Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in May 2014. Rival South Sudanese factions have fought a civil war since the end of 2013, causing mass displacements, tens of thousands of deaths, and widespread hunger. Negotiations between the leaders of these factions—President Salva Kiir and rebel commander and former Vice President Riek Machar—are stalled, and South Sudan’s dry season approaches, signaling intensified fighting and a humanitarian crisis of potentially historic proportions. Already, about two million South Sudanese have been driven from their homes, and food shortages and health needs have grown acute. Observers fear an eventual famine. Although a United Nations peacekeeping mission is present in South Sudan, other countries, including the United States, have begun to consider additional action to protect civilians. The president has asked the National Security Council for options on whether and how the United States could pursue a humanitarian intervention in or around South Sudan. NSC officials will need to take into account the pressure on the United States to act, including the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P), as well as the significant costs, benefits, and risks of unilateral or multilateral intervention.

Decision Point

South Sudan is in its fifth month of civil war. So far, all attempts to reach a ceasefire have quickly failed. Recent reports suggest the war reached a new level of violence after South Sudanese opposition forces took control of the northern city of Bentiu and killed hundreds of civilians there. It seems likely that fighting will continue to escalate, subjecting civilians to more violence and possibly even leading to genocide. At the same time, drought, destruction, and the loss of the agricultural workforce will reduce South Sudan’s already scarce food supplies. The result is predicted to be a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. 

In this context, the United States faces significant pressure to act. The United States could increase its involvement in current peace talks or cut funding to the warring parties, but these options take time. Meanwhile, South Sudanese civilians are suffering. National Security Council (NSC) members are thus meeting to debate a more immediate question: Should the United States pursue a direct humanitarian intervention in South Sudan? Supporters of intervention could invoke the R2P doctrine, arguing that conditions in South Sudan resemble those at the onset of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which claimed as many as one million lives. Yet NSC members need to weigh the possible good that an intervention could accomplish against the significant dangers and the costs that it would entail. 

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the history of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in South Sudan including the significant diplomatic role played by the United States.
  • Students will consider the potential risks and benefits associated with a United States response to the crisis in South Sudan.
  • Students will evaluate the options available to the United States to help address the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

Concepts and Issues


  • Humanitarian intervention
  • Responsibility to protect
  • Weak states
  • Peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and peacemaking
  • Civil war
  • Multilateralism
  • Peace negotiations


  • Costs, benefits, and risks of humanitarian interventions
  • Debates surrounding R2P
  • Underdevelopment and its effects
  • Impact of the resource curse
  • U.S. role in South Sudanese independence and corresponding U.S. interests

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case that you may find helpful as you guide the role-play and assess students.

The United States played a significant diplomatic role in South Sudan starting from  the beginning of the twenty-first century. It helped broker the 2005 peace agreement that ended Sudan’s second civil war and paved the way for South Sudanese independence. Since brokering the peace, the United States also made substantial investments in funding Sudan’s development. Washington provided more than $6 billion in humanitarian aid between 2005 and 2010. After South Sudan gained its independence, the United States continued to invest in development efforts in the new country. It also supported and helped to fund UN peacekeeping missions in the region. 

Although some policymakers argued that South Sudan had little economic or geopolitical significance for the United States, many moral and political factors created pressure for U.S. intervention. The first was preventing atrocities and reducing the violence and loss of life in South Sudan. Many observers criticized U.S. responses to past humanitarian crises, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They argued that the United States should have done more to prevent atrocities. As the crisis in South Sudan gained attention, the United States faced pressure to demonstrate its commitment to protecting human rights. Additionally, because the United States helped broker the 2005 peace deal that led to South Sudan’s independence, seeing the new country spiral into genocide and famine risked signaling the failure of a significant American diplomatic effort.

With the threat of escalation looming, policymakers in Washington had serious incentives to address the civil war in South Sudan. Still, any response came with possible costs. Military intervention especially carried severe risks to U.S. personnel and threatened to become an expensive endeavor. Depending on how NSC members assess the risks and potential benefits, various options for a direct intervention are available. The first question, nevertheless, is not how to pursue a humanitarian intervention but whether to pursue one at all.

