The Security Council Visits South Sudan. Can It Revive a Fledgling Peace Agreement?

This piece originally appeared in UN Dispatch.

With a deadline looming for peace in South Sudan, a delegation from the United Nations Security Council landed in Juba, the beleaguered country’s capital, on Sunday. The visit comes at a crucial time. As part of a peace deal, former enemies must form a transitional government by the middle of next month. Failure to do so might fatally undermine an already fragile peace.

More than a year since the signing of the peace agreement, a third of the population—some four million people—remains forcibly displaced from their homes and more than half of the overall population are severely food insecure. Most of the displaced South Sudanese I spoke with on a recent visit lacked confidence in the peace deal, and for good reason. Much of the agreement remains unfulfilled and the clock is ticking on a November 12 deadline to form a transitional government.

The implementation of the agreement has faltered in three key areas: 1) relocating and integrating soldiers from the two sides into a smaller, unified army; and 2) agreeing on the number and borders of states for purposes of political representation; and 3) opposition leader and former Vice President Riek Machar’s return.

According to the agreement, the government and opposition should begin the process of cantonment (relocating troops into agreed-upon sites) and integrating fighters from the government and opposition into a smaller, unified national army. But despite a promise by the government to allocate $100 million for peace implementation efforts like this, very little money has actually been spent. The political will is just not there. The result? No one knows the actual number of soldiers to be relocated, and cantonment sites remain in poor shape.

Disagreement over the number of states and their borders represents an even greater risk to peace. In what critics have called “ethnic gerrymandering,” President Salva Kiir in 2015 and 2017 decrees increased the number of states from 10 to 32, a move that could disenfranchise ethnic minorities and lead to renewed violence. As part of the peace agreement, a commission to address the issue was established but it was unable to reach a consensus.

Third, opposition leader Riek Machar is supposed to return as one of five transitional vice presidents. Since the signing of the agreement, Machar has only come back to Juba for three short visits. His return is tied up in disagreements over the formation of a VIP protection force and memories of violence following his previous returns.

The UN Security Council visit is an opportunity to consolidate international pressure on the parties to the agreement to implement these and other important issues while there is still time. The delegation should make clear that peace is a priority. Concrete actions in the coming weeks should include the return of Machar, regular face-to-face meetings between the two leaders, and increased verifiable movement of troops and resources to cantonment sites. Failure to show meaningful progress should result in consequences, such as targeted sanctions aimed at South Sudan’s leaders and withholding of further cantonment funding, troop training, and other important measures.

The ongoing levels of hunger and displacement and the high risk of a return to devastating violence make clear the risks of a failed peace. The UN Security Council delegation should make the consequences for South Sudan’s leaders equally as clear.

Photo Credit: UNMISS