Applied punitively rather than strategically, sanctions have entrenched leader's positions rather than changing their behaviours.
The latest iteration of South Sudan's peace talks concluded last week - once again, without coming to a resolution. As in so many past instances, the dialogue failed as warring parties continue to see the potential benefits of ongoing violence and struggle to trust each other's commitments.
In the past, frustrated mediators have imposed sanctions on these actors in a bid compel agreement. And now, with talks going nowhere as the situation in South Sudan further deteriorates, many believe these measures need to be ramped-up.
On 25 May, two days after the talks failed in Addis Ababa, the US tabled new sanctions at the Security Council. They proposed renewing previous sanctions and adding new names including Defence Minister Kuol Manyang, Cabinet Affairs Minister Martin Elia Lomuro, and Governor of Bieh State Koang Rambang.
On the surface, intensifying existing sanctions may make sense. In theory, these measures can put pressure on key actors and give mediators extra leverage. Yet thus far, the ways in which these tools have been deployed have been ineffective and counter-productive.
In September 2017, for example, the US, Canada and European Union imposed sanctions on various current and former South Sudanese officials. Rather than limiting their influence, however, several of these figures have since been promoted, most notably Gabriel Jok Riak who is now the army's chief-of-staff. Others have been largely unaffected, such as former Chief-of-Staff Paul Malong who is now leading his own opposition group looking to be included in a power-sharing agreement.
Why the sanctions haven't worked
There are many reasons these measures have not worked. Some are practical. Many of those affected, for example, simply do not possess sufficient wealth to be significantly inconvenienced or do not move it around in ways that would be inhibited by the type of sanctions devised. Several governments remain willing to allow sanctioned individuals to move money and travel. Meanwhile, the measures overestimate the power of those targeted; given the sheer number and array of groups involved, no party has the capacity to singularly end the conflict even if they wanted to.
The sanctions have also been ineffective because they have not been designed with a clear strategy in mind. They have not been part of a wider agenda for peace and aimed at changing behaviours. Instead, they have typically been applied in a narrow, reactionary and punitive way against purported "bad guys". The apparent logic is that they will act as a deterrent against those who want to avoided being similarly targeted.
This is reflected in the fact that Western governments have - somewhat hypocritically - not imposed sanctions against non-South Sudanese parties involved. Canada, for example, has blacklisted several South Sudanese figures but taken little action against a Canadian firm supplying military equipment to the region. The US has pursued numerous South Sudanese natural resources companies but not done the same for its own firms with major stakes in the area.
One effect of this punitive rather than strategic approach is that the stakes are raised for those targeted and their supporters. Treated as "villains", those under fire may feel their very survival is under threat, believe the international community's final goal is regime change, and become distrustful. They may seek to resist all outside action, seeing it as part of an existential struggle for the future of South Sudan.
This approach can have repercussions far beyond the individual. Given that South Sudan's leaders sit atop patronage networks, sanctions against the head of a group can be perceived as being aimed at the group as a whole and put core supporters on the defensive.
Finally, sanctions that are seen as punitive and one-sided may embolden opposition fighters in their own armed efforts.
A different way
If sanctions are to be effective in deterring actors from prolonging the conflict rather than entrenching their positions, they must be reconceived. Instead of being applied punitively against largely the same group of people, they must be imposed strategically against all complicit parties, including those outside South Sudan. They must also be a part of a coherent joined-up strategy rather than unilateral actions imposed externally.
Further, they need to be in response specific actions in contravention of existing peace agreement terms, well established to the South Sudanese people, rather than being aimed at figures that are seen as generally corrupt or broadly responsible for the war. The Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), the body established to oversee a 2015 peace deal, proposed a similar approach previously. But international actors appear to prefer the bluster of a more retributive approach. The regional body IGAD's recent communiqué signalled that it is likely to maintain this combative approach.
If a more precise approach were taken, however, a starting point could be parties' cooperation with JMEC's ceasefire monitoring body. All those who signed the deal agreed to allow the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism (CTSAMM) access. The act of blocking the body could be a clear and specific violation that incurs sanctions. Provisions already exist in the peace agreement to make this operative. Building up from this, a broader but distinct set of rules and norms could be established whose contravention would be proved in detail with appropriate measures taken as a result.
The alternative of a combative approach aimed at generally corrupt or belligerent individuals has not worked. Moreover, given that most people in South Sudan expect senior figures to have business activities outside of their government roles, including properties beyond the means their position could afford, punishing these individuals on those grounds - rather than for specific contraventions - is open to misinterpretation. It is most important sanctions are a part of action seen as legitimate by South Sudanese.
To reach a meaningful peace, South Sudan will need effective mediation, nuanced yet clear legal mechanisms, and humanitarian support. The voices of broader communities have to be included in this. But thus far, sanctions have not helped in reaching this goal, instead only deepening leaders' defensive and combative posturing. Applied more consistently, strategically and sensitively, however, smarter sanctions still have potential as a tool for peace.