Ideally, the governments of new states would emerge consensually from political institutions representing all the political leaders who wish to govern. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. The typical default position of the international community is to recognize the leaders in control of the national capital. To win control, political leaders fight one another while looking for any edge that will help them take the capital. The more support a faction has from foreign powers, the less it requires domestic allies or has to go about the painstaking work of maintaining broad political coalitions. Indeed, once political allies are no longer necessary partners for controlling the seat of government, they are simply obstacles to continued rule. That’s often when the killing begins.
The current outbreak of violence in South Sudan is the result of the falling out between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. Until recently Kiir and Machar cooperatively governed through the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. They needed each other to win independence and consolidate a new political order. But this changed when Kiir surprised party officials by dissolving all the party posts, firing the vice president, and sacking his Cabinet in mid-November. A few weeks later Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup.
Kiir, a member of the country’s largest ethnic group, enjoys no shortage of foreign support because of his country’s oil wealth. Petrodollars make up more than 90 percent of South Sudan’s revenues. Likewise, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has dispatched his security forces to the South Sudanese capital of Juba to protect Kiir's regime and has pledged that East African governments stand ready to defeat Machar, a member of the country’s second-largest ethnic group. Although various African mediators have been hosting talks since the week the fighting began, Ugandan security forces remained active despite the January cease-fire, rebels claim.
It might seem that the growing United Nations mission in South Sudan could help save civilian lives since it is charged with protecting the displaced. But the U.N. mission can only hurt by accidentally harboring political fugitives, and through the appearance of a peace process, granting both Kiir and Malar time to marshal their forces and hire the necessary mercenaries and foreign fighters to finish the job.
Whether international involvement comes from small countries such as Cuba in Angola, superpowers like the United States in South Vietnam, or international organizations such as the European Community in the Bosnian War, it’s all counterproductive. The support of outside powers, even if well-meaning, gives belligerents the incentive to fight rather than govern through coalitions, alliances, or hard-won elections.
Nevertheless, there is a policy the international community can pursue that can save civilians from mass killing: We should make clear that any new government that consolidates its power by killing civilians will not be internationally recognized. No seat at the U.N., no membership to the World Trade Organization, no foreign aid agreements, and no participation in the World Cup or the Olympics. Nothing.
It may seem that this policy would be easy to undermine, especially if a major power such as Russia or China chose to ignore the sovereignty boycott and offer its own recognition and support. True, but this new country would essentially be agreeing to join a club of nonrecognized countries. Right now these states include the Republic of Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Republic of South Ossetia, and Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic. No one wants to be consigned to this collection of second-class states.
The killing and destruction in South Sudan is horrible. But the international community shouldn’t invest efforts in processes that make the killing worse when there are easy and inexpensive ways to save lives by keeping power permanently out of reach of murderous governments.