Considering the future of U.S. relations with South Sudan

The leading U.S. government voices on South Sudan will soon be out of office. Over the last eight years, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and USAID Administrator (and formerly, Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director at the National Security Council) Gayle Smith have given the South Sudan file prominence and attention in Washington that the South Sudanese government scarcely appreciates. To the long list of things in flux in American foreign policy in 2017, we can probably add: a decline in U.S. attention towards South Sudan.

Many in the increasingly repressive and intolerant Juba government were quick to publicly gloat at the election of Donald Trump. The defeat of the Democrats was further occasion to express disdain at the Obama administration and what Juba perceives as its championing of policies unjust to South Sudan.

On November 9, the day after Trump’s victory, the U.S. Ambassador, Molly Phee, felt compelled to reiterate in an interview with local state television that U.S. policy towards Juba had the bipartisan support of Democrats and Republicans. In something of a diplomatic understatement, Phee said: ‘there is sometimes a misunderstanding in South Sudan about the policies of different U.S. administrations.’

Misunderstanding is too generous a word to describe the mindset of some of the Juba political class – delusion might be more frank. Some in Juba remain convinced that the Americans have an ulterior agenda for South Sudan, whether regime change or some nefarious plan to loot the country’s oil. Being delusions, actual evidence is not required. But such paranoid thinking colours perceptions and prejudices responses; almost any U.S. government action or statement is seen through this distorting lens.

And so the very recent and very public failure of the United States to secure a vote at the UN Security Council on the imposition of an arms embargo and further targeted sanctions is seen as part of the same, false, narrative. Obama and the Democrats are against us, and things might change in the Trump administration, Juba hopes. Further gloating in Juba: look at the limits of American power! They could not even secure the votes of friendly countries like Japan, Malaysia and Senegal! Our diplomatic lobbying worked!

It does not immediately follow that (non) events at the Security Council further emboldened those driving a hardline agenda of conflict escalation. But nor did they necessarily prompt greater restraint from the government in Juba, which instead concludes: we live to fight another day! We can modify our tactics to avoid punishment, but we do not need to alter our strategy.

With Africa likely to be a lesser priority in a Trump administration, what drives South Sudan policy discussions in Washington might come full circle: back to Congress, as it was in the days of Reps. Donald Payne (D-New Jersey) and Frank Wolf (R-Virginia). Perhaps paradoxically for those in Juba that welcomed a Republican administration, it might be a new generation of Congressional Republicans, all of whom have been highly critical of Salva Kiir’s government, that leads such efforts: Reps. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) and Tom Rooney (R-Florida), and in the Senate, Bob Corker (R-Tennessee). A Trump administration may not care enough, or know enough, to push back on such advocacy from Capitol Hill.

But these are hypothetical, slightly longer-term possibilities. What should the U.S. do right now, with South Sudan’s economic, humanitarian and conflict situation continuing to deteriorate? On December 8, the United States Institute of Peace convened a panel discussion to attempt to answer that question. Payton Knopf, coordinator of the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan, in keeping with the Panel’s mandate, did not offer in-depth political prescriptions.  But you cannot help but think he was alluding, in his description of the need for a new political framework, to the proposal of an international transitional administration being advocated by Kate Almquist Knopf. Even if you believe the international administration proposal has potential (I see it as a complete non-starter), it is beyond any possibility that it will happen in the short-term.

The Enough Project’s John Prendergast called for a major new diplomatic initiative and a diplomatic surge: ‘President Obama should name a very senior, high-level, ad-hoc representative…shake it up and send someone new.’ This overlooks the structural dynamics of the American position: the U.S. is not suffering, as such, from a lack of seniority in dealing with South Sudan, but a lack of respect, and a lack of restraint, from the government in Juba. Sending someone higher ranking from the current administration to speak to President Kiir or Gen. Malong is not going to change that.

I do agree with Prendergast’s stated aim to ‘alter the cost benefit calculations of people who are willing to commit mass atrocities.’ The question is how. Financial action might work; but let us not assume that such measures would compel a behavioural change in individual South Sudanese generals. Drawing on the lessons of altering regime behaviour in Iran or North Korea is not entirely analogous: South Sudan’s ruling class is far more fragmented, and far less economically rational. If you are convinced that people should be killed because you see them as inferior beings, or because you consider them rebels and therefore legitimate targets for military action, losing your bank balance will probably not be enough to impede such evil.