NSC members had three main policy options to consider.

Intervention in South Sudan 

A direct military intervention by the United States and any willing partners could have the greatest effect on conditions in South Sudan. However,  it would also be the riskiest and most expensive option. A direct intervention could take two main forms.

Exclusively humanitarian intervention 

The United States and any partners could conduct a humanitarian intervention to distribute aid inside South Sudan but not seek to enter the conflict itself in any way. The only goal would be to relieve human suffering. Personnel would negotiate with parties in South Sudan. However, they would not use force if they encountered resistance to their efforts to distribute assistance. U.S. troops would be authorized to fire only if they or civilian aid workers were in imminent danger. 

An exclusively humanitarian intervention could ensure civilians are protected while minimizing the risk to U.S. personnel. Still, bringing aid directly to displaced persons within South Sudan would require a major effort. Given the poor condition of the roads and other infrastructure in South Sudan, the United States and any partners would need helicopters to assist in the delivery of aid. In addition, helicopters would be needed to deliver generators, communications equipment, and shelters to facilitate and sustain the operation. The military would also need to establish and enforce no-fly zones to protect troops and aid workers on the ground. Also, an intervention under these rules would only be possible if Kiir explicitly allowed the United States and any partners to enter the country. Most significantly, this option would not put an end to the fighting. Intervention forces and aid workers would need to wait for other diplomatic efforts to secure an end to the fighting, leaving them in harm’s way for potentially years to come.

Humanitarian intervention with peace enforcement

This option would be the most ambitious. Its goal would be to address the conflict itself while simultaneously helping to relieve human suffering. It would require the same elements as the previous option to enter South Sudan, set up aid delivery stations, and protect aid workers, but it adds another military element: enforcing peace among the warring parties. To do this, U.S. and any partner forces would start by declaring a mandatory ceasefire and working to physically keep the warring parties apart. If that failed, troops would then need to become involved in peacemaking. This would entail forcibly creating the conditions to make a peace deal possible. For example, peacemaking could include taking control over territory or attacking other parties to make them unable to continue fighting. Either way, this operation requires significant military action. U.S. forces would be authorized to open fire on any party to the conflict, if necessary. U.S. troops would also be allowed to use force to defend civilians as well as themselves, their equipment, and aid personnel or supplies.

Intervention in neighboring countries to provide humanitarian aid

In the first months of the civil war, nearly five hundred thousand South Sudanese refugees fled to bordering countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda. Most observers expected that those numbers would continue to rise. Governments of these countries and UN agencies would likely welcome assistance from the United States and partners in providing food, shelter, security, and medical care to refugees as their numbers grew.

This option would involve sending civilian employees and funds to support humanitarian efforts already on the ground surrounding South Sudan, rather than deploying a major military force. However, some U.S. military personnel would be needed to ensure safety. Cargo aircraft and helicopters would also be needed to reach otherwise inaccessible places. This approach would require fewer personnel and less equipment than a direct intervention in South Sudan. It would show that the United States was taking action to relieve the suffering of the South Sudanese people while putting few Americans in harm’s way and incurring fewer economic costs than an intervention in South Sudan would. Military personnel and aircraft from the United States and any partners would enter only those countries whose governments approved, making such an intervention consensual. Overall, this option would limit risks and costs, but it would not aid people within South Sudan, nor would it get at the root causes driving the conflict. 

No or minimal involvement

Given the costs, risks, and complications of the other options, restraint deserved as much consideration as direct action. It would save taxpayer dollars and keep U.S. aid workers and troops out of harm’s way. Furthermore,  a poorly executed U.S. military intervention could inflame tensions, sparking more fighting and loss of life. The United States could continue or even increase its financial support for relief efforts undertaken by nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies and devote funding and diplomatic support to facilitating negotiations. It could also impose additional sanctions on individuals involved in the conflict. Such an approach would likely decrease U.S. influence in South Sudan’s affairs, yet it holds some chance of improving the situation while avoiding a direct U.S. intervention. However, this option would not provide the same level of relief to those suffering in the crisis as the others.