US Senate hearing calls for action against South Sudanese leaders to end violence

Av Adva Saldinger |

Experts laid out a series of steps they said the U.S. government could take to help end the conflict in South Sudan at a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing Wednesday. Swift U.S. action was vital, they testified.

Senators had asked experts what actions they could take as members of Congress and what recommendations they might make to the administration. The hearing was attended by Africa and Global Health Policy subcommittee Chairman Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey and Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana.

Witnesses agreed that the Donald Trump administration must place more of a focus on South Sudan and the region, develop a strategy and empower someone to lead on that policy. Under the former administration, policy was led by a special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan — a post now vacant.

The administration must “empower” a senior level official to “chart the way out of the abyss” in South Sudan, said Payton Knopf, the coordinator of the South Sudan senior working group at the United States Institute of Peace. He said the U.S. has the ability to ignite a new diplomatic effort. Policy could be led by a special envoy or another senior official, he said.

The current lack of U.S. leadership on South Sudan has been visible at recent meetings, said Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at the USIP. Lacking a clear administration policy, U.S. diplomats have acted as mere observers, unable to shape policy. That has led to a proliferation of competing regional plans to address the crisis, he said.

In addition to stronger leadership, witnesses proposed several different approaches that could impact the situation — a complex conflict in which neighboring states all have competing interests.

The U.S. could put pressure on warring parties to see peace as being in their best interest and establish consequences for violent attacks, said Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. He argued that it would be counterproductive to continue negotiations or try to restart previous peace talks without more leverage on the various sides.

Knopf also spoke in favor of exerting pressure on warring sides. He said South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his allies bear the “preponderance of responsibility.” The U.S. needs to reduce Kiir’s power and undercut the viability of a military solution by exerting financial pressure, or by derecognizing the government, among other options, he said.

While sanctions are not a silver bullet, the “shameful absence” of any consequence in the last three years means that even minor consequences could send a message that the violence is not acceptable, Knopf said.

Aside from financial penalties, the U.S. could send a message by closing South Sudan’s embassy in Washington, D.C., and expelling diplomats, Meservey said. Every time a U.S. diplomat sits down with Kiir it sends a message that he has legitimacy, he said.

Despite that complexity of the situation, the conflict is not completely intractable, Knopf said. “This war can be ended diplomatically” but that requires a leadership commitment from the U.S. he said.

Any new diplomatic process must be inclusive and include all players, said Verjee. A new push for peace must be focused, have a clear timeline, and reconsider past provisions that may no longer be fit for purpose, he said.

Witnesses spoke about U.S. interests at stake in the conflict, in addition to the moral imperative  of ending famine conditions and catastrophic violence. Regional stability is at stake, they testified. Knopf described escalating tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, and issues of competition among neighboring states.

Senators echoed the gravity of the situation. Flake said the he hopes the administration was watching and understands the urgency of taking bold action.

In March, Flake, along with several other members of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging a “diplomatic surge” to address the situation in South Sudan. The Senate Foreign Relations committee has passed a bill urging diplomatic action in South Sudan as well, but it has yet to be debated on the floor of the Senate. Flake, Booker and Young committed to continuing to push the issue.