Accountability in South Sudan requires engagement: a critique of the Heritage Foundation’s recommendations

The premise of Joshua Meservey’s recent Heritage Foundation report is sound.  It is high time for the United States to hold accountable those responsible for the conflict in South Sudan.  In Washington and around the world, there is and should be immense frustration with South Sudanese elites presiding over the collapse of their country.  In response, that collapse demands practical, urgent realism, if the priorities of saving lives, reducing suffering, and ensuring regional and international security interests, including those of the United States, are to be advanced.

Meservey makes 19 recommendations.  While his analysis is generally accurate, many of the recommendations that follow are problematic.  The most radical proposals are:

  1. Close the U.S. embassy and cease all formal diplomatic ties and “dialogue with the government of South Sudan and the opposition.”
  2. Condition diplomatic re-engagement on the emergence of a “new context,” such as “the rise of new leaders genuinely committed to peace, the formation of an inclusive political movement with broad grassroots support, or a successful organic reconciliation process with a reasonable chance of further success.”
  3. Expel the South Sudanese ambassador and other South Sudanese diplomatic personnel in the United States.
  4. Restrict the movement of South Sudanese officials at United Nations headquarters in New York, including U.N. staff with links to those behind the violence.


To his credit, Meservey openly acknowledges these recommendations may be flawed.  He accepts there is no single answer to resolving the situation in South Sudan, but argues his recommendations, collectively, could precipitate desirable change.  It is certainly the case that greater pressure could and should be placed on those who are impeding peace and acting as spoilers, and recommendations to that effect, such as the targeting of ill-gotten assets, are long overdue for implementation.

However, the above four recommendations, if implemented, would be counter-productive.  They would not constrain further harm by South Sudanese elites and would hamper efforts to end the ongoing conflict and therefore damage, rather than advance, U.S. foreign policy objectives.  Cutting diplomatic ties is easy to do; restoring them may take years, if not decades.  The U.S. may have lost leverage in its diplomatic engagement with the South Sudanese government and opposition, but ceasing contact now will make any effort to mitigate the worst excesses even more difficult.

Being an American diplomat in South Sudan today is a thankless and frustrating task; but it is also a necessary one, whether as a military attaché charged with liaising with South Sudan’s dysfunctional armed forces; as an economic counsellor trying to assess the fiscal collapse; as a USAID staffer working to keep vital humanitarian assistance programmes running; or as the mission’s senior political personnel, continually engaging with South Sudanese from all walks of life, to convey, amongst other messages, that the United States has not abandoned the people of South Sudan, no matter how dismayed by the country’s leadership America may be.

The United States has the largest diplomatic footprint in South Sudan; most other embassies in South Sudan are small outposts, with limited capacity and few staff.  The complete withdrawal of all American diplomats would set back the aid effort, and leave Washington in the dark as to contemporary developments.  Nor is a withdrawal of personnel presently warranted by the security situation.

There is a logical flaw in Meservey’s suggestions; it is the embassy, and its staff, who are best placed to evaluate (albeit incompletely) the prevailing context and political dynamics; no amount of technology or attention in Washington can substitute for the presence of skilled personnel in country.  When Meservey calls for “[direct engagement] with the South Sudanese public…promoting reconciliation and describing American support for the South Sudanese people, and supporting grassroots South Sudanese organizations and movements working to bring peace,” it is embassy and USAID staff that would play an important role in such efforts.

One of the most significant ways to engage with ordinary South Sudanese is to continue support for courageous civil society organisations and activists, few though they may be.  These are the people and institutions who are struggling to preserve space for freedoms of expression and assembly, present alternative thinking, and do their best to hold their leaders to account.  Sometimes, these efforts are sustained because of US funding.  In an era of value for money, this is an investment worth continuing.

Fundamentally, Meservey is too quick to write off the tools of diplomacy.  By concluding that “continued pointless negotiations…merely emboldens those responsible for the violence,” and by implying that international actors need to wait to “act when the moment is right in South Sudan,” he falls into the trap of the theory of ripeness.  As Eamonn O’Kane explains:

The basic proposition is that conflicts can be resolved only when conditions are ‘ripe’; as a result, attempts to resolve ‘unripe’ conflicts will fail, regardless of the quality and skills of mediators who may be involved or the equitable nature of the proposals tabled.

O’Kane goes on: “there is an element of ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ in regard to ascertaining when conditions are conducive to resolution.” In relation to his case study, Northern Ireland, he notes “it is striking that the contemporary accounts of events…were far from clear that conditions existed which made the conflict ripe for resolution.”

South Sudan may seem very far from Northern Ireland, but most observers would agree that conditions for conflict resolution in South Sudan are presently and similarly unpropitious.  The conflict has evolved significantly from that of 2013 and 2014.  Waiting for a new political movement or a new class of leaders is years, if not a generation away.  To wait for this better time to attempt a new conflict resolution effort would only allow the humanitarian, economic and security situation to further deteriorate.  The last peace process may have failed (and been allowed to fail) but it did at least partially constrain the escalation of the conflict.

