Famine, Peace, and War in the World’s Newest Nation

By Tristan Guarniari

On the twelfth of September, 2018, South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed a peace deal, formally ending the South Sudanese civil war, which had lasted five years. With an estimated 400,000 deaths, the South Sudanese civil war has proven to be one of the deadliest armed conflicts in recent history. How did the conflict escalate so far? To understand this, we have to go to back to 2011, where this nation and its problems were born.

Gaining its independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan’s creation marked it as the world’s newest country. This independence, however, did not mean peace for the nation, as between 2011 and 2013 the government waged war against Sudanese armed forces occupying nine out of the country’s ten states. Simultaneously, growing inter-ethnic tensions led to other forms of conflict. Not only did these conflicts contribute to the nation’s instability, but conflicting claims over oil fields fueled tension between South Sudan and Sudan. These tensions culminated in a battle between South Sudanese and Sudanese forces in March of 2012 for the Heglig oil fields, which were eventually permanently claimed by Sudan. With the economy relying on oil it did not own and with continued widespread instability, South Sudan rapidly became one of the poorest countries in the world, experiencing incredibly low literacy and widespread poverty. South Sudan’s problems thus far have been a result of war against Sudan, but it was actually conflict within the South Sudanese government itself that led to the country’s downfall in late 2013. A power struggle between President Kiir and his deputy at the time, Riek Machar, led to a tumultuous five years of war between the president’s governmental forces and Machar’s rebel forces. The South Sudanese public were helplessly caught in the crossfire.

Despite bloodiness of South Sudan’s recent history, many worldwide remain in the dark about the South Sudanese civil war. This can be traced back to two main causes: South Sudan’s resources and refugee movement. South Sudan’s main resource is oil, but although they do have some oil fields, these are not near large enough to garner international interest,, especially considering the country’s current instability. Besides this, refugees from South Sudan have not been fleeing towards Europe, and it is near impossible to garner attention from the mainstream press without causing problems for western countries..

But why care about this conflict if it has ended? Unfortunately, this recent peace agreement is far from the first this country has tried. In fact, according to The Economist, there have been at least nine ceasefires since the civil war started in 2013, and all were eventually broken. There’s no telling how long this period of peace will last, which makes using this ceasefire to help the South Sudanese population all the more important. This help is desperately needed, as the real victims of this violent war have been civilians, who have . not only been killed in the violence, but continue to suffer silently through a UN classified famine that began in 2017. With over five million of the country’s 12 million people in severe hunger and 2 million displaced, humanitarian aid is urgently needed. It is imperative to get to get food and other forms of aid to these people before warfare resumes. Even with this urgency, organizations such as the UN are struggling to finance these efforts, with a recent UN appeal of 1.7 billion dollars to aid the country being only 45% funded. To aid those in suffering, we must help spread this country’s story and make governments and other organizations aware of South Sudan’s hardships. Without interference, South Sudan will likely continue down its destructive path, creating more torment for those who have already suffered too long.

An East Asian Refugee Crisis

By Emily Ma

Indefinite detention. Forced labor. Brutal torture. These are the realities that North Korean refugees face for escaping their totalitarian state. In accordance with a 2010 statement by the North Korean Ministry of Public Security, leaving the country without permission amounts to a “crime of treachery against the nation.” Despite the severity of this threat, thousands of men, women, and children risk their lives to escape across the 880-mile boundary between North Korea and China. Tightening border security by both countries has made this no easy feat. Yet even in the face of patrol guards, barbed wire fences, and surveillance cameras, these defectors still flee towards the hope of safety, freedom, and a better future.

Unfortunately, the struggle doesn’t end at the border. China currently refuses to recognize North Korean defectors as real refugees. It instead classifies them as illegal economic migrants, using the pretext of that label to forcibly repatriate them to their home country, despite the knowledge of the certain punishment they face upon return. According to a 2013 report by the UN Commission of Inquiry, China has deported tens of thousands of North Koreans over the past twenty years. Human Rights Watch has also reported crack downs on the networks of local guides that help facilitate the flight of these defectors, making future escape that much more difficult.

Even those that manage to evade law enforcement find themselves without the financial means to reach safety in countries like South Korea. Instead, they’re stranded, hiding illegally in a completely foreign world. In China, these vulnerable individuals have no recognized rights, and unscrupulous individuals, from brokers to human traffickers, are eager to take advantage of their desperation. As a result, many refugees are forced into invisible industries like prostitution or black-market manufacturing, living in fear of discovery by Chinese authorities.