There is a similar question with respect to a United Nations arms embargo, which Human Rights Watch’s Akshaya Kumar largely justified in her remarks, while noting the important limitations of such a measure. I differ with Kumar in seeing, for example, the potential for Angola, as a firm ally of the Kiir government, being swayed to ever vote in favour of an arms embargo at the Security Council. Senegal should, politically and morally, be more amenable (it ischair of the Security Council Resolution 2206 Sanctions Committee on South Sudan; it is also worth noting that it was a Senegalese UN official, Adama Dieng, who made the most prominent warning of possible genocide in South Sudan).

However, persuading the African bloc has become more difficult now that the heads of state and government of the regional organization, IGAD, from which African members of the Security Council take their cue, pronounced on December 9: ‘an arms embargo or sanctions on South Sudan will not provide the solution being sought for permanent peace and stability in the country..,’

It is also optimistic to believe that Russia would not eventually be an obstacle to the adoption of a resolution imposing an arms embargo. There is no need for Moscow to be openly oppositional on this file when other members of the Council are fulfilling Russian objectives; there are other fights at the Council for Moscow to have. So barring the occurrence and reporting of further atrocities significant enough to override IGAD’s position, it may be out of reach for the U.S. to muster sufficient votes to pass a Security Council resolution to impose both an arms embargo and targeted sanctions. The decision for the administration then becomes: is getting a resolution for only an arms embargo, or only targeted sanctions, possible?

The more fundamental question, though, is not what is politically possible, but whether such measures are sufficient to change behaviour. If the Obama administration believes that financial pressures can influence actors in Juba, there is nothing to stop their swift, unilateral implementation, before the end of the administration. While not discounting the limitations I outline above, financial action has greater potential for behavioural change. What is beyond doubt is that the U.S. could go a lot further than it has to date in sanctioning a mere six individuals, if it is genuinely committed to leveraging the punitive tools at its disposal.

As to what else can be done now, my suggestions are more political than technical:

  1. Republicans should speak up. In particular, Congressional Republicans, in the absence of voices empowered to speak for the new administration, need to explicitly demonstrate to the Juba government that further mass atrocities (war crimes, mass killings, crimes against humanity, genocide) in South Sudan are not tolerable to the United States. And that this is the case no matter which party and which president sits in the White House. This would also give meaningful voice to Ambassador’s Phee assertion that US policy on addressing South Sudan’s conflict is bipartisan. There is a message here that politicians can convey in a way diplomats cannot; here is a case where plain speaking would help.

While I defer to those better acquainted with Capitol Hill for how best this could be done, I would suggest a multi-pronged approach: for example, an unequivocal statement to Juba from Congressional Republicans; an urgent visit to Juba by members of Congress; asking President George W. Bush, who invited Salva Kiir to the Oval Office on numerous occasions, to urgently add his voice and speak to President Kiir.

  1. Substantively re-engage Ethiopia. The Obama administration should use the time it has left to urgently and substantively engage the power in the region, and its most responsible actor, Ethiopia. As chair of IGAD, Addis can usefully work with Juba and other key South Sudanese actors towards, if not immediate peace, then restraint. The problem for Addis remains what to do: the current solution is to resort to (largely empty and repetitive) summit diplomacy, changing little. Several of the speakers at USIP referred to engagement with the IGAD mediation, but the mediation structure has long since been dissolved, and IGAD has returned to fully ad-hoc mode, the preserve of ministers and heads of state and government.

Ethiopia, despite its domestic concerns, continues to worry about the consequent risk for greater regional destabilization if there is further escalation in conflict, further economic collapse, and further humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, even if Addis would rather the problem just go away, and sometimes acts that way.  It is here that the current U.S. administration can still add value, by working with Ethiopia. Some might argue that this is exactly what Washington tried to do in supporting the IGAD-led peace process, and look how that turned out. But it is wrong to think the region can be sidestepped. For while the region’s involvement is insufficient to solve South Sudan’s crisis, it can always make things worse. And as U.S. diplomats at the UN might find post-IGAD summit, without its cooperation, whatever policy approach Washington attempts can be frustrated.

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