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Does the United States Have a Responsibility to Intervene in South Sudan?

Image courtesy of hdptcar, © 2008.

The people of South Sudan are suffering. Yet, media coverage of this situation, which is quickly escalating to a genocide fueled by government strife and famine, is sporadic at best, and the international community is doing little to provide aid in this conflict. The United States has a long history of supporting peace and independence for South Sudan, but this appears likely to end with the Trump administration. Although the United States is a major player in the international community, it does not have a strong record of intervening to end situations of genocide, particularly in more recent history. The Clinton administration chose not to intervene in either the Rwandan or Bosnian genocides in the 1990’s. Many would argue that it is not the responsibility of the United States to intervene. However, as the United States has been so integral to securing peace, now that independence is failing, it is time to become involved and end the suffering of the people in South Sudan.

For decades, the United States helped the South Sudanese seek independence from their northern counterparts. Three consecutive United States presidents have been involved in South Sudan’s struggle for independence, making this a mostly bi-partisan issue. In 2011, when independence was finally accomplished, it was considered a major success in the international community. Yet, the independence deal did not fully resolve the unrest between two major ethnic groups, the Dinka and Nuer. The Dinka and Nuer are pastoral groups who have struggled with tensions associated with cattle raids and drought. The conflict had been slowly stewing for the past thirty years but came to a head when president Salva Kiir, a Dinka, fired his vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer, in 2016. Though this conflict escalated under the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration’s political agenda does not include addressing the impending genocide in South Sudan.  If the United States spent decades securing independence, shouldn’t it also ensure that the transition to independence is peaceful?

The Obama Administration did try to secure a peaceful transition. In December 2016, the United States was pushing for an arms embargo in the UN Security Council under then U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power. This embargo would have stopped any nation from selling to South Sudan. The embargo did not get the nine votes required to pass. Ultimately, an arms embargo would not have been a strong enough measure to end the widespread ethnic conflict and genocide. What is required to end this conflict is intervention. This necessary intervention is not a likelihood for the Trump Administration, since President Trump has stated several times that American interests must come first and international security conflicts are not his top priority. Riek Machar, former Nuer vice-president of South Sudan believes President Trump will understand the struggles of the Nuer people and intervene on their behalf, but in these first few weeks of Trump’s presidency, there is little evidence that the South Sudan conflict is a top priority for the new administration. United States officials will, supposedly, head to Juba to promote a peaceful dialogue but a date has not been released for this visit.

At the center of this political turmoil are reports of brutal sexual violence, which confirm a rape crisis within the borders of South Sudan. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released an assessment in March of 2016 that confirmed the extreme use of sexual violence in South Sudan. Given the status of impending genocide, this is a horrific report. Rape as a method of ethnic cleansing is not a new phenomenon though it wasn’t until reports of mass rape from Bosnia and Rwanda stirred public outrage and media attention. The stage is set in South Sudan for similar atrocities, yet international media coverage and public awareness of the conflict remains low. Where is the public outcry for the people of South Sudan?

Ultimately, it’s hard to make a case for United States involvement in ending the conflict in South Sudan. It’s hard to identify the good guy and the bad guy in this particular situation and without a clear side to back, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will authorize military intervention in the region. This does not bode well for the people of South Sudan. The ethnic divide that plunged the country into a genocidal civil war is not easily settled leaving millions of displaced people and refugees at risk.  So, does the United States have a responsibility to intervene? Yes. The United States was a major player in securing independence in 2011, and we now have a responsibility to intervene when that independence fails. Will the United States intervene? Most likely not. The Trump Administration does not consider international conflict a top priority. Where does that leave the people of South Sudan? Struggling to survive.

Coby Jones is a professional working to help rehabilitate women in conflict-affected zones. She holds a Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics in International Development and wrote her dissertation on mainstreaming gender in the international development space. Coby’s interests range from political and economic foreign policy to gender specific development strategies. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.


Coby Jones

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