It has been less than five years since the people of South Sudan took to the streets in joy, celebrating their first day of freedom after a long struggle for independence.
It was a hot, dry day, and the world watched with pride as human endeavor made universal principles manifest: the triumph of democracy over dictatorship and the promise of freedom and economic development for one of the poorest corners of Africa.
After a shaky but promising start, South Sudan has collapsed into a state of war.
On that rare day, President Obama issued a statement toasting the birth of the world’s newest nation, and promising, “The United States pledges our partnership as [the people of South Sudan] seek the security, development and responsive governance that can fulfill their aspirations and respect their human rights.”
But a lot has happened in those five years; not much of it positive.
After a shaky but promising start, South Sudan has collapsed into a state of war. The African Union cites gruesome stories of murder, torture and rape as a matter of course for its once-hopeful citizens.
Late last year, we met a woman seeking refuge at a U.N. camp in South Sudan. She had arrived just a few hours ahead of us. Just days prior, her husband had been murdered in front of her, and she had been raped by the soldiers who killed him. She fled by foot with her twin infants — 80 miles to the nearest U.N. camp. Only one of her babies survived the journey.
In South Sudan, violence is a choice. It is the decision of the country’s President Salva Kiir and the newly reinstated First Vice President Riek Machar. Both men have willfully and purposefully dragged the world’s newest country into the thick mud of war. Neither seems to carry any regard for the humanitarian crisis they have created or the grinding poverty it facilitates.
Instead of working peacefully to bring about reconciliation, the parties have continued to choose violence. And even the U.N. camps where refugees like the mother we met are not safe: In February, 18 civilians were killed at the hands of government soldiers at a U.N. compound in Malakal.
That South Sudan’s leaders can act so brazenly is down to one thing: They know there are no consequences. They know that President Obama’s promise of partnership comes without accountability and that the human rights of the South Sudanese are not, when it comes to it, worth protecting.
But something can be done to bring South Sudan from the brink. In June, the United Nations Security Council will vote on a resolution to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan’s warring parties, giving the United States an opportunity to fulfill its promise, albeit belatedly, to the people of South Sudan and ensure that neither side acquires more weapons.
An arms embargo will not halt all weapons entering South Sudan, nor will it bring an immediate end to the fighting. But an arms embargo that makes it more difficult or impossible to acquire attack helicopters, heavy weapons and ammunition will blunt the fighting in the medium term and put warring parties on notice that they cannot continue ignoring the peace agreement.
Reducing the flow of weapons will help protect civilians who suffer most from the conflict. Preventing both sides from acquiring more tools of violence might just motivate them to seek real progress through peaceful means rather than on the battlefield.
The United States was deeply involved in the creation of the South Sudanese state and its democratic beginnings -- its creation was by act of plebiscite -- and our support for its peaceful development is both morally correct and geopolitically astute, given its central location in a highly important region.
That South Sudan’s leaders can act so brazenly is down to one thing: They know there are no consequences.
Getting diplomats in New York to agree to the arms embargo will require a heavy lift. But, like the U.S. Congress, the United Nations Security Council is united in its exasperation of the situation and recognizes the need for meaningful action.
A serious diplomatic push by President Obama’s team at the United Nations will convince skeptics that an arms embargo could compel South Sudan’s leaders to move away from war and back to peacemaking and politics. By making a strong diplomatic push, the president can make a real difference in South Sudan.
The White House has a crucial opportunity to send a message to South Sudan’s leaders that war-making and inaction, even intransigence, on the political transition cannot pass without accountability. We must act to make plain to South Sudan's leaders that their destructive, human rights-violating policies do, in fact, have consequences. Consequences the international community, led by the United States, is prepared and committed to imposing.
This op-ed was co-authored by Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who is a member of the House Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan with Caucus co-chair Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA). They visited South Sudan in late 2015.