As the war in South Sudan rages on, its dynamics are influenced by events across the border in Sudan and by the policies of neighboring countries, regional groups and the broader international community, notably the U.S. It’s just the kind of situation that cries out for an American diplomat with the stature and the ability to work across borders to help resolve the myriad conflicts underlying the fighting, according to former Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan Princeton Lyman and two other former diplomats.  

An opposition soldier walks through the remnants of a mosque in Bentiu, South South Sudan, where hundreds of people were killed while taking refuge from the fighting, May 3, 2014. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Lynsey Addario
An opposition soldier walks through the remnants of a mosque in Bentiu, South South Sudan, where hundreds of people were killed while taking refuge from the fighting, May 3, 2014. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Lynsey Addario

Lyman, along with former U.S. diplomat Payton Knopf and Aly Verjee, a former advisor to a special envoy, note that the position of U.S. special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan was created by President George W. Bush in 2004. He appointed former Senator John Danforth to the post.  Successors were appointed by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

The position has been vacant since Ambassador Donald Booth stepped down on Jan. 19. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Aug. 28 wrote a letter to Congress proposing to eliminate that position and others as part of a plan to integrate some of the posts into regional and functional bureaus.

The three experts, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, comment on the value of a special envoy for the U.S. in handling the overlapping crises in Sudan and South Sudan. Lyman was co-author of a 2014 USIP Special Report, Using Special Envoys in High-Stakes Conflict Diplomacy, with the American Academy of Diplomacy, and USIP hosted a discussion of the use of special envoys in December 2014.

More than a decade after a U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan was first appointed, is such a position still necessary?

Lyman: A special envoy is particularly appropriate in conflict situations that pose major security and humanitarian concerns for the U.S. and also have regional aspects, such that no single embassy or even geographic bureau can manage them, and where high-level U.S. involvement is required.  It is a way to give the State Department surge capacity for complex, long-standing peace-making processes, which may unfold over many years, such as in Sudan and South Sudan.

No fewer than six special envoys helped negotiate and then implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the long civil war between Sudan and South Sudan.  It should have been possible to phase out the envoy position when those issues were resolved. Unfortunately, conflict continues in both countries today, most seriously in South Sudan.

The office of Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan was reinforced in 2010 to reflect intensified U.S. attention to a peace process that appeared to be losing steam.  We are at a similar juncture in the peace processes today. 

Knopf: A deputy assistant secretary, for instance, would not have the stature required to sustain diplomacy with the key regional heads of state, including those of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.  Addressing the broader regional dynamics and rivalries among these states is essential for addressing South Sudan’s civil war.  Regional leaders need to know that the U.S. representative they meet has access to and influence at the highest levels in Washington.

A special envoy is not the only model for this kind of diplomacy; for example, during the Bush administration, after Danforth left the post, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was the point person on the Sudans. However, if neither the Secretary nor Deputy Secretary of State can devote sufficient time and attention to this file, someone else of commensurate stature is needed.

Verjee: U.S. leadership is critical to end the conflict in South Sudan because no other countries are able to take on the complex task of marshalling the East Africa region, and most of those nations enjoy strong relations with the United States. A special envoy, backed by the White House, would help define and coordinate the administration’s overall approach. It would signal to the combatants that the U.S. continues to take the conflict seriously and will hold accountable those responsible for violence.

What can a special envoy do that other U.S. diplomats cannot?

Lyman: A special envoy can bring focus and leadership to the situation. Complex regional and international mediation is typically hosted in third countries, and requires work beyond the capacity of diplomats at any one embassy or geographic bureau.  Over the years, talks for both Sudan and South Sudan have been hosted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Arusha, Tanzania; Doha, Qatar; Nairobi, Kenya; and Sirte, Libya, among other places.  The shuttle diplomacy required is relentless. An assistant secretary of state would find it hard to devote so much attention to a single situation.

The U.S. signals its seriousness and its concern by the level of its diplomatic engagement. In many such conflicts, other countries have large stakes and are therefore represented at the highest levels, often by the head of state. In both the Bush and Obama administrations, diplomats below the rank of assistant secretary were designated to deal with the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  Yet that conflict held major interests of numerous African and European countries and employed the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping force. U.S. impact increased substantially when more senior envoys were appointed.

Knopf: The United States does not have sitting ambassadors in either Sudan or South Sudan. In Sudan, appointment of a U.S. ambassador is subject to the broader question of normalization of relations.

In South Sudan, the magnitude of the crisis demands extraordinary efforts. While a U.S. ambassador has been nominated to fill that vacancy, there are sufficient questions as to the legitimacy of the regime in Juba that the U.S. would be justified in downgrading its diplomatic relationship with it. I am not suggesting the U.S. end its diplomatic presence in South Sudan. However, a diplomatic downgrading, coupled with the return of a high-level U.S. political appointee, could aid efforts to end the war.

Verjee: A prominent political appointee as special envoy would be senior enough not to be concerned about his or her career prospects; respected enough to go to Capitol Hill to speak to members of Congress and hold their attention; and capable of pulling the U.S. government—whether that be Treasury, Justice or Defense—towards a common purpose.

What are the implications if no envoy is appointed?

Lyman: South Sudan is one of the world’s most severe humanitarian situations, on which the U.S. alone spends at least $1 billion a year in humanitarian aid and peacekeeping. Multiple countries, including key security partners of the U.S., Egypt and Ethiopia, are engaged in South Sudan.

This is exactly the kind of situation that demands the full-time engagement of a senior U.S. official, empowered by the President and/or the Secretary of State. Without such attention, as at present, the peace process sputters, and the humanitarian and political crisis deepens. Sudan’s role in South Sudan is of special importance. Thus, the envoy should continue to address both countries.

Knopf: The scale of the crisis in South Sudan is epic. Millions of South Sudanese are abandoning their country, and the civil war is increasingly destabilizing the region.  We need only look at the Rwandan genocide to see how an unimaginable crisis resulted in a mass exodus and a broader war in the DRC that ultimately involved nine African countries. While the situations are not entirely analogous, the adage holds that history may not repeat itself but often rhymes.

Ending the war is possible with robust diplomacy and can be a win for the Trump administration, however. By contrast, treating one of the world’s deadliest wars as only requiring minding by mid-ranking officials risks further weakening the pledge of “never again” to mass atrocities.

Verjee: Discontinuing the envoy’s position sends the wrong signal to the Sudanese and South Sudanese.  With the weight of Washington behind them, U.S. special envoys are uniquely able to convey difficult messages to government officials, opposition leaders and rebel commanders in both countries.

From March to September 2013, there was no U.S. special envoy in this post.  The crisis in South Sudan was already brewing.  When the war started in December 2013, the envoy had barely started work.  It is impossible to say this war could have been prevented, but in retrospect we can see the sad implications of a lack of U.S. focus in those critical early months of 2013.

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