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The intense civil conflict in South Sudan that broke out in December 2013 and has brought the world’s youngest nation to the edge of genocide has not subsided, with no solution in sight.
Once more, the United Nations Security Council will meet to discuss the newest status report from the UN Secretariat, as President Salva Kiir of South Sudan rejects such UN overtures as a rapid reaction force of 4,000 peacekeeping troops to help shield the most vulnerable civilians.
International eyes will also be looking at how the United States and its new ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, will tackle South Sudan’s descent into famine as well as Kiir’s rebuff. Haley has been silent so far on anything related to Africa, where the UN is heavily invested in peacekeeping, peace-building and humanitarian missions. (On a follow-up note, Haley did not show up at the Security Council meeting on South Sudan, on Feb. 23, and sent another representative from her office instead, so her views remain unknown on Africa.)
The story of South Sudan since its independence from Sudan in 2011 is sad and shocking. What began as political mistrust and animosities between President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Vice President Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer — the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan — quickly grew into clashes between their loyal forces. The civil war has persisted as international appeals have been mostly ignored.
Is trusteeship of South Sudan the answer? The possibility has been debated over the last month. The UN Trusteeship Council, created to deal with situations like this, has had little work to do in the last few decades. Could it be revived to act as a receiver for South Sudan?
There are plenty of reasons for such radical steps to be taken. The UN has reported more than 50,000 deaths since the war erupted. More than 2.3 million people have been forced to flee and approximately six million are going hungry. The UN just declared that 100,000 people in one region are starving, with millions more about to fall into the famine trap, a situation arising from the conflict and drought.
Rape, an international war crime, has been a weapon used by both sides in the war, but more so by government forces, as documented by the UN. Reports have described such atrocities as gang rapes, sexual slavery, abductions, forced nudity and forced abortion.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) is understaffed. A peace settlement, mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), with support from the UN, the US and Europe, was signed in 2015. But the agreement, backed with threats of financial sanctions and an arms embargo that have not materialized, has collapsed.
While there is nearly unanimous agreement on the need to prevent intensifying of the conflict and genocide, there is much less consensus on the form that international intervention should take.
Some argue that the disintegration of the peace agreement proves that any deal brokered by outsiders without support from the South Sudanese — in particular, Kiir — is doomed to failure.
Andrew S. Natsios, a former US envoy for Sudan and an executive professor at Texas A&M University, suggests that a political settlement must be negotiated by new local players, a step that would limit international involvement. Others have suggested solutions that would require much more outside intervention, overseeing the establishment of a transitional government.
Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan scholar who is an expert on colonialism, has backed a trusteeship, under which a state, group of states or an international organization would govern South Sudan to establish sustained peace and stability before returning power to a local authority.
Mamdani and other supporters of this solution envision a transition jointly administered by the UN and the African Union.
At the UN, the Trusteeship Council, one of the UN’s five main bodies, existed as a primary entity for many years, tasked with overseeing the transition of power from former colonial powers. The council has been largely inactive since 1994, and states are now viewed as capable of self-determination without a transitional trusteeship.
The Trusteeship Council, controlled exclusively by the Security Council’s five permanent members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — has a titular president rotating annually. The current president is Peter Wilson, the deputy permanent representative of Britain to the UN. His spokesman said, “There is no realistic prospect” of the Trusteeship Council “ever stepping in to administer South Sudan as a trust territory.”
One expert likened the Trusteeship Council to an appendix: a branch of the UN that has no more function, but some UN members press to keep it. Apparently, an annual meeting is held in which the diplomats walk into the room and declare the meeting over a minute later. A full disbanding of the council is not a priority for UN reform.
Ralph Wilde, a reader at the Faculty of Laws of University College London, thinks that the chances of a traditional trusteeship arrangement for South Sudan are unlikely. But if the arrangement wouldn’t be coordinated through the Trusteeship Council, its model for creating a transitional government could be used.
“What we might see is an arrangement like in East Timor and Kosovo that were trusteeships actually, but where the T-word was not used, and they’re regarded as one-offs not setting any kind of precedent,” Wilde, an expert in international territorial administration, said in an interview.
East Timor and Kosovo were each governed by transitional administrations established through the UN. These arrangements resembled trusteeship in everything but name, as the UN held temporary executive governing power.
“If there is some kind of solution that people would put on the table for South Sudan of this nature, it would be a transitional administration — on the model of Kosovo and East Timor — with a defined period of time, during which the UN would build up the state, with executive powers given to its representative on the ground, would place UN personnel within ministries and so on,” said Alexandra Novosseloff, a senior visiting fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Novosseloff argued that the situation in South Sudan is vastly different from Kosovo and East Timor. South Sudan is a much larger country than both of those nations. More important, unlike in East Timor and Kosovo, where there was no state or authority in place, South Sudan is controlled by President Kiir, who would need to be deposed and his administration dismantled before a transitional government could be set up.
“I don’t see the UN coming up with a solution that wasn’t consulted with the AU [African Union] or the IGAD,” Novosseloff said. “So it’s going to be a mix. But if the neighboring countries are not willing, for whatever reason, to contribute more political clout, then the situation will remain the same.”
This article was updated.