, but have implemented few of its provisions. They have agreed to a new judicial mechanism to try war crimes, but have delayed its creation. They have agreed to allow peacekeepers in, but they restrict their movement and whip up resentment against the United Nations. They have agreed to international humanitarian aid, but their forces obstruct the aid agencies at every turn and even attack, rob and rape aid workers. Meanwhile, more than 5 million people are suffering from hunger and require food aid.
All of this obstruction and obfuscation buys time for the leaders to continue to use extreme violence to loot the state treasury and the country’s natural resources. And we have the evidence. For the past two years, the Sentry, our new investigative initiative focusing on East and Central Africa, has compiled information from thousands of court filings, legal documents and financial records. Many of our sources had to be kept confidential due to safety concerns. Our new comprehensive report, titled “War Crimes Shouldn’t Pay: Stopping the Looting and Destruction of South Sudan,” shows that South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, the main opposition leader and several top army generals have been involved in a range of murky transactions, insider deals and questionable activities that suggest outright fraud. A number of these officials have command authority over military operations that resulted in mass atrocities in South Sudan.
While South Sudan’s brutal civil war rages on, the families of the country’s warmongering leaders live in multimillion-dollar mansions outside the country, stay in five-star hotels and drive luxury cars. The Sentry found that a number of Kiir’s relatives are involved in a wide range of business ventures. His wife, children and several powerful in-laws have held interests in almost two dozen companies operating in oil, mining, construction, gambling, banking, foreign exchange, telecommunications, aviation, and government and military procurement. The Sentry found that even Kiir’s 12-year-old son held a 25 percent stake in a holding company formed just a few months ago. Several of his children have held stakes in banks, some while they were teenagers. Meanwhile, one of the president’s in-laws — a general in the military responsible for protecting one of the country’s oil fields — controls a company that received contracts to supply fuel to the military, in which he served. That same general and that same company were doing business with a major multinational oil company with a stake in the oil block he was charged to protect.
South Sudan’s leaders are content with draining the country’s resources in order to purchase deadly weapons from arms dealers and fund armed groups used to attack the civilian population bases of their rivals. Deposed vice president Riek Machar heads his own faction, which vies for power with Kiir’s supporters. Machar (before his removal from his position by Kiir) tried to engineer a murky deal that would have traded future oil reserves for weapons from a Russian arms dealer, according to the Sentry’s research. Indeed, an estimated two-thirds of South Sudan’s budget goes to military and defense spending, dwarfing government expenditures for basic health care and education for citizens.
What’s missing is international leverage. South Sudan’s leaders no longer take seriously the threats made by the United States and others to impose consequences. They have learned that rape as a war weapon, child-soldier recruitment and mass killings aren’t enough to trigger more impactful international pressures. South Sudan’s top leaders’ principal vulnerabilities lie in their need to move stolen assets out of the country and park that money in accounts, properties or businesses. After consulting widely with banking, finance and policy experts, we would propose a new approach to creating immediate and unprecedented leverage to counter mass atrocities in South Sudan. This approach would creatively use the precision-guided policy tools of financial pressure normally reserved for countering terrorism, organized crime and nuclear proliferation, this time in the service of peace, human rights and good governance.
The essence of a new strategy would combine readily available anti-money-laundering measures with targeted sanctions focused on top regime officials and their international facilitators, while encouraging banks to help provide essential services to innocent South Sudanese. Robust enforcement of this policy cocktail — especially focused on properties and banking activities — would effectively freeze the targets and their networks out of the formal international financial system. It would put banks and other commercial actors on notice that the same fate would befall them if they kept processing transactions or laundering money for those on sanctions lists. Designated top officials would be denied access to banks because of the centrality of the dollar in the international financial system and the importance of the U.S. banking system and capital markets. This combination of government and private-sector action could be a powerful and unique manifestation of 21st-century leverage, and it is cheaper, less risky and more effective than other policy options.
We founded the Sentry in response to some sobering questions. How do you influence the calculations of those willing to commit mass atrocities to retain or gain power? How can the incentive structure be altered so that war can be made costlier than peace?
In South Sudan, we’d start by making sure that war crimes don’t pay.