Mark P. Lagon – Centennial Fellow: Global Justice Blog
Ambassador Mark P. Lagon is a SFS Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar. Lagon most recently served as President of Freedom House, an international nonprofit devoted to research and programs advancing human rights and democratic governance.
The Global Justice Blog addresses ethics, international law, and human rights in today’s fractured world. Centennial Fellow Mark P. Lagon and guest bloggers will grapple will raise key issues and dilemmas among these priorities and strengths of the Walsh School of Foreign Service. A parallel Global Justice Lecture Series will interest readers.
By Bethan Saunders BSFS’17 and Brian Kerr MSFS’18
In December 2013, the world’s newest state descended into civil war. South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 before devolving into one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in the world today. Since independence from Sudan, the country has slipped into a deeply political and divisive civil war, driven by the struggle for control over political power and resources between the nation’s President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. Since fighting broke out in late 2013, over 100,000 people have been killed while nearly a third of the country’s population is displaced. Violence between government and opposition factions is driven by divisions among elites along ethnic lines and has led to documented cases of ethnic cleansing and other egregious human rights abuses. Combined with rampant sexual violence and a man-made famine, this conflagration means that extreme uncertainty surrounds the political future of South Sudan.
As an historic partner and leading donor nation to South Sudan, the United States bears a moral responsibility to act to mitigate the humanitarian crisis enveloping this new nation. We highlight several key action items that the Trump Administration should urgently consider when crafting U.S policy in South Sudan.
Addressing Human Rights Abuses: UNMISS reported that it received “deeply disturbing reports of horrific violence perpetrated against innocent and vulnerable civilians, including women and infants” since South Sudan’s fragile cease-fire failed in 2016. Widespread violence has ignited a refugee crisis in the country that is quickly spreading throughout the region. Human rights abuses carried out by government forces call into question the ability of President Kiir to govern a post-conflict South Sudan. They not only threaten the stability of the South Sudanese state, but also the stability of the entire region.
To escape the violence, millions of South Sudanese civilians have fled to Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, or Ethiopia. UNHCR has referred to the South Sudan refugee crisis as “the most worrying refugee crisis in the world,” as over 1.8 million South Sudanese have fled the country and another 1.9 million are internally displaced. In a population of 11 million, this is a staggering exodus. Indeed, as of March 2017, South Sudan has become the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis. Borders leading into South Sudan are sparsely patrolled and extremely porous, leading to illicit transfers of armaments into the country to fuel the conflict. Governments in the region, especially in Uganda, are in desperate need of help to handle the overwhelming number of refugees pouring into their borders. In early April, Uganda’s Bidi Bidi village became the largest refugee camp in the world, home to approximately 800,000 people escaping famine and conflict in South Sudan.
The United States cannot tackle this human rights and refugee crisis alone. Regional actors like the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) need to be further engaged in the dialogue to address the conflict. As the Sentry Report by the Enough Project outlines, many South Sudanese government and military officials have accumulated fortunes located in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. U.S. pressure on such key regional actors can encourage parties to come back to the negotiating table. The United States moral authority is undermined the longer it fails to engage in efforts that strongly deter human rights abuses driven by a President who has enjoyed a strong relationship with consecutive U.S. administrations.
A more inclusive National Dialogue: President Salva Kiir announced in late 2016 that the government would be hosting a National Dialogue to address and resolve the issues affecting South Sudan. In the months leading up to the dialogue, the appointment of the National Dialogue Committee’s members has been far from transparent. President Kiir has not made a concerted effort to include a diverse range of insights into the dialogue. Several key opposition leaders have even refused their positions on the committee, citing lack of “confidence building measures” from the Kiir administration.
A broadly inclusive national dialogue is absolutely fundamental to ensuring a sustainable peace agreement and to plant the seeds of greater regional stability. The national dialogue should include women, youth groups, professionals from various business sectors, and civil society organizations. The national dialogue cannot be an elite driven process but must be led and facilitated by legitimate, diverse representatives of the South Sudanese citizenry. To encourage this, the U.S. government and international organizations should provide funding and support to civil society organizations to sponsor outreach and consultations with communities in advance of the National Dialogue. Without a more inclusive process, this opportunity for reconciliation and reconstruction will fall short. alongside past attempts to cultivate sustainable peace in South Sudan.
Urgent Appointment of a U.S. Special Envoy: With a crisis as pressing and urgent as what is unfolding in South Sudan, the State Department needs a dedicated position committed to working with domestic and regional stakeholders to mitigate the worst dimensions of the conflict and famine in South Sudan, and work towards a sustainable peace in the country. A U.S. Special Envoy is necessary for high-level diplomatic leadership and greater accountability in South Sudan. A newly appointed Special Envoy would do much to reinforce U.S. cooperation with with regional actors and strengthen the posture of the U.S. on human rights abuses in South Sudan.
The U.S. can be a partner for peace and stability in South Sudan by wielding a host of traditional and unconventional diplomatic tools at its disposable. By delivering targeted humanitarian aid, coupled with pressure on regional actors to develop coalitions, the U.S. will be strongly positioned to help reduce and ultimately halt hostilities and human rights abuses while engendering an inclusive peace process. Nonetheless, if the U.S. fails to take immediate action to reduce violence, reopen humanitarian corridors, and counteract the famine in South Sudan, then it should be ready to accept that one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history could have been averted. South Sudan, regional partners, and international partners will not soon forget.