NAIROBI — A four-year field investigation by a Britain-based monitoring group has found that South Sudan’s neighbors, Uganda in particular, circumvented arms embargoes on the war-torn country, funneling European weaponry to armies on both sides of its civil war, which has displaced millions and resulted in an estimated 383,000 deaths.
The European Union has imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan since the latter’s independence in 2011. The report, published by Conflict Armament Research (CAR), shows how the South Sudanese government arranged for Uganda to provide the “end-user assurances” needed by weapons manufacturers in Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia — all E.U. member states — to legally sell their wares. The weapons were then “retransferred” to South Sudan.
“Our field teams have physically documented hundreds of weapons and over 200,000 rounds of ammunition,” said CAR Executive Director James Bevan. “The result is a forensic picture of how prohibitions on arms transfers to the warring parties have failed.”
Uganda’s arms trade with South Sudan has been well known, but the report is the first to detail the provenance of some of the weaponry. Spokesmen for Uganda’s military did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
South Sudanese Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth dismissed the report, maintaining that “we don’t even have money to buy arms and now we need money for the peace agreement,” in comments to the Associated Press. He added that there was also no reason African countries should abide by an E.U. embargo.
South Sudan’s civil war began in 2013 and has triggered one of the world’s largest humanitarian emergencies. Millions of South Sudanese have sought refuge in displacement camps in the country or in neighboring countries. The less lucky have hid in vast swamps where there is little by way of food or shelter. Last year, parts of South Sudan experienced a famine, and much of the population has been chronically undernourished for years. Civilians have borne the brunt of the war.
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011. Sudan routinely denies any role in supporting South Sudanese rebels or other destabilizing tactics. Both Sudan and Uganda have pledged to contribute peacekeepers to the United Nations mission in South Sudan and helped broker a September peace agreement between South Sudan’s government and rebels. Previous peace agreements have been abrogated by persistent fighting.
CAR said that there was no evidence that European countries exporting weapons to Uganda were aware that those weapons were ultimately bound for South Sudan.
One of the most astonishing findings in the report is that 99 percent of the ammunition tracked by CAR is of Chinese origin. Some of it was legally transferred to South Sudan, but much of it was delivered secretly to the opposition via Sudan in 2015 and is still being used.
CAR also identified a network of companies with affiliates in Israel, Uganda and the United States that procured a U.S.-made fighter jet and transferred it to the South Sudanese military along with an Austrian-made surveillance aircraft.
The United States did not impose an arms embargo on South Sudan until February and before that was trying to broker peace agreements. The United States is often said to have “midwifed” South Sudan by leading the negotiations for its independence from Sudan. The U.N. Security Council followed with its own embargo in July.
Gordon Buay, an official at the South Sudanese Embassy in Washington, told The Washington Post in July 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.”
For now, the peace agreement pushed by South Sudan’s neighbors in September appears to be holding. But experts caution that end-to-end enforcement of the arms embargoes are key to any sustainable cessation of fighting.
“When Uganda and Sudan funnel arms into the conflict, fighting flares. When the arms stop, the parties are more willing to talk,” said Alan Boswell, a South Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Washington was never willing to take a hard line with Uganda on South Sudan. This was the biggest missed opportunity to halt the war early.”