MODERATOR: Thanks for being here. Today we have [Senior State Department Official], who’s going to talk to us about developments in South Sudan. The attribution for this talk will be background, senior State Department official. Sir, go ahead.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Well, I don’t know how much – how closely you all follow the South Sudan peace process, but there’s a lot of peace processes in the world, and this is the one I’ve been following the most closely. I’ve been at post for about 21 months at U.S. Embassy in Juba, and when I started the conflict was still ongoing. They were in the throes of some peace talks that people weren’t sure were even that promising. But a few months later – in fact, in September 2018 – a peace agreement was signed which kicked the government and the country into what they call the pre-transitional period. They had a bunch of work that the agreements that had to take place before they could really start the transition. And the development, the pre-transition was extended a couple times, and it shook the confidence of the country in whether the peace process would even work.
But the big development that’s just happened is this last Saturday a new unity government as called for in the peace agreement came into being, and that kicked the country into the next phase, which is the transition phase. That’s supposed to last three years, and then the country’s first national election since its independence. So it’s a big deal if it all gets there. There’s a – the peace agreement is really a fulsome agreement. They call it the revitalized peace agreement, because it’s – the 2015 agreement that failed, they took that as the starting point for the new agreement. And it has a good, healthy reform agenda built into it. And this transition period is when they’re supposed to start getting to some of those reforms.
So everyone’s looking to see: Will this new unity government work? Will it remain an inclusive and unified government? What will their work habits be? And really, what I – the main take is if it works, if the parties work collaboratively, it has a chance of working. If they continue to be competitors within this government, it’s – it has a lot less chance of working. So a collaborative approach is what we’re looking for. We’re looking for signs of that collaboration, attitudinal changes. But really, collaboration is the word of the day there, I think. It was compromise leading up to this. The parties had to compromise to get here, but they’ve done that.
So now the work continues, and starts in some cases. A lot of the obligations for the pre-transition period haven’t, in fact, been completed. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the security sector.
QUESTION: You said “have not”? Sorry.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: May have to have a – there – the security sector was supposed to be unified, so the rebel armies and the government’s armies were supposed to have been brought together. And that wasn’t completed before, but there was enough confidence that it was starting, that process was starting. So this new government will have to continue that process in the security sector. They’ll have to kind of reinvent how they do governance. Again, a collaborative approach on that would be better. And then the other parts of the peace agreement that should kick in are a recovery program that includes returns of refugees and displaced people; improvements in public financial management and transparency and counter-corruption; transitional justice is a big chapter, so reconciliation and transitional justice. And then there’s also a chapter in the peace agreement on a constitutional process that will kick in leading to the elections. And that’s where they will have these big national dialogues about federalism and the shape of the country and the shape of the future government that comes after the transition period.
So it’s a big agenda, a very big agenda. And this is where we’re at right now. A lot of people will be looking to see what the international community’s role in this process will be. The key players are the neighbors of South Sudan, the IGAD countries, which were the guarantors of this process. Sudan is the new chairman of the IGAD, but Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda are all very key players here. And then if you look at concentric circles, the AU also has a lot of roles to play here in the peace process, and the United Nations. The UNMISS mission is one of the biggest – the biggest by some parameters – peacekeeping mission in the world right now. And we have the pen on the resolutions up in New York on the Security Council, so we and other internationals are paying a lot of attention to this as well.
But the nature of that partnership – on our part, at least – the nature of that partnership really will depend on the nature of this new government. Are they taking responsible decisions that are focused on the needs of their people, or are they taking self-interested decisions based on their own kind of political needs or their needs for power or corrupt finances? And so this is, again, a watchful situation, but it’s also more hopeful than it’s been in a long time.
So there’s – right now, this weekend in Juba, the mood was good, relatively good. But the – it doesn’t erase the healthy skepticism either, and people need to build their confidence up from the beginning. So confidence – I guess I’d talk about collaboration and compromise and confidence – it’s a lot of c words – but confidence of the people in their new government, confidence of the parties within the new government in each other, and confidence of the internationals in the process going forward. That’s just top-level stuff.
And there are other things happening in South Sudan, too – major floods this last year, locusts just came across the border. Those are things – if the ceasefire holds, and the ceasefire has been holding mostly since the peace agreement was signed in September 2018, these other problems which are major, major disasters, emergencies – the world knows how to help deal with those if we can. If the pause is there in the fighting, I think we can keep working on all these other issues.
