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Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan

UNMISS
South Sudanese citizen waving a flag.

“The war started between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. The war could end there.”


— Nyakhor, Nuer woman, June 3, 2015

2.1 The Issue

South Sudan is in crisis. Since winning independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of bloodshed, the country has faced a troubled existence. Despite having large oil reserves that could fuel a strong economy, South Sudan remains one of the world’s least developed countries. Government institutions are dysfunctional. Political and ethnic rivalries between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar caused the government to effectively collapse in late 2013, plunging the country into a civil war marked by ethnically targeted attacks.


This conflict has led to a severe humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. More than four million South Sudanese, out of a population of thirteen million, have been driven from their homes, disrupting agricultural production and local markets. As a result, food shortages and health needs have grown severe. As many as 383,000 people have died since the beginning of the conflict.


Although a UN peacekeeping mission has been present in South Sudan since 2011, this crisis has also led other countries, including the United States, to consider launching their own humanitarian interventions to establish or maintain peace and ensure access to humanitarian aid. Such interventions would be guided by the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, adopted by the world’s governments in 2005 after they failed to prevent a number of genocides. According to this doctrine, countries have a responsibility to intervene in other countries in cases of crimes against humanity or genocide. However, this norm is not legally binding and its application in past cases has been controversial.

Decision Point

NSC Meeting

South Sudan’s dry season is approaching, which will allow troops and vehicles to move more easily through the country. Current cease-fire agreements exist only on paper, and it seems likely that fighting will continue or even escalate, subjecting civilians to violence and possibly even tribal genocide. At the same time, drought, destruction, and the loss of agricultural workers will deplete South Sudan’s already scarce food supplies. The result will likely be a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions.

In this context, the United States faces significant pressure to act. The United States could increase its involvement in current peace talks or cut funding to the warring parties, but these are long-term options. Meanwhile, South Sudanese civilians are suffering. National Security Council (NSC) members are thus tasked with debating a more immediate question: Should the United States pursue a direct humanitarian intervention in South Sudan? Supporters of intervention could invoke the R2P doctrine, arguing that conditions in South Sudan resemble those in Rwanda at the onset of that country’s 1994 genocide, which claimed as many as one million lives. Yet NSC members need to weigh the possible good that an intervention could accomplish against the significant dangers and the costs that it would entail.

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