U.S. Senator Chris Coons, back from a recent trip to South Sudan, urged the Trump administration to make the conflict and humanitarian crisis in the African nation a priority. He also suggested that a special envoy might spur a peace process among the country’s warring factions. 

Displaced residents at a camp of makeshift tents and structures of sheet metal and plastic in Bentiu, South Sudan.
Displaced residents at a camp of makeshift tents and structures of sheet metal and plastic in Bentiu, South Sudan. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Tyler Hicks

While Coons acknowledged that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has opposed the department’s extensive use of special envoys, the senator said the conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan require one. A special envoy can convene regional discussions and coordinate with multilateral organizations from a position of greater authority, he said in remarks today at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The U.S. ambassadors in the region have their hands full already, he said. Without active involvement of the United Nations and African Union, supported by the U.S., there’s little chance of ending the conflict, the senator said.

“President Trump and Secretary Tillerson need to show sustained engagement and leadership to make sure America’s voice is at the table, as the world comes together to try to address this really pressing humanitarian crisis,” Coons said in a discussion with Ambassador Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan who is a senior advisor at USIP.

Coons, a Delaware Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, travelled to the region with the panel’s chairman, Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, during Congress’s April recess. The lawmakers visited the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, which over the past six months has swelled to become the largest concentration of refugees in the world. It now shelters about 270,000 of the 1.7 million South Sudanese who fled escalating violence and a war-induced famine. Coons said he and Corker heard stories of mass rape and encountered women with children who had walked to the camp over two weeks with virtually no food.

Coons, who was making his first trip to South Sudan, went on to the capital, Juba, where he met with President Salva Kiir. He said he told Kiir “forcefully” not to underestimate the Trump administration’s determination to review and reduce foreign aid commitments. South Sudan, which has received $2.2 billion toward humanitarian assistance since the conflict began in 2013, could find itself a low-ranked priority for aid unless there is movement on a peace and reconciliation process, he told Kiir.

Coons noted that more than 80 aid workers have been killed in South Sudan and three died on his first day in the country. The spreading conflict is making it increasingly difficult to deliver aid to starving people, he said.

Why Continue Aid?

“One of the issues I raised with President Kiir directly is why should the U.S. continue to try so hard to deliver humanitarian assistance through partners and NGOs when your forces are blocking access and using hunger as a weapon of war,” Coons said.

Many South Sudanese leaders and their families don’t live in the country, even as they profit from its resources and the conflict, Coons said. After the U.N. Security Council’s failure last year to approve sanctions and an arms embargo on the country, it may be necessary for the U.S. to impose visa, financial and other restrictions on targeted individuals to advance a peace process, Coons said.

There are many other conflicts on the world stage right now. But South Sudan deserves our attention.

U.S. Senator Chris Coons

The origins of South Sudan’s violence lie in a power struggle between Kiir and former First Vice President—and now rebel leader—Riek Machar. A regional effort to end the conflict through a transitional government broke down in July 2015 and fighting resumed. The government is yet to fulfill promises to share power with the political or armed opposition, or to improve the humanitarian situation.

About 8.9 million of South Sudan’s 12.3 million people urgently need food assistance, according to the U.N., which declared in March that conditions in two counties meet the international definition of famine.

The civil war quickly took on an ethnic cast, largely pitting Kiir’s Dinka ethnic group against Machar’s Nuer. Since July 2015 in an accelerating descent into what some describe as genocide and mass starvation. As the fighting that began in the capital spread to other parts of the country, conflict among other ethnic groups broke out as well. A U.N. report in March found that most atrocities were committed by government soldiers against civilians viewed as supporters of the rebels.

Cutting Foreign Assistance Costs

Coons made his remarks on the heels of a proposal by the Trump administration to reduce total U.S. foreign aid spending by 28 percent. While Coons said he would oppose the suggested cuts, he said the food aid programs do need reform. He and Corker have introduced legislation aimed at lowering costs and increasing efficiency by dropping the requirement that food used for aid be grown in the U.S. and shipped on American-flagged vessels.

Coons’s interest in Africa dates to his college years, when spent a semester at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. He returned to the continent in the late 1980s to work with the South African Council of Churches in the anti-apartheid movement. His work on Africa in the senate has focused on health programs, food aid, economic development, and trade and security assistance, according to his website. Coons formerly was chair of the subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy and continues to serve on the panel.

Concern for Africa remains a bipartisan issue in the Senate, Coons said, with a dozen members knowledgeable about the continent and determined to move legislation forward. A key purpose of the trip he and Corker took was to elevate the issue of South Sudan, he said.

“Only the people of South Sudan in the end can make peace,” Coons said. “But this is a critical moment for the United States to show leadership in making that path to peace possible.

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