While China certainly has a legitimate state interest in controlling its borders, as well as an agreement with North Korea that compels it to stop “illegal border crossing of residents,” China’s interest in preserving its UN obligations and international integrity should take precedence. As a party to the UN Refugee Convention, China’s current behavior violates objectives to protect refugees; it’s evident that these individuals meet the 1951 UN Refugee Convention definition of the term “refugee.” For one, these North Koreans are clearly fleeing for fear of persecution; Pyongyang has legalized inhumane penalization for any kind of political “dissent,” from practicing religion to listening to foreign music. Moreover, testimonies submitted to the Committee for Human Rights show that those who return to North Korea are interrogated and imprisoned without due process in labor camps where beatings, starvation, sexual violence, and execution are common.

By enabling the continued abuse of refugees, China has allowed itself to become complicit in North Korea’s human rights violations. Beijing’s refusal to change its policy in this case represents a failure to the international community because, by suppressing the voices of these refugees, China hinders other countries’ and supranational organizations' abilities to identify and understand Kim-Jong Un’s extensive crimes against humanity and take action against them.

The international community has a responsibility to hold China accountable. Faced with this humanitarian crisis, multilateral action is needed to pressure China to, at the very minimum, immediately cease its deportations, allowing these refugees the chance to at least seek asylum elsewhere. However, preferably, China should work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to organize a refugee adjudication system that could determine official refugee status parameters and institute measures for protection and resettlement. Although this approach could have far-reaching implications for China’s deteriorating relationship with North Korea, it also has the potential to save thousands of North Korean victims.

Tourism: An Economic Weapon

By Matt Heller

It has become far too apparent recently that the People’s Republic of China, to be referred to simply as China, has far too much leverage over other countries in its efforts to eradicate support for the Republic of China, commonly regarded as Taiwan. Just recently, US air carriers acquiesed without incident to a Chinese ultimatum to drop any mention of Taiwan as a sovereign country. China’s ability to force foreign entities to accede with its policy demands is augmented by its ability to control its population and businesses more effectively than almost any other major power. Nowhere is this truer than with China’s control of its tourism industry, as the Chinese government has weaponized Chinese tourism to coerce states to give into its demands.

According to an article in The Economist, there were over 130 million international tourists from China in 2017, accounting for over $260 billion in spending, more than any other individual country. Chinese tourism is expected to continue considerable growth in tandem with China’s burgeoning middle class. And China wields near absolute control over its tourists by exercising strict oversight over all travel agencies (responsible for the majority of international Chinese travel) and by maintaining a list of acceptable countries for Chinese tourists to visit. This gives China immense leverage in cutting off this massive economic driver, especially over countries dependent on tourism.

One good example is the Dominican Republic, which switched its diplomatic recognition for the official Chinese government from Taiwan to the People’s Republic in 2018. In large part, this shift was due to promises by the Chinese government to increase the flow of tourists. China is able to use tourism as positive incentive for following China’s policy while  countries opposed to China’s policy, such as Taiwan or the United States, find it difficult to respond with incentives of their own as they do not have the same control over where their tourists go as does China. For a tourism-dependent country like the Dominican Republic, an influx of new tourists presents a tantalizing increase in revenue and for China, the offer costs nothing. For another state to counter that and stop the defection of a nation to China’s sphere of influence, it would require a direct financial investment, one that a nation like Taiwan is often unable, and the United States unwilling, to provide.

Nowhere is the use of weaponized tourism more overt than in Palau, a small Pacific island state where tourism is one of the main economic drivers. Palau recognizes Taiwan as a sovereign country, and China recently barred its tourists from visiting Palau. This has resulted in a drop in airline bookings, a rise in empty hotel rooms, and a dramatically decrease in tourism revenues in a country where half of all tourists were Chinese. In this case, China is not offering to open up tourism to Palau, but instead is aggressively cutting Palau off to cause them economic pain. Perhaps the only reason Palau has not caved into Chinese demands for a change in diplomatic recognition is that the United States is still under agreement to provide funding until 2024, and Palau has historically relied heavily on American financial assistance. However, with American interest in the partnership dwindling and financial assistance’s ineffectiveness in growing the Palauan economy, it is likely only a matter of time before the island nation switches recognition to China.

Though Palau and the Dominican Republic are both small countries and the diplomatic recognition of China over Taiwan is a relatively trivial issue among more important international policies (most countries maintain de facto relations with both Chinas, including the US), China’s use of tourism to coerce policy change is still a threat to American and Western interests. At absolutely no cost to its government, China is able to offer a country a large financial investment that has the potential to grow, tying those countries economically to China and gradually bringing them under its influence. Though the weaponization of tourism is less effective against larger countries, as China’s ban on tourism to South Korea during the THAAD deployment had minimal effect, it is still a major threat as those small countries under China’s sway can provide much needed votes in the UN, potential locations for foreign military bases, and markets for foreign goods. Though today China is just leveraging these countries to switch recognition away from Taiwan, tomorrow it could be coercing them to vote in China’s favor at the UN or to open up their soil for military bases of a China ever readier to assert its influence in the world.