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Families in Tong Ping displaced persons settlement carry their newly received non food items back to where they're staying.
© Anita Kattakuzhy/Oxfam/Oxfam East Africa

The difficulties of international organisations in achieving peace: the case of South Sudan

Author: Andrea Premarini (2021)

Andrea Premarini holds a master’s degree in Human Rights and Multi-level Governance from the University of Padova. This article is an excerpt from “The role of international organisations and major powers in the South-Sudan crisis” master thesis, discussed on 26 October 2021 under the supervision of Prof. Lorenzo Menchi.


Figure 1-Families in Tong Ping displaced persons settlement carry their newly received non food items back to where they’re staying.
(Credit: Anita Kattakuzhy/Oxfam; Source:
Tong Ping UN Base, South Sudan )

On the 14th of July 2011, South Sudan became the 193rd country to join the United Nations, the last country to obtain formal independence recognised by the International Community. The long conflict between Northern and Southern Sudan, and thereafter the current civil, prompted millions of South Sudanese to migrate. In 2020, the number of displaced people reached almost two million, a huge number when compared to the total population of South Sudan, which in 2019 was about 11 million. According to the report of the Human Rights Council, the intervention of UNMISS fails to ensure peace and compliance with peace agreements and the conditions in South Sudan in 2021 are still tragic.

Since the end of the 19th century, when the peoples of Northern and Southern Sudan came into close contact, Norther Sudanese have imposed Islam and their tradition on the southern peoples. Soon after the independence of Sudan (1956) from United Kingdom, civil war broke out. The first civil war played out from 1956 to 1972; the hostilities resumed in 1983 and ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005. Civil war broke out again in South Sudan in 2013, and despite two peace agreements (2015 and 2018), the aftermath of the civil war is still visible today, in 2022. The local population is forced to either emigrate massively or live in extreme poverty, with the constant risk of becoming involved in civil wars. This article explored the roles of various players at the international level in the long-lasting armed conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan, and how they failed to facilitate all involved parties to maintain the peace and prevent humanitarian crises.

The paper is divided into two parts. Firstly, the role of superpowers from the first civil conflict (1956) to the present day will be investigated. The second part, instead, will focus on the role of African international organisations in achieving durable peace.

The role of the Superpowers and the United Nations

During the first Sudanese civil war, the role of international organisations and major powers was marginal due to the Cold War context. Nevertheless, Sudan was still a battleground for disputes and mutual accusations between the US and the USSR, albeit on a smaller scale than other conflicts in the 1960s and early 1970s. The two superpowers (US and USSR) were facing each other with no intention of cooperating to achieve peace. During the first Sudanese civil war, civilians paid a high price. Indeed, it is estimated that about 80% of the victims were not armed combatants. Regarding the role of international actors in achieving peace, NGOs and the different branches of the Christian churches played a crucial role to achieve an agreement that would provide for two separate systems of governance, one Muslim and the other secular, within a single state.

During the Cold War, South Sudan failed to gain independence for two reasons. Firstly, the United Kingdom had maintained very good political and economic relations with the former colony in its entirety. Secondly, the independence was not supported by Western powers because the main rebel groups called ‘Sudanese People Liberation Movement/Army’ (SPLM/A) had strong Marxist influences; these influences brought the separatist movement closer to the Soviet bloc, and for this reason, it was considered wiser to maintain a single state with a Muslim majority.

Figure 2- Sudan: FCO briefing for MT (“Call by President Nimeiri: Aid”)  - page 11

The fear of a new civil war began in 1981, when Sudanese president Nimeiri brought a dramatic shift towards Islamist political governance, and he allied Nimeri-party with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1983, the imposition of Sharia law on the entire Sudan stated the beginning of the second Sudanese civil war. According to declassified sources of Downing Street (see figure 2), “in June [1983] Nimeiri decreed that the Southern region should be redivided into the three old regions, an act which sought to profit from traditional rivalries temporarily set various tribal groups and regional interests against one another. Finally, in September, he introduced Islamic Law which is seen by all Southerners as a serious threat and which seems, in the absence of any concessions by Nimeiri, likely to unite them against the Muslim North and lead the country back to civil war.”

During the 90s, the threat of Muslim terrorism was spreading worldwide after the United States intervened decisively in the conflict and declared Sudan a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”. Washington put pressure on the African regional organisations to promote a peace process aimed at obtaining the right of self-determination of the peoples in favour of a new sovereign state of South Sudan. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005, and the first United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) was immediately established. With the end of UNMIS in 2011, South Sudan formally gained independence. Nevertheless, despite the agreements reached in 2005, instability on the border with Sudan led the Security Council to establish a new mission, the first United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which is still active today.

