Investigators from the United Nations have produced a report identifying international oil companies as major drivers of the persistent rapes, killings, and violence in South Sudan. The Central African nation has in recent years seen the perpetration of mass atrocities on a scale comparable only to the world’s most devastated regions. Even a peace deal, signed five months ago, has done little to ease the violence wrought by a lengthy civil war. In this context, both rebel militia groups and the government’s own forces have sought control of the nation’s most valuable resource, its oil fields, in order to fund military operations. According to the UN report, South Sudan’s intelligence services have, for example, taken increasing control of the state-owned Nile Petroleum Corporation, siphoning off profits to fund conflict and line the pockets of local elites.
The United States Commerce Department condemned foreign oil interests in the South Sudan, saying that such companies were “contributing to the ongoing crisis in South Sudan because they are a source of substantial revenue that, through public corruption, is used to fund the purchase of weapons and other material that undermine the peace, security, and stability of South Sudan rather than support the welfare of the South Sudanese people.” This condemnation comes in addition to the United Nations report itself which designates South Sudan’s oil industry as ““a major driver for the continuing violence, the ensuing human suffering, and the violations of international humanitarian law witnessed there…” A member of the three-person UN commission, Andrew Clapham, further emphasized the role of the government in illegally using oil profits. “We feel the national security services are very much involved in the siphoning off of oil money,” stated Clapham.
Having an abundance of natural resources, or possessing one resource that serves as the lynchpin of economic activity, is rarely beneficial to a nation’s development. This is what political scholars refer to as a resource trap, in which over reliance on a single resource stunts proper political and economic progress in developing nations. The case of South Sudan is slightly different in that the resource is being relied upon to fund a pre-existing civil war; however, the idea remains applicable. South Sudanese political power rests on a small elite class, which directly support their authority through oil profits. In a non-diverse economy with no competing alternative to oil, wealth stays concentrated in the hands of the few who already posses access to it. Likewise, if oil is the paramount political and economic currency, possessing control of its extraction attains an importance superseding even human life. This helps to explain what the UN report deemed the “extremely violent methods” used to acquire oil reserves and to pacify the civilian population in close proximity to such reserves. Of course, oil only has value so long as there is demand. Though Western companies pulled oil operations from South Sudan in 2011, they have been replaced to a large degree by Asian ventures, which seek to fuel rapidly modernizing and industrializing economies. A line must be drawn globally, and all nations must decide what levels of conflict are tolerable to fund economic development, otherwise the violence in South Sudan will continue to enjoy its funding.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan in December of 2013, an outgrowth of political conflict between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Rick Machar, now the major opposition leader. Ultimately, this war has blossomed into an ethnic conflict between South Sudan’s two largest ethnicities, the Dinka and the Nuer. The Dinka ethnic group has supported Kiir while the Nuer has aligned with Machar. Over the course of the five-year war at least 50,000 people, many of whom were civilians, have been killed. In addition to outright murder, armed groups have committed mass rape, destroyed property, looted villages, and recruited children into their ranks. A peace deal signed in 2018 was supposed to mark the end of the civil war, however, violence has yet to abate and the deal may not hold.
In this context of violence and mass human rights violations, oil profits have enabled armed groups to act with impunity. Securing access to these oil reserves has proven to be a driving force in this war, and armed Sudanese groups have used extremely violent means to accomplish this end. Although Western oil companies no longer operate in South Sudan, Asian interests remain strong, seeking cheap oil to fuel a burgeoning economy. If industrial development is continually prioritized over human life South Sudan will not be an anomaly in the international community. Rather, politically stunted but resource rich nations may devolve to similar levels of violence.
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