Special Envoy Donald Booth at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Wednesday, January 18, 2017, 11:00 a.m.
January 24, 2017 (SSB) — Thank you all for joining us today. Ambassador Lyman, thank you for agreeing to moderate. I will start by saying that, if there is one thing I am going to take away from my time as the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, it is the depth of interest and involvement in the Sudans on the part of so many people here in the United States. Sudan and South Sudan are distant, complex places – and yet all of you know and care so much about them and their people. You help inform and animate U.S. policy. We have not always agreed, but I can say confidently that our role in the Sudans would be much diminished without the rich debate resulting from your engagement. I thank you.
I am grateful for this opportunity to offer some reflections as I step down as Special Envoy. Since I took this job in August 2013, a tremendous amount has happened in Sudan and South Sudan – more than I will be able to review today. Let me begin with South Sudan.
The world’s youngest country has known more war than peace. To understand the collapse of December 2013, we have to look at the conditions that led to it. Historic marginalization and neglect, coupled with a half a century of war, meant the world’s youngest country lacked the institutional foundation on which to build a stable state. This traumatic history meant the people of South Sudan never had an opportunity to forge a unified national vision. Despite billions of dollars in aid designed to build state capacity – an effort worthy of its own critical review – the nation’s leaders struggled to make the transition from an insurgent movement to a governing class. Thus it may not be surprising that the South Sudan I encountered in late 2013, featured leaders with a sense of entitlement and focused on securing power and wealth, not state-building. Two years after independence, we saw critical initiatives – drafting a permanent constitution, pursuing reconciliation, and implementing economic reforms – drifting and stalling. Meanwhile, the influence and the authority of the security organs – the SPLA and NSS – were expanding.
The root causes of South Sudan’s conflict were already manifest by the summer of 2013 – indeed, they had been present even before independence. For a time, they were papered over by the shared goal of independence, but they were always there. Tensions over the border, the early stages of the economic crisis, ethnic conflict in Jonglei and elsewhere, inter-communal animosity and bloodshed, the proliferation of militias, and political instability at the center – these were all on the rise. So too was the eagerness of President Kiir to eliminate alternative points of view and consolidate his own power. The July 2013 dismissal of the cabinet and the firing of Vice President Riek Machar jolted the country. In December, President Kiir took steps to tighten his grip on the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. A struggle within the Presidential Guard was followed by targeted killings of Nuer throughout Juba, and triggered the civil conflict that continues today.
Those of you here are familiar with the details of that conflict, and of the international efforts to bring it to an end, but I do want to say a word about the role of the region. It is worth emphasizing that, faced with a civil war on their borders, the IGAD countries did come together to mediate between the warring parties. I was personally involved from the beginning, in securing commitments from Kiir and Machar to engage in mediated peace negotiations and I worked closely in support of the IGAD mediation. I will always appreciate the dedication of the IGAD mediation team led by Seyoum Mesfin and respect the work they did. But South Sudan’s leaders were not interested in compromise, so talks dragged on despite numerous emergency IGAD summits. After more than a year of futile negotiation, IGAD welcomed the so-called “AU-5” and, ultimately, “IGAD Plus,” which included the United States and our Troika partners Norway and the U.K., along with China and the E.U., to bring greater pressure to bear on South Sudan’s leaders.
I mention all this because I would argue that the future of diplomacy toward South Sudan is going to require a similar, complicated mixture of regional and international efforts, with the United States at the forefront.
Let me also say this: we have made mistakes. The events of the last six months have shown that we and the region placed too much faith in the idea that Salva Kiir and Riek Machar could peacefully share power. At certain points we overestimated the influence we had on South Sudan’s political leaders. I wish we had taken steps earlier to forge an international consensus on the need to impose an arms embargo to stem the flow of weapons into South Sudan. Fundamentally, I believe we in the United States wanted peace for South Sudan far more than its leaders did, and like the people of South Sudan we have been unable to ensure that the interests of the unarmed population are valued more than those of leaders empowered by personal armed forces.
History shows this. In May 2014, Secretary Kerry, during his visit to Juba, secured agreement to pursue peace talks on the basis of a power-sharing arrangement within a time-bound transitional government. We then championed the notion that a peace agreement had to be more than a power-sharing deal among combatants, that it needed input from other South Sudanese parties and civil society organizations, and that it had to prepare the way for reforms needed to make South Sudan a viable nation. President Obama’s personal efforts, during a visit to the region in July 2015, spurred a final, unified regional push for Kiir and Machar to sign the peace agreement in August.
