Heritage Foundation: The U.S. should cut diplomatic ties with the government of South Sudan

Posted: May 3, 2017 by PaanLuel Wël Media Ltd. in Junub Sudan, Reports

Read the full report hereHeritage Foundation: The U.S. should cut diplomatic ties with the government of South Sudan and to Hold the Combatants Accountable (PDF)


President Kiir with President Obama of the USA at the White House, Washington DC

SUMMARY: Two years after South Sudan gained independence in 2011, the country plunged into a brutal civil war driven by long-standing economic, political, and ethnic grievances, with various leaders exploiting those grievances in their quest for power and access to state resources. The primary warring factions have committed extensive war crimes and repeatedly violated the cease-fires brokered by the international community with strong U.S. support. The U.S. has failed to substantively hold the combatants accountable for flouting the agreements they have signed or for their deliberate attacks on American citizens and diplomats. To protect its interests in South Sudan, the U.S. must change to a policy of holding the South Sudanese leadership accountable for its many crimes, which should include stopping all diplomatic engagement with the government of South Sudan and the opposition, building a painful sanctions regime targeting anyone facilitating violence, and bypassing the elites to engage directly with the South Sudanese public when possible.

KEY TAKEAWAYS: South Sudan has descended into a massive ethnic civil war. The primary warring factions broke each of the numerous agreements brokered with strong U.S. support. More negotiations are doomed to fail in the current context and will enable the South Sudanese leadership, which is committed to violence. The U.S. should cut diplomatic ties with the government of South Sudan and anyone else responsible for the violence against civilians and Americans.

Accountability in Practice: In order to (1) punish the South Sudanese regime for attacking Americans, and (2) encourage peace in South Sudan, the U.S. should:

  • Cut diplomatic ties with the government of South Sudan and others behind the violence. This will include shuttering the U.S. embassy in Juba, evacuating all American diplomatic personnel, and ceasing all formal dialogue with the government of South Sudan and with the opposition. The U.S. should explicitly identify those government entities in South Sudan with which U.S.-funded organizations may engage, as some local government offices might be sufficiently distant in operations from the central government, and sufficiently interested in peace, to be worth engaging.
  • Build a comprehensive sanctions regime targeting anyone involved in fomenting violence, including Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. South Sudanese leadership will respond only to pressure that affects them directly. It will take time and active diplomacy with neighboring countries to gain their support, and some countries will likely refuse or cheat anyway. The U.S. will have to focus on building a coalition of the willing, and must be prepared to monitor the sanctions closely and enforce them vigorously. The U.S. can build a painful regime unilaterally if necessary, as virtually all international bank transfers pass through American banks to be converted into dollars, making those transactions subject to U.S. law.
  • Expel back to South Sudan, and freeze and seize the assets of, any relatives of the South Sudanese leadership who have benefited from the pillaging of South Sudan. At least one was attending an American university in 2016. Others drive luxury vehicles, jet about the globe in first class, and live in luxurious villas in foreign countries.94

    “War Crimes Shouldn’t Pay: Stopping the Looting and Destruction in South Sudan,” The Sentry.

    The U.S. should pressure the countries harboring those relatives to expel them and freeze their assets. There is recent precedent for this with Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea.95

    Martin de Bourmont, “Accused of Looting Millions, Son of African Leader Stalls Trial,” The New York Times, January 4, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/04/world/africa/teodoro-nguema-obiang-mangue-guinea-looting-trial.html?_r=1 (accessed March 7, 2017).

  • Build a coalition of the willing for an arms embargo, and name the entities that violate it. A comprehensive arms embargo is unlikely since a U.S.-backed U.N. proposal for one has already failed. South Sudan is also awash in weapons, so an embargo will not have an immediate effect. However, over the long term, even a partial embargo would make it more difficult for the combatants to replenish their weapons stocks. A partial embargo would also expose those countries that do not participate to the reputational damage associated with funneling weapons into a disastrous conflict.
  • Expel the South Sudanese ambassador and all South Sudanese embassy personnel from the United States. This will demonstrate to the regime that it has missed its many opportunities to engage in good faith with the U.S., and that the U.S. is serious about holding it accountable.
  • Restrict the movement of South Sudanese officials attending U.N. activities in New York City. The U.S. is obliged to allow officials, even those under a travel ban, to attend United Nations’ meetings in New York City. However, the U.S. government does not have to allow them free access to the rest of the country, and so should impose a 25-mile movement limit on any South Sudanese official attending a U.N. meeting in New York City, and on any South Sudanese U.N. staff with links to those behind the violence.96

    The U.S. has in the past applied such restrictions on diplomats from Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Iran, Libya, Romania, Russia, Sudan, and Vietnam, among others. For an articulation of the U.S. policy, see United Nations, “Travel Regulations, Immigration, Entry Visa Dominate Proceedings in Meeting of Host Country Committee,” July 9, 2007, http://www.un.org/press/en/2007/hq656.doc.htm (accessed February 22, 2017). For a partial list of countries that have come under the restriction, see Marvine Howe, “U.N. Panel on U.S. Ties Faces Weightier Issues,” The New York Times, October 17, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/17/world/un-panel-on-us-ties-faces-weightier-issues.html (accessed February 22, 2017). For an example of the U.S. restricting the movement of U.N. staff members from a specific country, see United Nations, “Report of the Committee on Relations with the Host Country,” 2006, https://usun.state.gov/sites/default/files/organization_pdf/218090.pdf (accessed February 22, 2017).

