By Gerard McCarthy, a PhD Candidate at ANU's School of International, Political & Strategic Studies, and Charles Martin-Shields, a PhD candidate at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. 

 United Nations Day in South Sudan, 24 October 2013. (United Nations Photo.)

After less than three years of nationhood, South Sudan stands on the precipice of civil war. The crisis represents a clear test of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, and Australia has a key role to play in making the case for humanitarian intervention.

The crisis in South Sudan started when President Salva Kiir dismissed Vice-President Riek Machar in July 2013 after a dispute over control of the country's major political party and patronage vehicle, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). This metastasised into a bloody political crisis in December 2013 which has seen South Sudan's army split along largely ethnic lines. Some factions backed President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, while others supported Machar, a former warlord and ethnic Nuer. In recent months these divisions have led to violence throughout the country, culminating in ethnically-targeted massacres of hundreds of people by armed militias on the streets of Bentiu, Unity State and within the UN compound in Bor, Jonglei State.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is hamstrung by a state-building mandate unsuited to the unfolding civil war and humanitarian crisis. In December 2013, the UN Security Council granted UNMISS the mandate to boost its deployment from 7000 to 12,500 troops and police. However, as of recent weeks only around 8500 are on the ground.

The recent massacre of 58 people within the UN base in Bor demonstrates the inability of the current peacekeeping force to confront violence, which occurs even within its own compounds. Most recently, hundreds of ethnic Dinka and ethnic Nuers who did not welcome the rebel capture of Bentiu in Nuer-majority Unity State were shuffled into a mosque (ostensibly under the promise of protection) and shot.

In the wake of these atrocities, international diplomats and UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous have reminded South Sudan's government of their civilian protection responsibilities, saying 'the United Nations is doing everything it can...But let us never forget that the primary responsibility for protecting civilians is with the government.' This message has been reinforced in recent days by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry, both of whom have flown to Juba to raise the profile of South Sudan's escalating civil war and cajole President Kiir and rebel leader Machar into mediation later this week.

In the meantime, a one-month ceasefire was agreed between Kiir and Machar on 7 May to allow aid to reach civilians. While this is a positive step, it remains unclear whether this agreement will be respected by local militia. Regardless, the wording indicates that it is not meant to represent a long term halt to hostilities.

In light of these dynamics, the international community would be wise to prepare for a more advanced international intervention beyond the current ceasefire and the targeted sanctions recently imposed by the US on junior actors in the conflict. 

As outlined in the 2001 International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report, which was co-written by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and formed the foundation of the R2P doctrine, the international community has an obligation to intervene when national governments are 'unable' or 'unwilling' to protect civilians from atrocities.

As South Sudan slides toward a messy and intractable civil war, the case to invoke the international 'pillar' of the R2P doctrine is clear and urgent. Around a million people have already been displaced and more than three million are at risk of starvation in the coming months if the situation worsens.

Australia holds a rotating position on the UN Security Council and has previously used it's international reputation to play an active role in invoking humanitarian obligations, both diplomatically in making the case for the 2011 no-fly zone in Libya as well as operationally in leading the INTERFET peacekeeping operation in East Timor and the peace monitoring mission in Bougainville. Australia is thus uniquely placed to help build the case for intervention, overcome existing divisions on the UN Security Council and influence the shape of a more effective peacekeeping presence.

So what could intervention look like? Beyond the imposition of sanctions on junior actors, the focus needs to be on solutions that directly affect at-risk populations. At minimum, that means UN member states (especially Western powers) deploying the remaining 4000 troops and police mandated by the UN Security Council in December.

If the UN Security Council were to invoke R2P in South Sudan it would catalyse the international community to follow through on commitments to staff and support the present peacekeeping effort, as well as deliver on the $230 million required in immediate food aid to prevent impending famine. It would also provide justification for deployment of additional targeted forces by other international actors (regional or otherwise) in areas of acute strife such as Unity State and Jonglei State. These forces could be led by regional actors such as the African Union or East Africa's regional body, IGAD, and be a joint operation with Western powers akin to the 2001 British intervention in Sierra Leone.

None of these options are diplomatically easy. Yet, if we are to prevent the slide of South Sudan into bloody civil war, Australian and international diplomats must take seriously the doctrine of R2P and its role as a toolbox of military and non-military interventions that use legitimate force to help protect civilians and prevent atrocities. Urging the UN Security Council to invoke the doctrine of R2P now may provide the flexibility necessary for the international community not only to halt the spiral of ethnic violence but also to properly enforce peace while all parties seek a political solution to the conflict.