Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 28 January 2015

Arms transfers to South Sudan ensure a violent future for a people desperate for peace

By Geoffrey L. Duke

Peace advocates around the world were shocked by news of China’s shipment of arms to the Government of South Sudan in June 2014. The shipment reportedly included $38 million worth of missiles, grenade launchers, machine guns and ammunition. It arrived at the port of Mombasa, Kenya and then continued to South Sudan.

What was so shocking about this arms transfer was that it took place while South Sudan is in the grip of a brutal armed conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. The U.N. has documented ethnically targeted killings, rape, looting, enforced disappearances, and direct attacks on civilians. It has also warned that both sides may be guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

For many South Sudanese, it was also staggering to learn that our government was spending tens of millions of dollars on weapons, when the country was on the brink of famine. Instead of contributing to the $1 billion humanitarianaid appeal, nearly a third of that amount was spent on arming security forces. Many in South Sudan would wish that available government funds be spent on bags of grain, not bullets.

It is not surprising that South Sudan’s Minister for Defense, Kuol Manyang Juuk argued the government has the right to acquire arms for legitimate defense purposes. As he put it: “My role is to defend the nation. That means I have to arm my army.”

However arms transactions need to be conducted in a manner consistent with international law. Only last month, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force, with 61 countries around the world ratifying it.Its purpose is to reduce the human suffering caused by the irresponsible trade in conventional weapons. It espouses the basic principle that governments should only authorize an arms transfer if it is confident its contents will not be used in attacks on civilians and other grave violations of international humanitarian law.

Recent conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone have taught us that the supply of arms to one side during a conflict triggers demand for replenishment on the other side. The inevitable arms race that follows only escalates and prolongs the conflict. Any arms shipment to either side is a step backwards on South Sudan’s pathway out of the crisis and ushers in the prospects of pushing the country into an ungovernable theatre of armed violence, including ethnic cleansing and organized crime.

These conflicts have also shown that arming one side in the conflict is tantamount to arming all sides. In South Sudan there is already a wealth of evidence that the arms and ammunition acquired by the Government of South Sudan have fallen into the hands of opposition forces. We have seen government forces defect to join the opposition, taking their arms and ammunition with them. And opposition forces have captured government arms during battles.

Moreover, the conflict in South Sudan has further weakened security of state stockpiles of arms. Consequently, arms are quickly spilling into the public sphere, ending up in the hands of civilians and on the black market. This is adding to the already widespread proliferation of arms among civilians that the country has been struggling with since the end of the Sudan civil war in 2005. Just recently, 11 arms traffickers were intercepted in Lakes State carrying the latest M12 rifles acquired by the government. These arms were headed to the illicit market. Besides that, the cost of ammunition was reported to have fallen in Lakes State following the outbreak of the crisis in Juba.

To combat the prevalence of arms in South Sudan, there are a number of practical steps that states should take immediately.

Firstly, our neighbours, many of whom are members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) which is mediating the conflict, should work together to curb arms supplies to South Sudan. They should deny entry and transshipment of arms and ammunition through their territory to the landlocked South Sudan so there is not a repeat of this latest Chinese shipment.

There is precedent for this type of action elsewhere in Africa. The notorious 2008 shipment of Chinese arms to Zimbabwe during the disputed elections never reached its destination When the so-called ship of shame docked at the South African port of Durban, port workers refused to offload the arms and a judge ordered the ship return to China so its cargo could not be used in post-electoral violence.

IGAD already took a promising step in its 28th extraordinary heads of states summit held in November 2014. The communiqué, which stipulates the readiness of the regional bloc to impose an arms embargo on any party violating the cessation of hostilities agreement. Clearly both parties have continued to violate the cessation of hostilities agreement. Therefore, it is time to activate the promised arms embargo on the parties.

IGAD should however not view an arms embargo as a punishment to the parties, but an act to support the same peace process that it is facilitating. An arms embargo would help de-escalate the conflict and avoid further instability not only in South Sudan but the whole region of Greater Horn of Africa.

Secondly, to prevent any further arms flows, the UN Security Council should impose a comprehensive arms embargo against South Sudan.Comprehensive in a manner that it should cover all military hardwares and associated technical assistance, training and financing to all the parties.

In September 2014, China was reported to have declared that it had frozen all arms transfer agreements to South Sudan and has adopted a policy of no more new agreements. Being one of the largest exporters of arms to South Sudan, this is a significant step thus far. But ensuring that no more arms flows to South Sudan requires all states to embrace the same policy.

This will not completely solve the problem, of course. Embargoes have their limitations, which is why the Arms Trade Treaty was long overdue.But robust implementation of the treaty will take time, and so, in the meantime,all states should unilaterally suspend arms transfers to South Sudan.

Thirdly, efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully should also be supplemented by complementary initiatives such as supporting the monitoring the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and imposing targeted sanctions on those responsible for violating it.

What South Sudan most needs from the international community is its concerted and sustained effort to stop the fighting and bring the parties to the negotiating table. While there is no magic formula to fix the crisis, it is certain that more arms and ammunition to either side will not achieve peace and stability. The adoption of an arms embargo is an important first step the international community can take with the support of the people of South Sudan, who should not be expected to endure any more violence and bloodshed.

Geoffrey L. Duke, secretariat team leader with the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms (SSANSA)