Given subsequent events, however, I recognize that there is a temptation to discard the agreement. I would strongly caution against that. It really is more than an agreement between combatants – it is a blueprint for reforming the South Sudanese state, one that remains as valid as ever in its provisions to install, in one of the world’s least developed countries, important constitutional, economic, security, and justice reforms and institutions. The agreement required that the combatants who signed it avoid violence long enough for these reforms to take hold – and that, sadly, did not happen.
I recognize that at present, there is no functioning ceasefire, the government is not representative of all of South Sudan’s political factions, and there is no serious work underway on reforms. But these remain worthy goals, and I would argue that the agreement is not a hollow accomplishment. It remains a point of reference in statements by both the government and the opposition. We should continue to encourage a return to the foundations of the agreement, and we should be present when conditions shift to allow its sincere implementation.
I often hear the argument that the United States is somehow not doing enough in South Sudan. It is worth recalling all we have done – both before the conflict began in December 2013, and since the signing of the peace agreement. The United States maintained its presence in South Sudan even at the most difficult and dangerous times. We continued to push for political agreements that would allow a ceasefire to hold. We spearheaded fundraising efforts among donors to support key institutions of the peace agreement. We sought to organize the international community to help stave off economic disaster. And we have led the international response to the humanitarian crisis with nearly $1.9 billion in emergency humanitarian assistance since December 2013.
To the accusations of South Sudanese leaders that the international community failed to fund the peace agreement, I would note that neither we nor any donor nation was ever going to fund transitional institutions hijacked to serve the interests of narrow political factions. If the leaders had truly embraced peace, the United States and other members of the international community were prepared to help consolidate that peace. This stale argument, that somehow the breakdown of peace is the result of our inaction, is illustrative of South Sudan’s leadership’s inability to acknowledge their own culpability in creating the disastrous situation South Sudan now faces. Moreover, their recent false accusations that the Troika is plotting regime change in South Sudan are egregious and offensive.
Today, South Sudan is a failing state. Unfortunately, both IGAD and the African Union are currently frozen in their response. President Kiir’s government appears to be counting on regional and international inaction, or even a blind eye, as it seeks to resolve the country’s political crisis via military force. This is unacceptable. We are rightly alarmed when a senior UN official warns of the potential for genocide. But we should not allow that word – and the inevitable debate about whether or not it applies – to distract us from what is currently and inarguably happening: hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians killed monthly throughout the country, in an increasingly complex conflict involving multiple warring parties. The United States has to seek new approaches, but without question, the United States should continue to play its prominent, historical role with regard to South Sudan.
Ending the violence in South Sudan will require finding new ways to open channels of dialogue between all the parties in conflict. The national dialogue process called for by President Kiir may offer a constructive alternative to violence, but only if it is impartially led and truly inclusive. I encourage the next administration to: 1) continue efforts to push the African Union toward establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan to achieve accountability for the abhorrent crimes committed during the conflict, including widespread and shocking sexual violence; 2) to base any support for future DDR efforts on a realistic and affordable end state for South Sudan’s security sector; 3) to press for reform of the structure of the state through a transparent, coherent constitutional drafting process; and 4) to make the reform of public financial management a precondition for any future support to South Sudan’s development.
A final thought on South Sudan. The situation that led us to seek an arms embargo and targeted sanctions at the UN Security Council last month has not improved since the failure of the resolution. While we have sought to use some of the tools at our disposal – including a process to impose visa restrictions on South Sudanese figures linked to official corruption – to address the government’s policies of violence and corruption, I would encourage the next administration to continue to examine seriously what we can do to incentivize the parties to choose a better path.
I want to turn now to Sudan.
I go way back with Sudan – I worked on Sudan as the Desk Officer in the early 1980s, at a time when relations were good and Sudan was an ally in a bipolar era. And because Sudan was on our side in that struggle, we provided aid and political support. However, as the conflict in South Sudan resumed, and those supporting international terrorism gained power in Khartoum, we found that our governments shared very few values or interests.