But the – all the numbers are really off the charts in South Sudan. It is – it’s the biggest humanitarian emergency on the continent, and that means it’s big. The brutality of the civil war that lasted five years – really, it’s off the charts in a lot of ways, what happened to that country, and so the trauma that it’s left with is very, very serious and it pervades everything. So it’s a hefty set of tasks ahead, and – but it – again, it depends on this new government. Are they going to be collaborative and work in the interests of the people or not? So this is what we’re watching, and not just watching, we’re pushing as well. We’re applying pressure and engagement and trying to make sure that it works.
MODERATOR: Why don’t we take a few questions?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, please.
MODERATOR: All right.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) ask about the – you talked a couple times about the confidence level of – or there’s a great deal of suspicion. Given the fact that there is – this has been such a tortured road that has been really kind of dominated by personalities and personal vanity of the leaders, who were called out repeatedly about this, what is the confidence level that Machar and these guys are going to be able to actually get along and not just —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, well, like you said – yeah.
QUESTION: — not just plunder the place and do what they have done every single time since Garang died?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, it’s Kiir and Machar again, so confidence – like, there’s a lot of different kinds of confidence. Can these two parties and then the other parties – it’s a much more inclusive agreement than the last one. There’s five major parties to this peace agreement, and some of those are umbrellas that include many more parties. So that – the first thing about keeping the ceasefire going is that these parties have confidence in each other, but the citizens’ confidence in their government will be a little harder to come by, and we’ll be – we won’t jump into changing the way we do assistance right away either, so we’re very watchful. We don’t – for instance, none of our assistance goes to or through the government. We do it – we’re the biggest donors there because of the humanitarian emergencies, but our assistance does not go to or through the government because we can’t be sure that it will be well spent that way. But – I don’t know, you call —
MODERATOR: (Inaudible.) Carol.
QUESTION: I was in Juba a couple years ago and it was still pretty – sort of dicey. Aid workers were in fear for their lives, and convoys were being attacked, and the ambassador herself was living in the middle of a highly guarded compound. I’m wondering if the security situation has improved at all there, if you see any signs of that.
And also, just following up on what Matt said, beyond hope, do you – is there anything concrete to give you reason that Kiir and Machar will be able to put aside their rivalry? Because I still see them being described as bitter rivals.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the security situation, we’re still on that compound. I tell my colleagues here – I tell them we all live in hooches, but they’re the nicest hooches in the Foreign Service. We have a good degree of community and morale, but it is – we have a curfew, we’re unaccompanied, one-year assignments for most of my officers. So it’s a tough place, like some of the other places that you cover more frequently in your news programs.
That said, since that ceasefire went in place, there’s still a lot of criminality in the city and it’s very unpredictable for our local staff, for instance. For South Sudanese it’s a very difficult environment still, but it’s gotten much better since those times. Since the ceasefire went into effect, it’s – but it’s still a lot of crime, and the fear that it could revert to conflict is – that trauma lasts a lot longer than – people are going to be careful for a long time on that front.
It’s still – I mean, we – the UN keeps a running tab of humanitarians who are attacked or killed, and so we still sometimes throw up the factoid that it’s the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarians. There was a good long stretch at the beginning of 2019 for about nine months were there weren’t any casualties among humanitarian workers, but then starting in the fall there have been a few different attacks where people have been either killed or victims in other ways of attacks. So there’s – it’s still not – it’s still a dangerous place, but it’s better than it had been during the open conflict.
So a lot of violence in the country. Even with the national-level conflict right now under a ceasefire, there’s a lot of violence around the country in any case. There’s cattle-raiding violence, community-level violence that’s very serious – lots of guns in the country. And so it’s – but again, those are the kind of problems that if the ceasefire holds at the national level, there are methodologies and ways to start dealing with that and making some inroads in that.
Hope for the future. We all hope – I – one of the signs that this is different than before, there are assertions by all parties that it’s different this time, assertions which have to be tested and watched very carefully. So and there —
QUESTION: When you say “assertions” —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And there are some – there’s some talk about even kind of a – with a religious angle to it. The president talked about – in the speech when he was announcing the new government, talked about his experience with the Pope last spring where the Pope knelt down and kissed the feet of these leaders and really challenged them to be more humble and less – think more about their country and less about their personal power.
