The United States has circulated a draft resolution among UN Security Council members that would implement an arms embargo on South Sudan and additional targeted sanctions on individuals in the country if President Salva Kiir does not sign a peace deal.
Kiir walked away from peace talks on Monday, the latest setback in a series of failed accords dating back to early last year. At least seven agreements have been inked after fighting broke out in December 2013, all of them violated immediately or soon after. In July of this year, the Security Council levied sanctions against six generals involved in the conflict, but stopped short of imposing an arms embargo.
"The absence of a signature from the government of South Sudan on the 17th was outrageous," a US official at the UN told reporters. "It is incumbent in our view for the Security Council to support the region in ensuring that a comprehensive agreement is concluded."
Mediators in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa said Kiir's rival and former vice-president, Riek Machar, had signed an accord that called for power sharing and demilitarization. Also signing the deal were a group of ten prominent detainees who were rounded up by the government in the early days of the conflict.
Kiir claimed the government needed an additional two weeks to review the accord.
The Security Council resolution, which VICE News reviewed, is aimed at forcing Kiir to sign the peace deal by September 6; if both parties haven't, punitive measures would be applied.
Passage is not guaranteed and diplomats said they were still reviewing the text. However, several said a vote on the resolution would take place "imminently."
South Sudan was less than two years old when gunfire erupted in the capital, Juba, on December 15. Several months after booting Machar from his cabinet, Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup. Within days of the first clashes, Machar settled into his role as leader of the rebel force, known as the Southern People's Liberation Army In Opposition (SPLA-IO). The group is composed of mainly of men from Machar's Nuer ethnic group, and has battled government and aligned forces that are predominantly from the Dinka ethnic group, like Kiir.
At least 50,000 people have been killed and 2 million driven from their homes in the 20 months since the fighting began. The country's economy has floundered, as conflict disrupts commerce and the central government in Juba spends its meager cash supplies on weapons. Both sides have been accused of war crimes, most recently in Unity State, where UN and investigators from Human Rights Watch said government forces raped, castrated and burned children.
"I think that it's a really strong resolution, it's definitely in the spirit of coercion and moving the parties to an agreement, which is appropriate," Akshaya Kumar, an analyst at the Enough Project, told VICE News.
The group, headed by John Pendergrast, an influential figure in the push for South Sudanese independence, had pushed for an arms embargo early in the conflict.
Though Kiir may have his back up the wall, his next move is unclear. On Sunday, he lashed out at journalists who were reporting "against the country," and whom he appeared to threaten with death. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the US Secretary of State told reporters Kiir had told John Kerry that he would sign the deal. At almost the same time, unidentified gunmen in Juba shot and killed Peter Julius Moi, a reporter for South Sudan's Corporate Weekly.
Though the draft resolution did not spell out who would face additional sanctions, there were rumors travel bans and asset freezes could go as high as Kiir himself.
"With individual sanctions, the key is who is targeted," Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, told VICE news. "You have to go to the top."
Even if a peace deal is reached, it would only reinstate many of the same leaders who broke the country in half more than year and a half ago.
"The premise of this approach is really that South Sudan was more or less OK before the war broke out, so putting the same elite back together with a varied version of the distribution of power, wealth and guns will not solve the problem," he said.
In the short term, millions of South Sudanese, including some 200,000 who are seeking shelter at UN bases in the country, will have to be resettled. The UN peacekeeping mission in the country, UNMISS, has struggled to protect the ever increasing numbers who have fled to their protection, leaving them unable — and some say unwilling — to patrol the country and protect those outside the confines of bases.
South Sudan's vast oil wealth, which at one point provided 99 percent of government revenues, will be key to a sustaining a long-lasting peace in the country. But both Kumar and de Waal described the pre-existing state of affairs in South Sudan as a "kleptocracy," where patronage was doled out, wealth spirited abroad, and an environment where disgruntled actors took up arms to guarantee a greater share of the oil proceeds.
"It's very striking that despite the enormous effort that has been expended, the number of summit meetings, they've hardly made a single visit to consult the ordinary people of South Sudan to see what they think," said de Waal. "They are using the same instruments to solve the problem that were used to create the problem."
Another concern raised by observers is whether Machar indeed is in control of all the myriad rebel factions that coalesced under the SPLA-IO banner. Many have divergent interests, and if an accord is not seen as helpful to them, they may break away. With so little cash to salve misunderstandings and grievances, there could be little to protect a fragile peace — even if war doesn't break out with two discernible sides.
"All workable peace agreements in Sudan and South Sudan have been made when the budget was expanding, so all those contenders came out of it with more in their pockets than when they went in," said de Waal. "It won't work when the country is going bankrupt, and oil prices are falling."
Watch VICE News' documentary Ambushed in South Sudan: