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Torn by war and potential famine, South Sudan needs US humanitarian surge

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Ilya Gridneff/AP/File

(Read caption) Displaced South Sudanese women queue for water at the United Nations base where they have sought shelter in Malakal, South Sudan, Jan. 28, 2014.

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A version of this post appeared in Enough Said. The views expressed are the author's own.

Jeff Millington was one of the lead US diplomats in supporting the negotiations leading to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between northern and southern Sudan. He has remained engaged in issues related to South Sudan since his retirement from the Foreign Service.

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The corruption and political avarice that have plagued South Sudan since independence have left many long-time supporters confused and disheartened. The moral clarity of the long struggle for independence has disappeared, particularly after December’s political implosion and outbreak of fighting and ethnic violence.

Nevertheless, despite our moral qualms, our responsibility to the people of South Sudan remains clear. Through no fault of their own, the people of South Sudan are now suffering terribly: an estimated 10,000 people have been killed and another one million forced from their homes. 

Most alarmingly, the UN now estimates that 3.7 million South Sudanese are at risk from famine. We cannot abandon them.

The United States has responded to the crisis with exceptional alacrity. Washington has made it clear that it will not permit a repeat of the Rwandan genocide and Special Envoy Donald Booth has worked tirelessly to shore up the regional peace process. Despite daunting challenges, some encouraging progress has been achieved and the January cease-fire agreement and Addis Ababa peace talks may yet serve as a basis for a permanent solution.

Nevertheless, the US administration’s concentration on the negotiations has led to a shift in our focus from South Sudan to Addis Ababa. Our embassy in Juba has been reduced drastically and our visibility among the South Sudanese has plummeted. This has left many inside the country feeling a sense of abandonment.

Without lessening our support for the peace process and the implementation of a viable, monitored cease-fire, there are two areas where the United States can be doing more to directly address the needs of the people of South Sudan.

Emergency Relief

The United States has taken the lead in marshaling the international response to the crisis and has itself provided over $130 million in additional emergency relief assistance since December. However, the administration has undercut this support by not allowing relief specialists from the Agency for International Development (UASID) to go to South Sudan to work with the emergency effort.

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The administration pulled most official Americans from South Sudan in January and still imposes strict limits on people wanting to return. Their absence weakens the relief effort and exacerbates the suffering of those most affected by the recent fighting.

Given the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in South Sudan, the administration should review its current policies, retain prudent restrictions where needed, but allow American relief personnel to go back into South Sudan permanently were their presence is so desperately needed.

Expanding the political process

The administration has correctly identified policies by some in the Government of South Sudan to restrict political participation as an important contributor to the outbreak of violence. To address the issue, the administration advocates including representatives from civil society in the Addis Ababa talks and is working with AECOM and others to support the organizational development of civil society groups such as Citizens for Peace and Justice. These efforts make the government and the rebels uneasy, but they should continue.

In addition, the United States should more actively and visibly engage in long-term efforts to broaden the political process on the ground in South Sudan. In this effort, our greatest advantage is the hard-won credibility we have with the South Sudanese people and our image as a long-term friend and a staunch supporter of democracy.

We should capitalize on this good will by appointing a person of stature to coordinate a robust US government effort to promote political reform and expanded popular participation. The people of South Sudan need to see first-hand that we are engaged and supportive.

A two-pronged policy is needed. First, we should support an inclusive constitutional review process with a clear mandate to draft a new, post-independence constitution for South Sudan. If done correctly, the new constitution will specify the mechanisms and protections for an open, transparent political process. Second, we should actively promote an on-the-ground program to strengthen local political parties and participatory mechanisms.

Institution building

Strong grassroots organizations are key to transparency and popular participation. We have much experience within the government for local institution building. We also have willing partners in the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and IFES, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. These organizations have experience working in difficult, unstable situations and we should promote their involvement in South Sudan.

Assisting a broad swath of civil society organizations and nascent political forces should be a primary objective in our efforts, but we should also work closely with the leaders and rank-and-file of the SPLM. The SPLM led the long struggle for independence, but the transition from guerrilla group to political party has been difficult. We should be there to help them complete this journey.

The two recommendations I’ve made are intended to complement our support for the peace process. Most importantly, however, they put us once again side-by-side with the South Sudanese as they struggle to ensure their very existence.