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, to that point, it feels a bit like Groundhog Day where it’s the same actors making the same if not a similar deal. So to phrase it another way, I mean, do you – does the State Department have faith in Kiir and Machar themselves to carry forward this? What’s changed for these two personalities in the past three or four years that makes you say, yes, we believe you when you say these things are different this time, even though you’ve broken so many ceasefires and so many agreements before?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, well, this is not an agreement that we signed. In 2015 we signed that one. This one we’ve participated in in the sense of putting pressure on, and we have been watchful, and we have been commenting on it and pushing the parties along, but this is not our agreement in that sense. We haven’t – we don’t – it’s not our job now to pronounce it – that it’s good. We will be watchful, we will be – have healthy skepticism, and we will hopefully see some positive things that we can encourage and enable as well, but we’ll also be calling them if they’re – if they’re making some of the same mistakes.
So I think it’s more about watching their deeds rather than giving them a – pronouncing all is well, giving them a grade, a passing grade. It’s too early for that. And we’ll have to watch their institutional reforms – are some of these reforms going to kick in that mean – that can make it more than about the two individuals, right? One of the things that’s different about this agreement, this version of the agreement, the revitalized version, is it’s more inclusive than the other one. It’s not just the two parties. Now it’s a lot more parties. But it’s – these are still the two big men and this is still where most people focus. If it’s going to fall apart, it – this is where it would fall apart, along that fracture.
QUESTION: And just a quick follow-on. If it falls apart, is the U.S. readying any additional sanctions on senior South Sudanese leaders in that case? I know there were sanctions on one of the vice presidents I think late last year.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’ve told everybody we reserve the right to use all our diplomatic tools, including more sanctions, if necessary. We have the – we have all the same authorities in place, and I’ve made sure that that’s clear. Right now with the developments just this last week, Kiir did what we and others have been asking him to do – the last big stumbling block to making this new government was temporarily resolving this question of how many states there would be. And I don’t know if you know that background at all, but Kiir and his party favored 32 states; all the other opposition were saying 23. Kiir decided to make a decision not as the head of his party but as the head of the nation and agreed to a 10-state approach, which was the original number in the 2015 agreement. It’s complicated. But he did what the world asked him to do, which is get beyond his party’s immediate interests and make a decision that was – could facilitate the formation of this new government.
So he’s done that. Machar had to make a tough decision also whether he would go along with this, and they did. So, I mean, they made these tough decisions for themselves that they have to go back and sell to their coalitions, and so I think we want to see that – if that works – give them a little bit of a pat on the back for that, but not lose our watchfulness on this.
MODERATOR: Okay, there are a couple more. Yeah, Francesco.
QUESTION: Thank you. So yeah, to follow on the sanctions, is the U.S. considering lifting the designations you announced while there was a stalemate on the national unity government or are you prepared to wait and see?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of different kinds of sanctions. So on the individual, targeted sanctions, I’d – Treasury, OFAC, is who puts those in place, so there is some news out of there today that you might – if you want to track it down, I’d point you towards Treasury on one of those, but those – that’s one kind of sanction. There’s also Department of Commerce has some export controls on the – on U.S. companies that would be dealing with the petroleum and mining industry. Those are still there. Those, I think, should be there till there’s improvements in the investment climate, in the kind of transparency and public financial management field, make sure that they are spending their petroleum revenues in a way that benefits the country rather than contributes to the conflict.
And then the other big area of sanctions are the UN sanctions, including the arms embargo, and I think it’s way too early to consider lifting the arms embargo.
QUESTION: Is that – the Treasury action, this is the Israeli guy?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s the one that’s today, yeah. Yeah.
QUESTION: Which were moved?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So it – and I haven’t even seen anything on that, so that’s why I refer you to them, yeah.
QUESTION: But it’s under – it was under the South Sudan sanctions authority —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, it was under —
QUESTION: — but it wasn’t on a Sudanese –
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. And even those targeted ones are – yeah, it was because of his business in South Sudan, but he wasn’t a South Sudanese citizen, and his companies as well. We have an executive order under which some of the individual sanctions have been levied, and then we’ve also – there are some that have been levied under Global Magnitsky Act. And I’d have to check notes to make sure which is which, but I think this is under the executive order.
