Top officials in the U.S. Treasury Department have lost patience with South Sudan President Salva Kiir, whose close associates were found profiting from aid money intended for victims of the country’s brutal civil war.
“Treasury will forcefully respond to the atrocities ongoing in South Sudan by targeting those who abuse human rights, seek to derail the peace process and obstruct reconciliation in South Sudan,” Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
Mark Green, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that “while it is true that we support the people of South Sudan, it is just as true that the situation has deteriorated to the point where a serious reexamination of U.S. policy is appropriate.”
The United States is correct to punish corruption, but ending aid would be shortsighted, both morally and strategically.
Last year, after the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan visited the country on a fact-finding mission, Chairperson Yasmin Sooka said that “the scale of rape of women and girls … is frankly mind boggling.”
“There is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages,” Sooka said at the time. “The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda, and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it.”
Regrettably, that obligation has been met with insouciance. Peacekeepers associated with the U.N. Mission in South Sudan are only now beginning seriously to protect civilian lives, after years of criticism from brutalized aid workers on the ground.
In fairness to the United Nations, there is only so much protection a peacekeeping force of 12,000 can provide in an underdeveloped country the size of France. On top of those physical challenges, there is political obstructionism from the Kiir government, which enjoys the legal authority to deny U.N. investigations and interventions against its forces.
One consequence of this authority is that the recent killing of American journalist Christopher Allen, 25, will likely go uninvestigated, never mind punished, however much reporters now protest that he was deliberately targeted by government forces. Army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang even boasted, “Anybody who comes attacking us with hostile forces will meet his fate,” as if Allen’s camera were a weapon.
Justice for Christopher Allen, as with so many who’ve perished in South Sudan, is probably a lost cause. It doesn't help that Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe West must deter aggression from tyrants better than it did last century Hillicon Valley — Blinken unveils new cyber bureau at State Blinken formally announces new State Department cyber bureau MORE is abolishing the position of special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, a position which might have prioritized the gunning down of an unarmed U.S. citizen.
The violence in South Sudan remains so chaotic and sadistic that nearly a third of the country's 12 million citizens now prefer to live on the run as refugees than brave it out in their hometowns. News reports tell horrific tales of families burned alive in their homes and neighborhoods wiped off the earth, but even these atrocities hardly capture the scale of the human catastrophe.
Whole villages continue to flee, destabilizing neighboring countries. Soldiers fighting for Kiir recently expanded the war into neighboring Uganda, where over a million South Sudanese refugees have fled. Ethiopia and Kenya also struggle under the burden of absorbing hundreds of thousands of fleeing women and children.
The oft-told story of Kai Tap, 11, explains why people are running. “At night they would come and start shooting at us and we would disperse,” he said. “We used to run into the swamp and hide there with only our heads above the water.”
Anet Kideng Tombek, 25, tells a similar story. “Government soldiers came to our home one morning, they took some of our goats — when my husband tried to stop them they killed him,” she said. “I had to walk for four days with my children to reach this camp (in Uganda). It was hard. I had to carry the younger ones all the way.”
Moral considerations should motivate policymakers in the Trump administration to continue aid to these people, whose distressing stories have become commonplace. There are also strategic reasons for U.S. involvement.
China, well known for its non-interventionist foreign policy, finds South Sudan, of all places, a worthy theater in which to spend its blood and treasure. This is because of massive investments made by the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, which covets control of South Sudan's oil-rich energy sector.
Then there is South Sudan's strategic proximity to the tumultuous Middle East. Almost entirely Christian, long at war with jihadists, the South Sudanese are a potential ally to the Chinese who, like Westerners, are seeking ways to secure their long-term interests against the specter of collapsing Middle Eastern states with their various theocratic terrorist groups.
To cut American aid to the South Sudanese is to risk losing goodwill to China, as well as access to natural resources.
What the United States should instead do is mostly nonviolent and humane: One, apply international pressure to allow more South Sudanese refugees into Europe and North America, even if only on a temporary basis. Two, increase food and medical aid to African refugee camps which are buckling under the influx of daily newcomers. Three, send a muscular contingent of American and European forces to guard beleaguered refugee camps, which would send the message that the raping and killing of our aid workers and journalists won't be tolerated anymore.
Any successful U.S. policy in South Sudan must include all these considerations and understand that, if the U.S. ignores its long-term interests in East Africa, then China will continue to fill the void. The United States may want to wash its hands of South Sudan, but it would be a profound moral and strategic mistake to leave America’s values and interests in the hands of Beijing simply because we have become too world-weary to execute a plan of our own.
Biar Atem, a South Sudanese “lost boy,” is president of the South Sudan Center of America, a nonprofit organization that assists South Sudanese refugees in the United States and Kenya.
Jonah Cohen, a board member of the South Sudan Center of America, holds a PhD. from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.