OPINION — South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar on Thursday pulled back from the brink and agreed to delay the formation of a government of national unity by 100 days. A crucial element of the peace process, this extension buys time to resolve critical components of the agreement, such as decisions on state borders and the reunification of security forces. However, without a new approach and reinvigorated international diplomatic effort to break the political stalemate, parties to South Sudan’s revitalized peace risk finding themselves in the same place early next year.
The consequences could be dire for the people of the east-central African nation: Two-thirds of the population (7.2 million people) are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. While ultimate responsibility rests with the South Sudanese, the U.S. government must play a concerted role in assisting their leaders to establish the necessary conditions for a sustainable peace. Congress can help by swiftly approving a bipartisan resolution reaffirming U.S. support for South Sudan, which was introduced in the Senate by Democrats Chris Coons of Delaware and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois along with Republicans Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Todd Young of Indiana. Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Cory Gardner have since signed on as co-sponsors.
The South Sudanese people cannot afford to wait any longer for peace. For the past six years, they have lived with the violence of a civil war that has taken a significant humanitarian toll: 400,000 citizens killed, 1.9 million internally displaced and 2.3 million forced to flee the country.
In September 2018, there was a glimmer of hope when the warring parties signed a new peace agreement to end the violence and form a unity government. Today, South Sudan is at a turning point: The signers of the agreement must live up to the promises they made last year and use the next 100 days to address the outstanding issues to achieve a sustainable peace, including the formation of a transitional government of national unity that necessitated the extension.
South Sudan’s civil society leaders fear that if the peace accord provisions are not met, more instability and violence could follow. This would worsen an already critical humanitarian crisis and also threaten regional stability. A new wave of mass displacement would strain neighbors Sudan and Ethiopia, disrupting nascent political transitions in these countries.
Although the United States was not a formal part of the 2018 peace agreement and still remains without a special envoy for South Sudan, it joined the United Kingdom and Norway in issuing a statement last month urging all sides to the deal to take urgent, concrete steps to ensure the success of the transitional government. It is time now to redouble diplomatic efforts to ensure the peace agreement’s outstanding issues are resolved over the next 100 days.
Congress can act now to demonstrate strong U.S. support by passing the bipartisan resolution, which calls on all parties to adhere to their prior commitments and reaffirm the cessation of hostilities. It calls on the U.S. government to support the prospect of peace by maintaining lifesaving humanitarian assistance, including assistance to address communal and gender-based violence, support transitional justice and foster national reconciliation. A new Mercy Corps research series, “The Currency of Connections,” highlights the ways in which U.S. foreign assistance can be used to sustain and build peace from the bottom up, helping displaced South Sudanese rebuild social trust and community after years of war.
The resolution also calls for the U.S. government to continue monitoring human rights abuses and corruption and to take decisive action against violators using the sanctions authorities granted under the Global Magnitsky Act.
The United States played a key role in laying the groundwork for South Sudan’s 2011 referendum of self-determination, which saw its people vote overwhelmingly for independence. But after six years of civil war, it is more urgent than ever that Congress continues to stand with the people of South Sudan by calling for an end to the violence and directing U.S. diplomatic action and assistance in support of a sustainable peace.
Richmond Blake is the director of policy and advocacy for Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid group active in over 40 countries.