QUESTION: I know that sexual violence was a huge weapon of war in the last couple of years, and with the formation of this unity government, I wonder what accountability you see for the perpetrators of those crimes or what the U.S. is involved in in helping the women who survived that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. It was a huge problem during the war, and it’s not an automatic thing that with the end of the war even that this will go away as an issue, as a malady of – I mean, it’s a terrible situation. These numbers are, again, off the charts, and it’s a complicated phenomenon too. Some people will say it’s cultural; some people say it’s the conflict; and it’s probably a crazy mixture of both of those.
So there’s a lot of attention to this issue set, and we’ve been pushing all the individual parties to make progress on this even before they came together as a government. And so I think there will be a lot of internationals that continue to push. And there are some South Sudanese who are really becoming active in pushing for this. So I think the solutions for justice in these cases are going to have to be – it’s a mix. It’s going to need multiple tools. So we would love to see if there can be more developed in the South Sudanese justice systems and courts. The UN’s been helping with mobile courts to go out to places in the country that don’t have access to judicial services any other way than that. So that’s a starter kit, but they need to develop their own institutions.
But also, some of the mechanisms that are to be built into the reform efforts, chapter 5 of the peace agreement is on transitional justice. So there’s a Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing Commission. There is supposed to be a hybrid court – it’s an AU-South Sudan hybrid court for, one would think, the worst perpetrators of human rights atrocities during the war. So that has to be constituted. And all these tools together – there’s also other international mechanisms. There’s the UN Commission for Human Rights in South Sudan that’s established in Geneva. We used to have the pen on that when we were still on the council. And a report just came out from them that covered a whole range of human rights issues, including starvation as a crime, which is a kind of interesting take, but some of the gender-based violence reporting that’s come out of the UN system and our own reporting, it’s been just – it’s so difficult to deal with. I have to say it’s probably one of the most difficult things to kind of comprehend the magnitude of it when I got there, and I’ve worked in places like Taliban, Afghanistan, and I found South Sudan shocking at the level of sexual violence there.
MODERATOR: Do you have time for one more?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure.
MODERATOR: All right, take one more. Conor.
QUESTION: Just a quick —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m just skipping out of a boring meeting, so this is —
QUESTION: A quick follow-up on Carol’s question about security.
QUESTION: And we can keep asking.
QUESTION: At the end of last month there was an embassy alert about a terror plot against the embassy and against U.S. personnel in the country. I was wondering if you could provide any more details on that, what groups, and whether or not that threat still remains in the country.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we took steps. We had some evidence to believe that the embassy was being watched by bad guys. So we did a couple things. We had very good cooperation from the South Sudanese police and National Security Services to help us make sure security in our neighborhood was good, and we’ve done all the things that most embassies do. We took steps to vary our times and our routes, and in fact, we’d already had warnings out to the public about security conditions in South Sudan. So it didn’t look too different to too many people, but we did take some extra steps. I don’t know if we’ll ever kind of know the outcome of that, but —
QUESTION: Was it a local actor or —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, don’t even know. I mean, that’s – yeah, it’s – don’t even – it doesn’t matter. We had to – it wasn’t a South Sudanese if that’s what you mean by local.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: But local like – yeah, I mean, in South Sudan. Yeah, and our embassy in Juba is what – but at the same time, there was – you know how everybody uses WhatsApp over there. So there was a WhatsApp message going around that wasn’t really what we were looking at, but that’s really what most people were reacting to. So – and that had all sorts of information that I never saw in our threat information, but I think it was – it was just – it came after the month where you had the events in Baghdad and there was an al-Shabaab attack in Kenya. And so I think some of that broader rumor stuff was actually earlier from just kind of the regional look at things.
So, yeah, that’s – but ours – we just took a – like I said, we – at the beginning, we already had curfew and we already had a lot of other security precautions. We just stepped up our good practices like varying your times and routes, so we’re hanging in there.
MODERATOR: All right. Thanks for being here with us today. Very much appreciate the —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Yeah. Thank you so much.
QUESTION: Thank you for taking the time.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And thank you for attention to South Sudan issues.
QUESTION: There isn’t anything more on terrain combat, is there?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Not lately, no. I mean, that was one of the things, when I got there, that the verdict wasn’t out yet, but then it has since – they’ve delivered that verdict, but there’s still stuff that needs —
QUESTION: They still haven’t paid, right? Or have they —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They’ve – I don’t think they have, no. I mean, that’s not the question. The question is on – terrain was just whether they – the people – some of the victims have gone back to ask for higher compensation, and that hasn’t gone anywhere yet.