A child born the year South Sudan achieved independence will be 7 this year. She has no memory of her country at peace. Odds are, violence has driven her from her home. She is malnourished. She has likely never been in school. If she is sheltering in a U.N. Protection of Civilians site, more likely than not, her mother has been a victim of rape or assault.
For nearly five years, the world’s youngest country has been at civil war. I often hear people say we should be patient and wait for the elites who started the war to come to peace on their terms. But the children of South Sudan cannot wait.
Violence has displaced more than 4 million people in South Sudan, and some 2 1/2 million have fled to other countries. Nearly two-thirds of the refugees are children. Tens of thousands are dead. Seven million South Sudanese need humanitarian assistance.
Nothing prepares you to hear the firsthand accounts of extreme violence suffered by women and children. I listened to their stories when I traveled to South Sudan last year to visit one of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping missions and relief operations.
At the Protection of Civilians site, I lost count of the number of women who told me they had been raped, their husbands had been shot or their children had been stolen before they fled to safety.
But the most disturbing thing I saw was the seed of hate being planted in the children of South Sudan. Armed men have separated thousands of young boys from their parents and forced them to fight as child soldiers. Even child soldiers who manage to escape may never fully recover from what they have seen and been forced to do.
In one horrific case recounted to me, two brothers were forced to watch as fighters gang-raped their mother. Afterward, the fighters made the brothers shoot her. They permitted the brothers to stop shooting only after their mother had died – killed by her own sons. This story is difficult to retell, but not sharing it denies the reality a generation of children live with as the conflict persists.
In 2015, after nearly two years of civil war, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with Riek Machar, who was Kiir’s first vice president at the time and the leader of the armed opposition. It collapsed within months.
For the past year, a regional forum led by Ethiopia has offered a chance at peace. The parties agreed to a cease-fire in December, only for violations to occur within hours. The latest round of talks concluded on May 23 with no agreement. After much hard work from Ethiopia and goodwill from the international community, the conflict continues. Something has to change, and it has to change now.
The United States has supported South Sudan since the beginning. American taxpayers have invested more than$11 billion there since its independence. But we have lost patience with the status quo. We must change course if we are to save a generation of South Sudanese and give them hope for a better future.
It is long past time the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan. This concrete measure can save lives. Rather than continue to hold meetings, the United States is calling on our colleagues on the Security Council and our partners in the region to act.
By depriving their fighters of weapons and ammunition to wage war, an arms embargo will help convince the warring parties that there is no military solution to this conflict. Above all, an arms embargo is a humanitarian measure: It will decrease the availability of weapons, slow violence and alleviate suffering.
Sanctions on those who continue to destabilize South Sudan represent another critical tool at the Security Council’s disposal. By imposing financial and travel restrictions on individuals responsible for threatening the peace, we can ensure they pay a cost for perpetuating violence. Only then can we begin to change the calculus of those who profit from war.
What I saw and heard during my trip made me angry. The experience of observing children displaced by the fighting stays with me as a mother.
Why should we care? Because these children are growing up to be uneducated, unskilled and resentful adults. That should concern us all.
The leaders of South Sudan are responsible for protecting these children, and they have failed them. We have no more time to waste on empty promises. The international community must come together to do what South Sudan’s leaders will not: take action to restore hope to the world’s youngest country.
Nikki Haley (Author of this article) is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This opinion article was first published in the Washington Post