At the end of the 90s, when Sudan was politically isolated but rich in raw materials - especially crude oil - another superpower, the People’s Republic of China, stepped in. With the introduction of White House sanctions, Western oil companies were forced to cease their production; thus, the Chinese government rapidly became the most important economic partner of Sudan. With the signing of the CPA, China’s relations with South Sudan followed the principle of one Sudan, two systems recognising and involving the Central Government of National Unity of Sudan and the Government of Southern Sudan. Although China’s relations with the SPLM were legally enshrined by the CPA, political dialogue with South Sudan presented challenges for Beijing because of its previous political, economic and military support for the central government in Khartoum during the war.

About 75% of Sudan’s proven oil reserves are in South Sudan borders. Therefore, China was interested in not interfering in the formation process of the new state. China’s ambassador to the UN played an active role in the Darfur peace conference in November 2006 in Addis Ababa. Beijing has developed two main interlinked engagement processes between the ongoing conflict in western Darfur (UNAMID) and the new political geography of formal North-South peace in Sudan (UNMIS).

With the outbreak of the South Sudanese civil war in 2012, Beijing was again called upon to act to secure one of the highest risk energy investments. Oil company workers were forced to seek shelter at UN bases, and high-level officials were immediately evacuated. China deployed combatant and non-combatant troops when UNMISS began, contributing to the mission’s initial mandate of building peace and status through economic and social reconstruction projects for local communities. Although this deployment was in accordance with the new UNMISS mandate to protect civilians, China asked explicitly for an protection of foreign nationals and oil installations. According to Fritz Nganje, “Beijing’s commitment to conflict prevention and the protection of civilians from serious human rights violations in South Sudan is not without its critics. China’s relations with Sudan and South Sudan are seen to be largely driven by the imperative to promote and protect its economic interests, expressed mostly in massive investment in the oil sector that straddles both countries.”

The African impasse

The South Sudan civil war also shows the limits of regional international organisations in the civil conflicts’ resolution. During the 1990s and the South Sudan civil conflict started at the end of 2012, the national interest and the overlapping of competencies between the African Union and other international organisations in the Horn of Africa (Authority on Development – IGAD, called IGADD until 1996) had dramatic effects on the continuation of the conflict and the civilian populations.

In 1993, formal IGADD mandated Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea to undertake peace negotiations under the chairmanship of President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya. In 1994, IGADD established a standing committee to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Sudan, and in the same year, negotiations between the SPLM/A and the government began in Nairobi. Lt. Gen. Malual Ayom Dor highlighted that little progress was made during the first period of the peace process “because disagreements over the issue of self-determination of the South prevented discussions from moving forward as the Sudanese government threatened to boycott if the issue of self-determination was on the agenda.” The deadlock encountered by IGAD member states in the early 1990s was overcome only after the intervention of the United States. After the 11th September terrorist attack, the US government decided that the best strategy to strike Sudan, which was one of the most important Islamic states, was to support the separatist demands of the SPLM and establish a democratic and independent state of South Sudan.

During the Sudanese civil conflicts, the African Union (AU) did not take part in the peace process, while during the South Sudanese civil conflict, the AU is trying to establish its role as a mediator; however, its role remained marginal due to several factors. Firstly, there was a clear overlap of authority between the AU and IGAD that led to a phase of immobility in the peace processes. The pursuit of the national interests of the Horn of Africa countries is one of the main reasons for the difficulties in dialogues and cooperation between the two international organisations. Secondly, the AU did not impose a joint mediation process with IGAD. This was because the AU would have demanded the imposition of punitive measures that were always unwelcome to IGAD member states. A clear case of IGAD’s efforts to block punitive measures occurred in July 2018. Before the AU Ad Hoc Committee on South Sudan, IGAD held a meeting and urged the AU not to consider any punitive measures seeing as how IGAD was already developing other strategies. According to Dr. Ndubuisi Christian Ani “the timing of the IGAD communique also shows the broader trend of how sub-regional organisations tend to avoid interference and input from the larger AU configuration.”

Therefore, the task of the Peace and Security Council of African Union (PSC), made up of all African members, is to provide a continental response to crisis situations, to supply adequate checks and balances to conflicting sub-regional viewpoints. The case of South Sudan shows all the weaknesses of the AU structure. The lack of resources and authority highlights all the fragilities of the AU. Since it was enshrined in the founding documents of the AU, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has become a part of African conflict resolution mechanisms. However, in the case of South Sudan, R2P was not applied in the form of humanitarian intervention. The AU proposed the creation of a regional force in accordance with its commitment to the “African solution to African problems”, which, however, has not been deployed.


In South Sudan, the role of international organisations and superpowers has always been limited and constrained by external interests; from the Cold War to the present day, national interests have slowed down peace processes. Not surprisingly, the failure to implement R2P is also due to the political will of various actors, including neighbouring states and South Sudanese elites. Various geopolitical factors have made it difficult for the international community to prevent mass atrocities and human rights violations during the conflict. As shown, the main factors include economic interests of superpowers, South Sudan’s low importance in the African scenario, fragile regional alliances and various proxy conflicts. If the exploitation of natural resources continues to underpin all local and international power relations, there will be no peace for some provinces in the fragile state of South Sudan.

Figure 3 - UNMISS police and military conducted two integrated search operations

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