Why the United Nations Security Council must keep the arms embargo on South Sudan

By Sikula Oniala

There is a strong push from the government of South Sudan to lift the arms embargo that has been imposed on the country by the UN Security Council since 2018. During his speech at the opening session of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly last month, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit highlighted the lifting of arms embargo as one of his government’s foremost foreign policy goals. Following the president’s address, on 2 April 2023, the country’s Minister of Information and Government Spokesperson Michael Makuei appealed to the UN Security Council to “lift the arms embargo to enable the deployment of a strong security force that can protect the people and the country.”

The government’s appeals for lifting of the arms embargo fly in the face of the rationale for the imposition of the embargo in the first place. There are five benchmarks laid out in the resolutions adopted by the Security Council in 2021 and 2022 which it must assess to decide whether or not to lift the embargo. One of these benchmarks relates to the reduction of sexual and gender-based violence, with a focus on conflict-related sexual violence, which is largely perpetrated by security forces.

To measure whether there has indeed been an improvement on this area, the Security Council will need to assess if there has been a full implementation of the Joint Action Plan for the armed forces on addressing conflict-related sexual violence. Under this plan, South Sudan’s armed forces must be trained on, made aware of, and held accountable for cases of conflict-related sexual violence that occurred within the one-year review period beginning May 2022.

The reality on the ground is that the number of cases of conflict-related sexual violence is on the rise in South Sudan. A report on the State of Impunity in South Sudan by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan published on 3 April 2023, paints a horrific picture of increased cases of conflict-related sexual violence in the country. The report documented multiple accounts of rape, gang-rape, forced stripping or nudity, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy or abortion, forced marriage, and abduction for purposes of sexual abuse perpetrated by parties to the conflicts including members of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF), the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in-Opposition (SPLA-IO) and other armed elements. It concludes that impunity for sexual and gender-based violence continues to remain a central feature of the violent conflicts in South Sudan.

In 2022, Amnesty International, in a report on conflict related sexual violence in South Sudan, clearly demonstrated how guns were used to commit these crimes. These guns, the report noted, enabled the rape of women by perpetrators. “When someone sees a gun, it is a symbol of fear and intimidation. There is no choice but to comply,” an interviewee told Amnesty.

One South Sudanese activist noted last year that “the Joint Action Plan is just written in offices to attract attention of the international community. Many people do not know its existence

Its proposed implementation also fails to address the needs and meaningful participation of people with hearing disability or vision impairment, communities who have been documented as victims of conflict-related sexual violence. 

Protect the people of South Sudan

In May, the members of the UN Security Council will meet to discuss whether or not to keep the arms embargo imposed on South Sudan. They should be alive to the fact that South Sudan government has failed to meet the benchmarks set by the Security Council, especially on addressing conflict-related sexual violence. The Security Council must keep the arms embargo in place and keep the guns out of the country.

This opinion piece first ran in Uganda’s Daily Monitor.


Sikula Oniala is the South Sudan Researcher at Amnesty International’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office, Nairobi.