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THINK AGAIN: South Sudan needs new ideas, not a UN-imposed government
3 August 2016

We can all agree: all is not well in South Sudan. The young country’s Independence Day celebrations were marred by renewed fighting, and the peace deal is hanging by the slenderest of threads. Something needs to change. If the international community wants to prevent another round of bloodshed, then it needs a new approach – and quickly.

Enter Princeton Lyman and Kate Almquist Knopf. Say what you like about their controversial idea, but there’s no doubt that they are thinking outside the box. In their own words, this is their plan, as published in the Financial Times:

‘There is, however, another way: put South Sudan on “life support” by establishing an executive mandate for the UN and the AU to administer the country until institutions exist to manage politics nonviolently and break up the patronage networks underlying the conflict. This will realistically take 10-15 years. Planning for it at the outset, however, is more sensible than the accumulation of one-year mandates over decades, as is the case with other peacekeeping missions.

To prevent another round of bloodshed in South Sudan, a new approach is needed – and quickly
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‘Given South Sudan’s extreme degree of state failure, temporary external administration is the only remaining path to protect and restore its sovereignty. It would empower the people of South Sudan to take ownership of their future and develop a new vision for their country. While a morally bankrupt and predatory elite will falsely characterise such an initiative as a violation of sovereignty, it is this very elite that has put the country’s survival at risk. Though seemingly radical, international administration is not unprecedented and has previously been employed to guide Kosovo, East Timor and other countries out of conflict. In South Sudan, the stakes are no less,’ the pair conclude.

To remove South Sudan’s elected government and insert some kind of international transitional authority is without doubt a radical proposal, made all the more so by the stature and influence of its authors.

Lyman is a career diplomat who served as the United States special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from 2011-2013, overseeing South Sudan’s independence in the process. He now advises the president of the United States Institute of Peace, a state-sponsored body with close links to US intelligence. Knopf, meanwhile, is director of the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, a think tank belonging to the US Department of Defence.

There can be no doubt that their proposal, although not an official position, comes after serious discussion at the very highest levels of US diplomacy.

More recently, variants on the trusteeship model were used in Kosovo and East Timor
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This doesn’t mean, however, that it can work. ‘My heart is saying this is something worth looking at given the deadlock that seems to be prevailing right now in South Sudan, but of course one has to be realistic. The cardinal principle of sovereignty, as enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the AU, will be the first stumbling block,’ commented Ambassador Alfred Dube, director of the Institute for Security Studies’ Addis Ababa office.

The concept of ‘trusteeship’, where an international body takes over the governance of a sovereign entity until such time as it is ready to govern itself, is not a novel idea. In fact, one of the original institutions of the United Nations (UN) was the International Trusteeship System, designed to supervise and administer the 11 territories that were under UN authority.

More recently, variants on the trusteeship model were employed in Kosovo and East Timor, where UN missions assumed the most important attributes of sovereignty before handing over power to local authorities.

Beyond the obvious practical issues – like who is going to pay for an international transitional government, which will certainly be more expensive than Lyman and Knopf estimate – there are several obstacles to something similar working in South Sudan.

The first, as Dube noted, is the historical reluctance of African states to legitimise any interventions in other African states. This is born partly of the continent’s long and bitter history of colonialism, and also partly from the reluctance of certain leaders to set a precedent which could one day be used against themselves.

Lyman and Knopf’s radical proposal is unwieldy and unworkable in practice
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‘A genocide could happen if the international community does not move quickly in South Sudan. Will that be enough to convince those who oppose interference into their affairs?’ said Dube. ‘While it’s a start, it won’t be enough. This radical proposal (whatever its short comings) should give impetus to the key players to reignite what is now a failing peace process’.

Another major obstacle is the difficulty in getting South Sudan’s leaders to agree to such a proposal. They have all been engaged in a decades-long struggle, first for independence from Sudan and then for power within the new South Sudan. There is little to suggest that any of the major players are willing to give up on their ambitions.

It’s also not a given that the UN or the African Union (AU), or some combination thereof, will actually govern any better. ‘The fact that people think it is okay to say things like that shows the level of condescension that still dominates the intervention realm. Saying to people who fought for more than 50 years for the right to self-rule that they are not capable of doing so, reeks of arrogance and hypocrisy’ said Lauren Hutton, an independent consultant with the ISS.

‘But even more so, Lyman and others assume that they (the UN and/or the AU) know how to run the country better than South Sudan’s current leaders.’

Hutton suggests that the international community would be better served by increasing humanitarian assistance, and by rethinking their commitment to the current political balance in the country (so often reduced by outsiders to the relationship between President Salva Kiir and his sometimes-deputy Riek Machar).

While South Sudan is undoubtedly in need of new ideas, Lyman and Knopf’s radical proposal to replace the government with international trustees is unwieldy and unworkable in practice. Back to the drawing board.

Simon Allison, ISS Consultant

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