Q&A – South Sudan: A nation awash with arms

Recent fighting in South Sudan’s Unity State between government troops and opposition forces has placed civilians at renewed risk and once again threatened the shaky cessation of hostilities agreement signed in January. Earlier this month members of a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) delegation to South Sudan reportedly expressed alarm that the warring parties are still acquiring arms. Here, Amnesty International’s Elizabeth Deng and Geoffrey L. Duke, of the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms explain why an arms embargo should be a priority.Why does there need to be an arms embargo on South Sudan?South Sudan is awash with weapons and thousands of people have been killed as government and opposition forces commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and other grave human rights violations and abuses. Since fighting began in December 2013, even those seeking refuge in hospitals and places of worship have been killed. One-and-a-half million people have been forced to flee their homes, including over 400,000 who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Most of the fighting has involved small arms and light weapons, but a wide range of conventional arms and military equipment are in circulation. An arms embargo would help stop the flow of arms to government and opposition forces and play a role in preventing further atrocities. Where do these arms come from?Arms have flowed into South Sudan from many countries. Over the past few years, large shipments of conventional weapons and munitions were imported from Ukraine. Recently, Amnesty International confirmed that in June 2014, Chinese state-owned defence manufacturer NORINCO shipped over 1,000 tonnes of small arms and light weapons worth US$38 million to the Government of South Sudan. The shipment included rocket systems, thousands of automatic rifles and grenade launchers, 20,000 grenades, hundreds of pistols and machine guns, and several million rounds of ammunition.The Small Arms Survey (SAS) has also recently reported that opposition forces may have been receiving ammunition from Sudanese or outside groups since the conflict started. For example the SAS analysed ammunition used in the massacre of approximately 200 people at a mosque in Bentiu, Unity State, and found that some ammunition had markings indicating it was manufactured in Sudan in 2014, after the civil war broke out. Illicit small arms and ammunition trafficking into South Sudan and within the country by unauthorised groups is also a problem as is the diversion of weapons to unauthorised groups. This is compounded by high levels of corruption, mismanagement of official stocks and thefts. Doesn’t the government have the right to acquire weapons?Governments can lawfully sell, acquire and possess arms for law enforcement and national security purposes. But governments also have an obligation to respect international human rights and humanitarian law. We are calling for an arms embargo because the Government of South Sudan’s military has committed serious violations and additional weapons and munitions will likely be used to commit and facilitate further serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The arms embargo should remain until measures are in place to protect civilians from grave human rights abuses. Is there international support for an arms embargo?The United States suspended military assistance to South Sudan soon after the outbreak of violence in December 2013. The European Union has maintained an arms embargo that was first imposed on Sudan in 1994, and was extended to cover South Sudan in 2011. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the African Union, and the United Nations (UN) Security Council have all threatened sanctions on parties to the conflict should they fail to demonstrate commitment to peace negotiations. Such sanctions could include a comprehensive arms embargo. Any move in the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo, however, would require the support of China, which has been the major arms supplier to South Sudan as well as to Sudan over the past years.In May, the UN Security Council expressed concern at the threat to peace and security in South Sudan arising from the illicit transfer, destabilizing accumulation and misuse of small arms and light weapons in South Sudan. In his July 2014 report to the UN Security Council on South Sudan, Secretary General Ban Ki Boon called on the parties to the conflict to “stop all mobilization, arms purchases and political activities aimed at strengthening one side against the other”.Why are you asking the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to call for an arms embargo?As the regional body leading the international response to the conflict, IGAD should issue a communiqué declaring an arms embargo on South Sudan by its member states. IGAD should then make a recommendation to the UN Security Council that it adopt a similar resolution declaring a comprehensive and mandatory arms embargo on South Sudan.Support for an arms embargo by IGAD member states, particularly by the countries bordering South Sudan, will be critical to ensuring wider political support for imposing the arms embargo and for its effective implementation. Neighbouring countries are also well placed to effectively monitor and provide information on the risks of and actual cross-border violations of an arms embargo once imposed. Do arms embargos work? Would an arms embargo be respected?Arms embargoes work if they have widespread political support and are well designed and implemented. The success of an arms embargo also depends on its comprehensiveness and the adoption of measures by relevant states for its effective implementation.  Effective implementation of the embargo requires genuine commitment and consensus among governments of the region and key states within the international community, including China, which has supplied significant quantities of weapons to South Sudan this year. Effective implementation also requires specific measures to overcome particular challenges such as South Sudan’s long and porous borders. South Sudan is surrounded by six countries—Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These borders would provide both the government of South Sudan and opposition forces with a range of options for circumventing an arms embargo. South Sudan’s longest, particularly porous and difficult to secure border is with Sudan, a weapons manufacturer, known supplier of weapons to South Sudan and home to numerous armed groups and militias. It is also important to remember that arms embargoes usually take time to have an impact on the ground. South Sudan is already awash with arms and ammunition, probably enough to sustain the conflict for some time.