Since that time, we have sought mainly to engage Khartoum through pressure: to prod them toward peace talks with the south, to end support of terrorism, to stop the horrific abuses in Darfur, and to allow humanitarian access to address the suffering of the Sudanese people. This approach had mixed results. We have seen incremental bursts of positive news – the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, showed that diplomacy, and the incentive of sanctions relief, could bear fruit even with an unfriendly country – followed by setbacks, such as the failures of numerous Darfur peace agreements and the renewed outbreak in 2011 of conflict in the Two Areas.
The independence of South Sudan was a moment of great hope, but also one of great tension and anxiety. My predecessor, Ambassador Lyman, played a critical role in working through a messy independence and addressing the key issues that threatened to undo it all. Fortunately, and thanks to efforts by President Mbeki and the AUHIP, as well as Ambassador Lyman, Juba and Khartoum signed the 2012 cooperation agreements that plotted a course for the two countries to live side by side in peace. Unfortunately, suspicion about support to each other’s rebels continues to undermine bilateral relations, blocking progress in border demarcation, trade, and the resolution of disputed areas, among other issues. Regrettably, we are no closer to a final resolution on the issue of Abyei than we were in 2013. But with the steady presence of the UN peacekeeping mission in Abyei, UNISFA, and some strategic assistance from us, the people who actually live in Abyei have been spared renewed conflict in recent years.
Our legacy of pressure on Sudan and the messy process of South Sudanese independence still reverberated when I came in as Envoy in 2013. I regularly heard the accusation that we had “moved the goal posts” – that is, we did not lift sanctions when Sudan accepted the results of the South Sudan referendum and, ultimately, its secession. Of course, the war in the Two Areas was beginning again at that time, which in our view was Sudan “shifting the playing field” rather than us moving the goalposts. This created a lack of trust that productive engagement could be possible. This meant we had no leverage or influence over Khartoum’s decisions.
I wanted us to go beyond this unproductive game of accusations. I believed there was an opportunity to build something that would have a significant positive impact for the people of Sudan and also serve our national interests. A breakthrough came when we invited Ibrahim Ghandour, now Sudan’s foreign minister, to visit the United States in February 2015. Since that visit, we have engaged in frank and frequent discussions about steps needed to build trust and allow both countries to make progress toward their respective goals.
In this process, our goal was constant: ending internal conflict in Sudan and seeing Sudanese address the root causes of instability. This required looking for ways to open new engagement with the government while also enhancing engagement with the opposition, particularly the Sudan Call, a coalition that includes armed and unarmed opposition and civil society. And it meant working with partners to construct a viable peace process. Along with the AU and other partners, we helped modify what had been a compartmented peace process that treated Sudan’s conflicts as separate and unrelated – the DDPD for Darfur and an AU-led process for the Two Areas. We now have parallel cessation of hostilities discussions under the AUHIP that, once concluded – and they came very close to conclusion this past August – would lead to political talks to address specific local grievances. And, ultimately, these would lead to the participation of the opposition in an inclusive national political dialogue – as both the government and Sudan Call committed to in the “Roadmap” of last March – to address the national, systemic roots of conflict. It is imperative that all parties continue to adhere to the Roadmap.
I want to pause here to note – and I can already feel some eyebrows going up in the audience – that these Sudanese opposition groups should not be held in unquestioned esteem. I think it is important to be clear-eyed about whom we are dealing with. I have found that some leaders of the Sudanese opposition, especially those with guns, are more than willing to ignore the interests and well-being of ordinary civilians in favor of their own political ambitions. It seems to me that just as there are hardliners within the Sudanese government who hold onto the false notion that a military victory can be achieved, so too are there leaders of the armed groups who believe they are right to fight on – no matter what the cost to their people – until they get what they want – power. For example, I just returned from Paris, where the SPLM-North rejected our offer to deliver humanitarian medical assistance to the people of zones they control in the Two Areas. This is a huge missed opportunity to advance peace negotiations and to help the people they claim to be fighting for. Even as we hold the government to its commitment to peace, we must also demand that the opposition set aside personal political ambitions and put their people first.
I also know that many here have difficulty seeing the Sudanese government as a credible partner in a peace process. I understand what drives such thinking. But if we allow ourselves to be bound by such a mindset, we lose all hope of peacefully advancing causes that are important – including the human rights of civilians in Sudan. We believed that there was a way forward that would motivate Sudan’s government to take positive action while allowing us to advance a broad range of U.S. interests.
