Why no one should be surprised South Sudan is still not at peace.

Since the civil war in South Sudan first broke out in December 2013, it is estimated that at least 50,000 people have died, 2.3 million people have been displaced, and 2.8 million are on the brink of a famine level food crisis.

This entirely man-made humanitarian disaster is the result of the senseless and selfish actions of both President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. Both sides have committed crimes against humanity since the outset of the war, but the United Nations reported that in 2015 the government was responsible for the majority of the abuses.

Throughout the course of the conflict, regional bodies, the United Nations, and individual states have all tried to pressure the two leaders to bring an end to the violence, none have yet succeeded. Multiple ceasefire agreements were signed and subsequently violated. In August of last year, the two sides signed a peace agreement that was supposed to bring an end to the war and establish a Transitional Government of National Unity — effectively bringing Kiir and Machar together in a power sharing agreement. But, so far they have failed to implement the agreement, and do not seem particularly eager to do so.

Protection of Civilians (POC) site near Bentiu, in Unity State, South Sudan. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine — With so many displaced, makeshift camps built on swamps like this one in Bentiu, many South Sudanese are forced to live in extremely difficult conditions.

The Editorial Board of the Washington Post recently expressed its frustration with the current stalemate in the peace process, and called for the establishment of an arms embargo. But that is not enough. At the end of the day, even if the transitional government were established, the forces of both sides integrated, and meaningful security sector and governance reform undertaken, it is unlikely that the agreement would create a sustainable peace with Kiir and Machar at the helm.

As Ronald Krebs and Roy Licklider recently wrote, integrating former opponents may seem like a great idea, “[b]ut these are just hopes, backed by little evidence.” Krebs and Licklider studied multiple examples of reintegrating warring armies to determine whether the strategy works; their conclusion: “the international community’s faith in military integration is misplaced.”

One might question then, how bringing Kiir and Machar together — the two men who have dragged the world’s newest nation through a completely unnecessary and extremely violent civil war — will bring about peace. And there’s the rub, it won’t.

Unfortunately, the international system is built to deal with the powers that be, not the powers that should be. Placing the two leaders in a power sharing position is not the least bad option; it is the only proposed option. Given the current international relations paradigm, there is no stomach or precedent for doing what is necessary: telling Kiir and Machar that they had their shot, they have failed miserably, and now it’s time for new leadership.

If the United Nations and world leaders truly stood behind their commitment to the Responsibility to Protect, as affirmed in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, they would “take collective action” to protect the South Sudanese people from war crimes and crimes against humanity. And the most effective way to do that: not allow Kiir or Machar to hold power. But, that won’t happen because the system is built to focus on ending the violence in the short-term, and not do what has the greatest chance to produce a long-term sustainable peace.

It’s time for some real talk and new ideas on how to end mass atrocity situations. Historically, negotiated settlements have not worked, and it’s clear the current peace process in South Sudan is failing. We need out-of-the-box thinking and new approaches to ending the conflict. Perhaps those ideas could be transferable and may help bring an end to the countless other state-led atrocity situations currently plaguing citizens around the world. It’s clear the current strategy isn’t working.


The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit is a good opportunity to begin this discussion, but it cannot end with a set of outcome documents without meaningful actions and results. We cannot continue business as usual and expect different results. A true paradigm shift is necessary — one that gets away from the practice of reacting to crises and focuses on upstream prevention efforts. And in the cases where the opportunity for prevention is long gone, the world must be able to come together, under the banner of the United Nations, and decisively act to ensure heads of state are not allowed to decimate their population and destroy their country.

We can do better. We must do better.


Mike Brand is the Director of Policy and Programs at Jewish World Watch (JWW), an organization dedicated to preventing genocide and mass atrocities around the world. The viewpoints expressed by the author are his own. Follow Mike on Twitter @miketheidealist