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To House committee on Foreign Affairs: Five Priorities for South Sudan

Despite U.S. efforts over the last 12 plus years, South Sudan is facing a deepening human catastrophe that threatens millions of people and could undermine security throughout the horn of Africa. The situation is dire and at-hand. A country that became independent with such promise in 2011 is now facing an imminent state collapse and widespread hunger for its people. 

International concern right now is almost exclusively focused on whether South Sudan will implement the August 2015 peace agreement by forming a transitional government of national unity. South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar is supposed to arrive in Juba to renew his role as the fragile country’s vice president, and his absence puts the agreement in jeopardy.

{mosads}A much greater risk, however, is that this diplomatic focus on implementing the peace agreement will distract the international community from recognizing and working toward the real change in conduct needed to end violence and prevent starvation in South Sudan.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a well-timed hearing Wednesday with Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Don Booth. There are five issues that deserve focus at this hearing:

1.  The people of South Sudan face a deepening humanitarian catastrophe.

As laid out in a recent NGO statement, the people of South Sudan are facing a humanitarian disaster. An alarming 5.8 million South Sudanese – half of the population – are food insecure and many may face famine-like conditions soon.  Over 2.3 million people have had to flee their homes, with more than 100,000 having left for neighboring countries since the signing of the August 2015 peace agreement.  

At the same time, the South Sudanese government may be blocking a formal declaration of famine under the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification System, an international tool that requires host government consent. International donors should not wait to fulfill to the United Nation’s humanitarian appeal by waiting for a famine declaration that may never materialize.

The international community’s response so far has been abysmal, and the Committee should ask why.

2.  Parties to the conflict have been preventing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Since the signing of the August 2015 peace agreement, there have been numerous ceasefire violations, and actions to harm and impede humanitarian workers have been climbing. In February and March 2016, six aid workers were killed and more than 120 incidents of impeded humanitarian access were reported. Fully 72 percent of the March incidents involved violence against humanitarian workers or assets.

It is no wonder that so many South Sudanese were left food insecure and are fleeing the country to escape catastrophic conditions.

The Committee should ask what steps the United States has taken to ensure that humanitarian assistance gets to those in need without interference from the parties to the conflict.

3.  Violence has continued in the country since the August peace agreement.

Worsening food insecurity has certainly driven many of the 100,000 people who have left South Sudan since the peace agreement was signed in August, but continued violence is also a factor. The cease fire monitoring mechanism indicated late last year, months after the signing of the ceasefire, that “rape and murder by uniformed members of both parties and their allied militias is widespread, and continues to be so after the signing of the peace agreement.” 

All fifteen reports by these mechanisms since the peace agreement was signed outline ceasefire violations including horrific incidents of murder. Press reports suggest that an attack in the UN’s Protection of Civilian site in Malakal were fostered by Government forces.

The Committee should ask what actions have been taken by the parties to stop these violations from occurring.

4.  The first test of the new transitional government should be to end the violence and allow life-saving assistance throughout the country. 

While international support for formation of the transitional government of national unity is important, it will be disastrous for the people of South Sudan, and a failure by the United States and its partners, if this attention masks the much more critical need: actions that end the violence and allow unrestricted humanitarian access. 

Any transitional government of national unity, or the current government – if the agreement falls apart – should be held to high standards of conduct before any support flows to them. That means:


•        Removal of checkpoints; 

•        Ending the practice of imposing illegal payments and arbitrary requests for material support;

•        Allowing civilians to move unimpeded to areas where they can access humanitarian assistance; 

•        Ceasing restrictions on international and local staff from carrying out humanitarian activities; 

•        Imposing a zero tolerance policy for those who impede humanitarian access, including by relieving and bringing to justice in accordance with international humanitarian law any military commander in the chain of command or national or local official who fail to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian assistance; and

•        Ensuring that all commanders throughout the chain of command should immediately enforce the ceasefire and permit ceasefire monitors freedom of movement to accurately report progress, with any commander who fails to do so being relieved of command and prosecuted.

5.  South Sudan’s new government should face new pressure if it does not fulfill these responsibilities.

No transitional government should receive international support unless it undertakes serious and sustained actions to meet the above standards. Without progress in these areas, the peace agreement will continue to be a piece of paper that fails the people of South Sudan. 

Failure to take these actions should also elicit consequences, preferably in the form of pressure from the UN Security Council at the end of the current review period at the end of May. Actions should include an arms embargo on the parties, which can help reduce the use of heavy weapons and helicopters, and targeted sanctions on those most responsible for violence and impeding humanitarian assistance.  Anything less would be a betrayal of the long-standing commitment by the United States and its international partners to help the people of South Sudan find a more peaceful and prosperous future.

Abramowitz is Managing Director, Humanity United


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