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Chairman Menendez on 10th Anniversary of South Sudan’s Independence

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) today issued the following statement commemorating the 10th anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, which will be introduced into the Senate record:

“I rise today to acknowledge the 10th anniversary of South Sudan’s independence. July 9th is a bittersweet day for the resilient people of South Sudan.  For decades, South Sudanese fought a brutal war with the government in Khartoum in which two million people lost their lives. After decades of bloody struggle, the parties to the conflict signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which provided for self-determination for the South, and paved the way for South Sudan’s independence in 2011, with the diplomatic support of the United States and others in the international community.

Yet the promise of South Sudan’s independence has turned into tragedy. Deep fault lines that emerged during the country’s long struggle for independence, accentuated by rivalry and rent seeking among the country’s corrupt political elite, brought about catastrophe. A little over two years after independence, four hundred thousand people were killed and more than four million were displaced during the five year civil war between forces loyal President Salva Kiir against those aligned with Vice-President Riek Machar. Unspeakable atrocities were committed against civilians during the conflict, including women and children. In 2017, the war induced a famine that brought hundreds of thousands more to the brink of disaster.

The United States and its international partners have invested heavily in diplomatic efforts to support and end to the conflict in South Sudan. Despite failed cease-fire agreements and the intransigence of the warring parties, in 2018 regional leaders working through the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) were finally able to obtain agreement on what was called the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS). Although far from ideal, the agreement lays out a framework for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, political reform, and democratic transition.

But implementation of the agreement remains slow, and South Sudan sits at a very dangerous crossroad. Responsible parties have failed to implement major provisions of the R-ARCSS, including those on power-sharing, constitutional development, security sector reform, economic issues, and transitional justice, or have reneged on their commitments. Non-signatories to the R-ARCSS continue to wage an active insurgency, particularly in Equatoria. Locally rooted communal violence is also rampant, fueled by the invisible hand of rival national political elites. Kiir’s security apparatus continues to violate the human, civil, and political rights of the South Sudanese people. Overlaying all of these problems is an urgent humanitarian crisis – driven by conflict induced food insecurity, displacement, and Covid-19 – made all the more worse by long-standing efforts by the Government of South Sudan to undercut humanitarian access.

It’s clear that South Sudan’s stalled peace process needs a reboot. The lack of progress on implementation of the R-ARCSS has created significant concern about elections now slated for 2022— if they are even held. And if they are held, without prior implementation of core components of the agreement and other key actions, the polls could be a flash point for conflict and violence.

In order to prevent this outcome, South Sudanese leadership, the U.S. and international partners must take urgent action.

Political leadership in Juba must immediately organize a process for robust and inclusive negotiations over a new constitution in a process that involves all South Sudanese stakeholders, including civil society and hold-out rebel groups.  While I would not presume to dictate what the South Sudanese people themselves might decide, it seems to me that devolution of power from the national government to the states and local administration, and genuine power-sharing at the national level are necessary ingredients to avoid the winner-take-all calculus that has served as an incentive to take and hold on to central power at any cost.

Regional neighbors must act as well.  Ongoing instability in east Africa including the war in Tigray, a fragile transition in Sudan and political turmoil in Somalia has distracted regional actors who traditionally engage on South Sudan issues.  This must change. Capitols in Africa, working through the African Union (AU) and IGAD, must ensure that peace in South Sudan is at the top of the agenda for policy makers.  Working with the Europeans and other partners, the US should actively support the efforts of the African stakeholders to rehabilitate South Sudan’s broken peace process.

The United States also has a prominent role to play.  The relationship between South Sudan and the United States runs deep. For decades the U.S. has been the leading donor to South Sudan, including major contributions from U.S. civil society. US diplomacy has long supported the South Sudanese cause and was critical to the signing of the CPA.  After independence, the U.S. remained firmly engaged in supporting South Sudan, both through its bilateral engagement and participation in the Troika. That tradition must continue and there is no time to waste.  I encourage the Biden Administration to take four steps:

First, appoint an experienced Ambassador to South Sudan, someone who has served as an Ambassador in the region, and who is familiar with the history of the relationship.

Second, the Administration should pursue additional bilateral and multilateral sanctions on South Sudanese political actors where needed, including on those who obstruct the delivery of humanitarian aid.  In that same vein, it should support the continuation of the UN arms embargo, and regularly name parties that violate the embargo and hold them accountable. 

Third, the corruption that has long fueled South Sudan’s political crisis must be confronted head on. The U.S. and its partners must demand full transparency from the Government of South Sudan on its oil accounts: the international community must know what revenue is coming in, and what expenditures are being made. Kiir’s foot dragging on public financial management has persisted for years; it is well past time that Juba face consequences.  The US must use its voice and vote at International Financial Institutions to oppose all budget support to the Government of South Sudan and urge an end to all programs that do not directly benefit the health and welfare of the South Sudanese people until and unless the government is willing to open its books to donors, and more importantly, the South Sudanese people.

Finally, ending the cycle of conflict and despair in South Sudan will require accountability for past crimes and atrocities. The lesson of eight years of conflict in South Sudan is that progress is impossible in a climate of impunity. Yet despite support to the AU Hybrid Court for South Sudan from the US and other donors, the AU has failed to fulfill its responsibilities and the Hybrid Court remains in limbo. Justice delayed is justice denied. With our allies in tow, the Biden administration must make clear to relevant stakeholders at the AU and in Juba that further delay on the issue of transitional justice is unacceptable. If these parties do not act, the Biden administration should work with allies to pursue alternative justice and accountability mechanisms.

“I congratulate the people of South Sudan on this milestone.  Their independence was hard won.  I only wish their leaders had treated them better. At this critical moment, the U.S. must to stand with all South Sudanese in their pursuit of justice, democracy, and equitable development.”