The key was turning the latent leverage of the existing sanctions regime into active leverage by putting sanctions relief on the table in exchange for improved behavior by the Sudanese government. We understood that if we wanted to get the government to overcome its doubts and lack of trust, we would have to offer a real incentive, and prove we meant it. The five tracks of engagement that we launched in June 2016 required Sudan to undertake and sustain a series of actions over six months. If Sudan made progress and sustained it in all tracks, we offered to provide broad sanctions relief. I want to note that this plan was initiated around a desire to end hostilities. It was not a result of counterterrorism cooperation, nor was that the priority. Many have made this assumption in recent days, and I want to clarify the facts on that matter. Counterterrorism cooperation alone would not have yielded this shift
Since the end of June, Sudan announced a unilateral cessation of hostilities in Darfur and the Two Areas, and we have observed a significant reduction in clashes involving government forces. Moreover, Sudan has not launched a dry season offensive campaign, which it has done in December or January of every year since 2011. They now have extended their unilateral cessation of hostilities for six months and they know that any resumption of offensive military action in this period would risk the re-imposition of sanctions. Meanwhile, according to our assessment, Sudan has ceased providing material support to armed groups in South Sudan. Sudan has partnered with the United States on countering ISIL and other terrorist groups as well as the threat of the LRA. And, finally, Sudan has taken significant steps to reduce ongoing obstructions to humanitarian access and to improve the environment for humanitarian organizations and the UN. However, much more progress needs to be made in the coming months. The key is momentum – we want to see Sudan continue to make progress rather than come to a standstill or regress.
We have generated some momentum for a more productive bilateral engagement. This is not to say that there has been progress on every important issue in our bilateral relationship. But our five-track engagement showed Sudan’s government that if it abided by its commitments, we would abide by ours, and it puts the incoming administration in a better position, with an interlocutor that trusts working with us. The Treasury Department issued general licenses that give immediate relief from the trade embargo. The January 13 Executive Order gives Sudan a path toward the formal revocation of the trade embargo in six months. The next administration will have the ability to offer further incentives toward bilateral normalization, or to re-impose some or all of our sanctions, depending on the actions of the Sudanese government.
I know many of you will take issue with our argument that you can cooperate with Sudan’s government, or that it has taken action sufficient to merit last week’s announcement. I respect your position, and offer you this encouragement: sustain your engagement with us, monitor what happens on the ground in the coming six months, and provide us that information. The Executive Order requires taking NGO reporting into account.
When I met with President Obama in August 2013, he gave me a simple direction. What he wanted to see, he said, was two countries at peace internally, and with each other. I wish I could say that is what we have today. It is not. On Sudan, I am optimistic. As I said, we leave the incoming administration with new opportunities, ones that would have been unimaginable eight or even four years ago. Even relations between Sudan and South Sudan are more stable today, although they remain fraught with challenges, such as Abyei, but the recent agreement on oil revenue between the two countries is a promising sign.
South Sudan is as fragile as it has been since independence. Frankly, the international community struggles to find the tools to deal with leaders who hide behind the rhetoric of sovereignty while engaging in self-serving actions that undermine their country’s future. I am confident that only a truly inclusive, national political process can begin to address the crisis there, but I am less confident in issuing prescriptions about how to bring about such a process Any process that simply rebuilds the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement is doomed to fail, as it will at best solidify South Sudan’s status as a fragile one-party state.
Among my hopes in speaking today is to encourage the incoming administration to continue the tradition, in Republican and Democratic administrations alike, of serious, active engagement with Sudan and South Sudan. In Sudan, we have a rare opportunity to revise dramatically the terms of a historically problematic relationship, in a way that serves our interests. In South Sudan, while I do not doubt that frustrations with its leaders will continue, I see a country whose citizens still look to the United States as a true friend and a force for good. This is a trust we should not break, even as we are forced to reconsider how best to help South Sudan achieve lasting peace.
I want to close, much as I began, by saying how encouraged I am by the undiminished energy of those in this room, and of the many people I have met during my time as Special Envoy, in spite of the real frustrations and challenges of working on these two countries. Our missions in Juba and Khartoum, under the leadership of Ambassador Molly Phee and Chargé Steven Koutsis, are in good hands. I am encouraged by the energy and interest of members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle.
I am, after more than three years as Special Envoy, stepping down. It is all of you who will continue to work on these issues, search for solutions, grab onto the slivers of optimism they come, and ultimately, I hope, find new ways to move forward. I wish you great success.
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