Consider as evidence this admittedly crude measure: the number of people voting with their feet.  In June 2014, there were 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 835,000 refugees in neighbouring countries (OCHA, June 2014).  By late June 2016, at which point the majority of the IGAD-mediated peace process had occurred, the number of IDPs stood at 1.61 million, with the number of refugees revised to under 728,000 (OCHA, June 2016).  The total of displaced persons remained roughly the same.  Today, nearly a year after the peace agreement imploded, there are nearly 4 million IDPs and refugees (OCHA, May 2017).  Absent a change of course, the projections are these numbers will only continue to rapidly climb.

While it was routinely and correctly criticized for its many limitations and a lack of concrete results, in hindsight, the constraining value of the regional mediation process can clearly be seen.  This is not to suggest that the picture was by any means rosy in South Sudan in early to mid 2016, or that the link is entirely causal.  But the situation is indisputably, undeniably, now far worse. This fact alone is an argument sufficient to call for a new or renewed process of political mediation.

Expulsion of South Sudanese diplomats from the United States, or limitations on their movement, may make activists in Washington feel better, but will do nothing to address the conflict.  South Sudan’s representation in the United States has little influence over the policies pursued in Juba.  The Juba government is more than prone to feeling aggrieved, and the drama of expulsion is the sort of distraction that would play to the paranoia of suspicious government officials.  It may also appear to some in Juba that in expelling its official representatives, Washington sides with the armed opposition.  Conveying this message would be counter-productive.

Concerning South Sudanese employed by the United Nations in New York, if any organisation has evidence of complicity of such individuals in the conflict, it should be made available to the U.N. Secretary-General so that immediate disciplinary action can be taken.  Such behaviour would constitute a blatant violation of the standards of conduct expected of U.N. personnel, and warrant dismissal.

Discounting the more radical recommendations, of the reasonable suggestions that remain, many are or have been current policy (so at best could be maintained or restored), are unhelpfully passive, lack evidentiary foundation or are impractical to implement:

Current policy:

  • Engage with neighbouring countries to build consensus for unified action.” The U.S. has continually engaged the region to try to achieve a common unity of purpose in relation to South Sudan.  However, current efforts are hampered by the vacancies in senior State Department leadership, notably in the Africa Bureau.
  • “Engage directly with the South Sudanese public where possible…includ[ing] radio programs promoting reconciliation and describing American support for the South Sudanese people, and supporting grassroots South Sudanese organizations and movements working to bring peace.” Millions of dollars from USAID goes to exactly such initiatives.
  • “Urge all American citizens to leave South Sudan.” Official State Department policy advises American citizens to not travel to South Sudan; many of the Americans today remaining in South Sudan work for the humanitarian relief effort, for the United Nations, for faith based institutions, or for the peace agreement institutions, such as the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism (CTSAMM). The departure of such individuals would only weaken these efforts.

Unhelpfully passive:

  • “the U.S. should wait to see if the African Union (AU) creates the framework for an effective [Hybrid] Court.” What is a warranted is a far more active approach to push the AU to fulfill its legal obligation to establish the court, as per the peace agreement, and for the broader purpose of demonstrating the United States will not tolerate impunity for mass atrocity crimes in any corner of the world.

Lack evidentiary foundation:

  • “Delivering emergency aid without armed groups benefiting will require…tough decisions that will likely mean that sometimes aid will not reach people who need it but over the long term will save more lives by not buttressing the groups fighting the war.” While the experience of past relief efforts in Sudan and South Sudan certainly implicates relief efforts as contributing to a prolongation of conflict, there is limited evidence to argue now that over the long term more lives will be saved through a reduction in aid.  The humanitarian imperative to act now is moral, not mathematical.

Lack practical steps to implementation

  • “Require any U.S.-funded organizations still operating in South Sudan to reasonably ensure that their operations do not benefit any of the warring groups.” A prudent policy.  But how to implement it, in a way that avoids imposing onerous conditions on the humanitarian relief effort?


Other recommendations would be difficult if not impossible to implement should earlier recommendations be followed.  For example, articulating the U.S strategy to the South Sudanese public will be exceedingly difficult if there are no Americans in country to speak to the strategy.  Similarly, Meservey’s call to document crimes inside South Sudan will not be sufficiently comprehensive should there not be personnel on the ground; some of the leading expertise in this field is American.

Some of the recommendations that would be useful to pursue, such as a Congressionally commissioned study on the history of U.S. engagement in South Sudan, or investigations of corruption, unfortunately do little to address the urgency of current circumstances of violence and humanitarian disaster.

There are sensible recommendations that should be supported, including the mobilization of the international community to help front line countries with refugees – pledging conferences are important, but they are only means to an end.  Accountability can be pursued through other recommendations regarding the seizure of assets looted from South Sudan’s public resources, the construction of a targeted sanctions regime against perpetrators of violence, and the imposition of an arms embargo, for its preventive value.  Such steps are urgently necessary.  But they do not address the need for a reinvigorated, comprehensive, sustained political process, as imperfect as such an endeavour may be.  Pursuing accountability requires continued diplomacy and political engagement, not a policy of frustrated withdrawal.


For further reading, see:

O’Kane, Eamonn.  “When Can Conflicts be Resolved?  A Critique of Ripeness.”  Civil Wars, 2006.


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