As South Sudan's conflict drags on, US frustrations mount
By SIOBHÁN O'GRADY | The Washington Post | Published: December 21, 2019
For years, South Sudan's warring leaders have delayed putting an end to their country's brutal conflict, scuttling peace talks and blowing past deadlines as the death toll mounted and a refugee crisis caused upheaval across the region.
The perpetual delays are straining the young country's close relationship with the United States, which this week announced sanctions on two top South Sudanese officials, accusing them of prolonging the country's deadly conflict and obstructing the path to peace. South Sudan responded with its own diplomatic jab, recalling its ambassador to Washington "for consultations."
South Sudan's envoy, Philip Jada, will return to Juba this weekend, he said in a phone interview.
"The timing of the sanctions took me by surprise," Jada said, adding that he does not expect to stay away from Washington for long. "We have a very good engagement, and then they implement sanctions again, so we just start wondering why, if you're in dialogue, do you continue to give punitive measures?"
This week's sanctions follow other measures the United States has taken to express its discontent with the cycle of violence and political disputes. In recent weeks, it briefly recalled its ambassador to Juba, threatened visa restrictions on individuals who jeopardize the peace process and slapped sanctions on a number of high-ranking officials.
U.S. officials helped guide South Sudan to independence from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war, but infighting between the country's two leaders, President Salva Kiir and then-Vice President Riek Machar, sparked a new civil war in 2013. The conflict divided the nation along ethnic lines and unleashed a wave of suffering that has dragged on for six years.
The two men have failed many attempts to reach and implement peace agreements. They finally signed an agreement at the end of 2018 but have missed multiple deadlines to form a unity government, announcing in November that they need until mid-February.
It was after missing that deadline that the State Department temporarily recalled its ambassador, Thomas Hushek, from Juba and announced that the United States plans to reevaluate its relationship.
On Friday, the State Department said in an emailed statement that Hushek has met Kiir and South Sudan's foreign minister since he returned to Juba on Dec. 12 and expects "those communication channels to remain open." But Kiir and Machar's continued inability to demonstrate a willingness to compromise "raises questions whether either man is fit to lead the country to a political resolution of the conflict," the statement read.
The sanctions this week came shortly after the U.S. Treasury announced another round of sanctions on five other South Sudanese officials earlier this month, calling them "responsible for the abduction and likely murder" of two South Sudanese human rights activists who disappeared in Kenya in January 2017. On Dec. 12, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also warned that visa restrictions could be implemented against individuals who obstruct the peace process.
Jada said that his government is concerned by the sanctions against South Sudanese officials but that his recall to Juba is in direct response to this week's sanctions against Kuol Manyang Juuk, the minister of defense and veterans affairs, and Martin Elia Lomuro, the minister of cabinet affairs.
"The defense minister is very crucial in the peace agreement," Jada said. "Imposing sanctions at this time is not helpful in implementing the peace agreement."
Payton Knopf, an adviser to the Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace who previously served on the U.N. Panel of Experts for South Sudan, said the U.S. ambassador to Juba's temporary recall and subsequent return is just one example of an "incoherent" U.S. policy in South Sudan.
The State Department has already raised concerns over Kiir's leadership, Knopf said, "so why is it that we continue to convey legitimacy on his government by having an ambassador there?"
The war in South Sudan has displaced millions of people, many of whom are now refugees in neighboring countries. A State Department-funded study released last year estimated that the war had left at least 382,000 people dead.
Earlier this year, in one of the many international bids to put an end to the conflict, Pope Francis hosted Kiir and Machar for a spiritual retreat, during which he bent down and kissed each man's feet, asking them to "stay in peace." It was an unusual move for the pontiff, who said last month that he hopes to visit the predominantly Christian country next year.