  • Outline a path to re-engagement based on measurable benchmarks of progress. Benchmarks should include concrete steps demonstrating combatants’ commitment to peace, such as a cease-fire that is respected, the establishment of a framework for an inclusive reconciliation process, and facilitating the delivery of emergency aid to needy populations.
  • Determine which developments would trigger spontaneous U.S. diplomatic re-engagement. The situation in South Sudan could change sufficiently that the U.S. should spontaneously re-engage with diplomacy. The new context could include 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.
  • Articulate U.S. strategy to the public and to partners. An accountability-based approach might be misinterpreted as abandoning South Sudan. The U.S. should clearly and consistently communicate that it is, in fact, designed to bring stability to South Sudan and stop the suffering there as quickly as possible.
  • Engage directly with the South Sudanese public where possible. Bypassing those at fault for the violence to engage directly with South Sudanese citizens could embolden those seeking peace and drain support from those perpetrating violence. Such engagement could include 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.
  • Determine whether the proposed African Union–run hybrid court to try South Sudanese war criminals can be effective, and, if so, support it. The August 2015 peace agreement provided for the African Union to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan to try any South Sudanese implicated in war crimes. The U.S. should wait to see if the African Union creates the framework for an effective court. If it does, the U.S. should support it, as the court would be another means for holding those fomenting the violence accountable.
  • Urge all American citizens to leave South Sudan. The government and the opposition may retaliate against any Americans still inside the country.
  • Officially investigate South Sudanese corruption. Private organizations have already exposed some of the South Sudanese leadership’s corruption, but the U.S. government should use its resources and expertise, or sponsor a competent organization, to document the corruption as comprehensively as possible. The results should then be released publicly.
  • Engage with neighboring countries to build consensus for unified action. Bringing a measure of peace to South Sudan will require the international community to behave in as unified a manner as possible. The U.S. should focus on building a coalition that can act when the moment is right in South Sudan.
  • Lead an international effort to deliver emergency aid, but only in a way that reasonably ensures that it remains out of government and rebel clutches. There is a long history of South Sudanese armed groups seizing humanitarian aid and manipulating it to punish enemies.97

    Scroggins, Emma’s War, pp. 256 and 257, and Claire Metelits, “Back to the Drawing Board: What the Recent Peace Agreement Means for South Sudan,” Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, October 22, 2015, http://www.carnegiecouncil.org/publications/articles_papers_reports/750 (accessed March 7, 2017).

    Delivering emergency aid without armed groups benefiting will require creative delivery methods and 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.

  • 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. Donor aid in South Sudan has at times inadvertently fueled corruption and conflict, and empowered warring groups.98

    Daniel van Oudenaren, “Politicised Humanitarian Aid Is Fueling South Sudan’s Civil War,” IRIN, February 27, 2017, http://www.irinnews.org/opinion/2017/02/27/politicised-humanitarian-aid-fuelling-south-sudans-civil-war (accessed February 27, 2017); Lindsay Hamsik, “A Thousand Papercuts: The Impact of NGO Regulation in South Sudan,” Humanitarian Practice Network, January 2017, http://odihpn.org/magazine/a-thousand-papercuts-the-impact-of-ngo-regulation-in-south-sudan/ (accessed February 27, 2017); and “The Taxmen: How Donors Lost Millions in South Sudan’s Forex Market,” Radio Tamazuj, undated, https://tamazuj.atavist.com/understanding-south-sudans-collapsing-health-system#chapter-1017381 (accessed February 27, 2017).

    Not only does the U.S. government have a responsibility to American taxpayers to ensure that their money is not wasted, it also has a responsibility to ensure that the same money does not exacerbate the problem it is meant to mitigate.

  • Mobilize the international community to help front line countries with refugees. More than 1 million South Sudanese have already fled their country, and receiving states will need further help to house and feed them.
  • Document the crimes inside South Sudan for use in any future trials and reconciliation processes. A U.S. withdrawal will make this more difficult, but there are still ways to gather information on what is happening, such as interviewing refugees, analyzing satellite imagery, and consulting with organizations still operating in South Sudan and neighboring countries that have strong intelligence on South Sudan.
  • Request that Congress commission a study on what went wrong with U.S. engagement in South Sudan. The U.S. invested a great deal of energy, time, and money into South Sudan, only to have the country fail quickly and spectacularly. The U.S. government needs to determine what went wrong with its South Sudan policy to ensure it does not repeat the mistakes, and to be accountable to taxpayers for the billions of dollars it spent with no return. An unclassified version of the report should be publicly released.

None of these recommendations is a silver bullet. Many of them have flaws, loopholes, and work-arounds. Collectively, however, they can demonstrate to the South Sudanese leadership the costs of abusing American citizens and manipulating the U.S. government, and could precipitate change inside the country to the point where the U.S. can diplomatically re-engage with the hope of making a difference.

A Difficult and Painful Road Ahead

The short history of South Sudan is one of the most disappointing stories on Earth. At independence it had immense international goodwill and support, yet the rivalries and cleavages that led to so much violence in the past quickly led the new country into ruin. The IGAD-led process that the combatants repeatedly manipulated and flouted is stalled with no prospects for success in the future without a dramatic change in the situation inside the country. U.S. credibility is gone, leeched away by consistent failure to follow through on its many threats and entreaties.

The U.S. has few options left. Its best hope for protecting its interests is to re-orient to an accountability-based strategy and to punish the regime for its continuous malfeasance that included attacks on Americans. The accountability approach may also inspire any elements of the South Sudanese regime or society that are genuinely interested in peace. Continued pointless negotiations and the failure to substantively pressure the South Sudanese regime merely emboldens those responsible for the violence, and ensures the continued victimization of the people of South Sudan.

—Joshua Meservey is Senior Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

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