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August 7, 2015

President Obama’s new focus on South Sudan

Earlier this week, we were very gratified to see President Obama standing next to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and publicly speaking about the need to “stop the bloodshed” in South Sudan and to push the warring parties to “move forward in an inclusive government.”

South Sudan, the world’s newest country, is in the midst of a violent conflict, which started as a political disagreement but spun out of control into an ethnic war. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese have already lost their lives, but, as the President has said, the situation could become much worse.  Food insecurity threatens 4.6 million people, and, by December 2015, the lives of many more civilians could be imperiled by malnutrition, violence and disease.  South Sudan’s economy is now collapsing as sources of public revenue dry up due to mismanagement and military spending to support continued fighting. Much of the responsibility for this situation can be laid at the feet of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar, who have let long-standing personal tensions turn new and historic grievances into rallying cries for violence and mayhem.

President Obama’s new personal engagement on the conflict in South Sudan began during his trip to Africa last week when he urged both leaders to act more responsibly and find a way to end the conflict.  In both Kenya and Ethiopia, President Obama pressed the case that, if the current mediation process led by the International Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) fails to produce an agreement by its self-imposed deadline later this month, these leaders should face greater consequences, and a new path has to be found to the peace the people of South Sudan so richly deserve.  And, he pressed the African Union (AU) during the first-ever visit by a US President to release the AU’s Commission of Inquiry report, which documents the human rights abuses and war crimes that took place during the early phase of the conflict.

Given the US role in the birth of the new state of South Sudan, we and our colleagues in civil society were pleased to see this new level of engagement and are thankful that the President and his staff used his precious time on the continent to raise these issues, both in bilateral meetings with Kenya and Ethiopia’s leaders, but also in a meeting with IGAD’s leaders and at the groundbreaking address to the AU.

The continuing focus on this issue with the UN Secretary General suggests that President Obama intends to maintain pressure as plans for the UN General Assembly this September fall into place. His next big opportunity is when Chinese President Xi Jinping comes into town next month. Together, China and the US can present an aligned approach on South Sudan, regardless of what happens on IGAD’s August 17 deadline.

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