One year later — Revitalizing US efforts in South Sudan

Alissa Everett/Humanity United

Early last December, South Sudan hosted a conference to encourage businesses to invest in the young nation. Although facing challenges, the country looked forward to a promising future: that of a thriving economic bridge at the crossroads of North and sub-Saharan Africa, endowed with a wealth of natural riches. A few days later, fighting among the presidential guard in Juba swiftly erupted into an ethnically based internal armed conflict, which has led to the death of tens of thousands of South Sudanese and forced over 1.8 million civilians from their homes, including over 450,000 refugees fleeing the country. In stark contrast to the promising outlook of 2013, South Sudan now faces massive food insecurity as a result of this new civil war, and unrelenting threats to its people from the ongoing violence.

With the one-year anniversary of the outbreak of violence in Juba upon us, it is clear that the United States needs to increase its leadership to promote a sustainable peace in South Sudan. First, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and opposition leader Riek Machar must hear the trumpet of peace directly from Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama. Although the administration has no end of crises to confront, the conflict in South Sudan threatens the entire region, further undermining key U.S. foreign policy goals, and becomes more complex and harder to resolve with each passing day. By playing a greater role in peace talks, the United States can demonstrate support for the South Sudanese people and show that the negotiations themselves remain a priority for the international community.

To be fair, the current situation is extraordinarily complex and negotiations have proved to be complicated by the realities of the battlefield, as each side still favors the impossible quest for a full military victory over a negotiated settlement. The peace process — which is currently led by the regional International Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), composed of Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda, among others — has been hampered because these neighboring countries have much at stake. Uganda and Sudan's direct support for the opposing sides of this conflict have hampered the mediation efforts led primarily by Ethiopia and Kenya. Additionally, regional heads of state have been unwilling to further pressure the South Sudanese leaders, despite repeated threats of punitive action. While most observers believe that key actors on both sides need to feel economic pain in order to change their calculus, IGAD has resisted sanctions because of the economic interests of its members.

Following multiple agreements that have failed to end the violence, and repeated delays in implementation of the parties' commitments, IGAD made a last-ditch effort last month to broker an agreement. This included threatening sanctions and even military intervention if the sides renewed fighting. The threats were ignored, and there has yet to be any follow-up action from the regional IGAD leaders, other than to give the parties an additional extension of time to consult and consider their positions (with the opposition forces finally getting together last week). While IGAD struggles, fighting continues, and tens of thousands of South Sudanese have been recently displaced, threatening renewed hunger in the north of the country — the exact situation IGAD said was unacceptable.

This inaction is why U.S. leadership needs to quickly reinforce the current mediation and ensure an inclusive solution to the crisis in South Sudan. It is true that regional leaders must still play a large part. However, given the wide-ranging impact of the crisis beyond its borders, other actors should be more deeply engaged as well. A number of concerned countries with longstanding ties to South Sudan could play a more formal role, such as members of the so-called "Troika" (Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom). Other international institutions could also do so, including the United Nations, which has enormously capable diplomats with experience and long histories with the parties to the conflict.

IGAD must fulfill its commitments on targeted sanctions against those who are responsible for committing human rights abuses, and the U.S. should help support these efforts by toughening national targeted sanctions and by promoting a U.N. Security Council resolution that includes an arms embargo. A reinforced mediation might set a series of benchmarks or tests, after which a series of even stronger sanctions could be put in place both regionally and internationally.

The peace talks have also increasingly focused on elite-level deals between combatants, a strategy that South Sudanese leaders are all too familiar with. Unfortunately, these agreements sweep issues such as accountability, good governance and security sector reform under the rug, leaving seeds for the next crisis. To this end, the United States should ensure accountability for the mass violence that has taken place over the last year. A good first step would be pressure for the immediate release of the original version of the report prepared by the African Union's (AU) Commission of Inquiry, which provides valuable information and recommendations on how to move forward on this issue. Unfortunately, the report has yet to be presented to the AU Peace and Security Council, and could be delayed beyond the end of the year. There are a number of potential options for promoting justice and accountability, including a hybrid tribunal, a mixed chamber within the South Sudanese system and even referral to the ICC. To be certain, doing nothing will only lead us back to the cycle of violence that is occurring today.

Finally, the U.S. needs to reinforce its efforts to ensure that civil society can play its natural role in South Sudan. This includes pressure on President Kiir to veto the recently passed national security law, which puts South Sudan further down the path of a national security state, and to oppose other legislation that would restrict humanitarian operations by local and international support programs designed to relieve people's suffering.

The people of South Sudan have long lived with violence and persecution, both before independence and over the last year. But the hope of a stable, peaceful, prosperous new nation remains. This is the hope that led the United States to support the move to independence in 2011. It is a hope that can become a reality if the United States adds a new urgency to U.S. efforts for peace and reconciliation.

Abramowitz is vice president for policy and government relations at Humanity United, a U.S.-based foundation dedicated to building peace and advancing human freedom.