Humanitarian workers are scrambling to provide aid for 4,000 South Sudanese refugees who fled their homes this week. The refugees are currently staying at a UN camp in Uganda, close to the border. This is the most recent development in a civil war, which has been intensifying since it began in 2013.
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. Having gained independence from Sudan in 2011, it has since been characterized by the instability and bloodshed that takes place within its borders. The civil war is organized along divisions between President Salva Kiir and ex-Vice President Riek Machar. More broadly, it represents ethnic divisions between the Dinka and the Nuer. Since 2013, it has left more than 700,000 internally displaced and millions suffering from food insecurity. Currently, over 5.8 million people within the country rely on food aid to survive. Further, according to Vox, roughly 70% of the nation’s schools have closed due to violence.
One of the most significant effects of the conflict in South Sudan has been famine and food insecurity. In February, the UN declared two of its counties officially in a state of famine. A further 1.1 million exist in an emergency state just short of it. This is only the second time an official state of famine has been declared since the UN adopted its IPC scale for measuring food insecurity. The situation is dire. Serge Tissot, UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s representative, has said, “Many families have exhausted every means they have to survive.”
What’s worse is that the famine is not a product of environmental factors; rather, it is almost entirely man-made. For the past three years, extreme violence has prevented farmers from being able to reap and sow crops. Where food is available, economic degradation means that few can afford it. At points last year, inflation reached over 50%. This meets the official definition of hyperinflation. As of March 2017, 120 South Sudanese pounds could buy a single American dollar.
Additionally, the government continues to prevent civilians from receiving aid. The UN recorded 967 cases where the government denied aid between 2013 and 2016. In other cases, complex regulations have been used to prevent food deliveries. According to the Economist, this is not a direct attack on civilians by the government; rather, the government “would rather let children die than risk supplies getting into the hands of enemy soldiers, who could use them to buy weapons.”
The famine in South Sudan does not need to continue. However, it will do so until its leaders put aside their destructive political goals.
What’s next for South Sudan?
U.N. Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng has stated, “The signs are all there for the spread of this ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians that could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it.”
The UN formed the International Criminal Court after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. This was intended to prevent any similar atrocities in the future. Yet, indications that South Sudan’s civil war could escalate into a genocide have not spurred action from the international community. Calls for sanctions and arms embargos have thus far failed to pass the UN Security Council. This is largely because China and Russia are affiliated with South Sudan’s neighbours, many of whom are arms exporters who support various factions within South Sudan.
The UN and many sympathetic nations are also reluctant to criticize the South Sudanese government too severely, as roughly 17,000 peacekeepers are currently permitted to work within the country. It seems that very little progress can be made until effective sanctions and arms embargos are imposed by the international community. However, this too may fail to restore peace and security. It is entirely possible that peace will not be achieved until Kiir and Machar either stand down or are excluded from negotiations.