At the end of May, after only four days, South Sudan’s long-delayed peace talks once again adjourned without reaching a viable agreement. The failure to reach a deal comes only weeks after the White House declared that the Government of South Sudan had “lost credibility,” expressed deep frustration at the “lack of progress toward an agreement,” and warned that “more than seven million people will face life-threatening hunger in the coming months,” as a result of the crisis. Aly Verjee, a visiting expert at USIP, examines the current developments in South Sudan’s peace process and suggests what the United States should do next.

Fans wave the South Sudan flag
(Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Why did the peace talks fail to reach a deal?

Though the warring parties remain far apart on many issues, including how the country should be governed, how positions of power should be allocated, and what security arrangements should be in place, focusing on these matters as the reasons a deal has not been reached risks missing the point: The government in Juba is in a militarily dominant position and it does not feel the need to make major concessions. For its part, the armed opposition is not so weak as to feel it must agree to any terms offered, particularly if those terms further entrench the current regime. Those committed to the overthrow of a government they see as untrustworthy, if not politically irredeemable, will not easily agree to endorsing the effective continuation of the status quo.

It is disappointing to see that this round of mediation was not informed by past experiences, which makes reaching a lasting deal that much harder. Avoidable mistakes continue to be made. For example, the decision to table a “new” compromise proposal—one that largely resembles proposals made in late 2014 and early 2015 by previous mediators—overlooked the reasons why those earlier proposals did not succeed, including the consideration that a classic power-sharing model may be fundamentally ill-suited to this conflict, and that an imprecise text on security affairs, which leaves critical details to be resolved later, only sets the stage for further conflict.

What has happened since talks adjourned?

On May 31, foreign ministers from the regional countries overseeing the talks met and endorsed the mediation’s “revised” proposal, authorized further peace talks, and once again threatened consequences for those continuing military hostilities. However, endorsing the mediation’s proposal might prevent further compromise or re-negotiation of problematic or incomplete terms by those that need to live with the peace: the South Sudanese themselves.

While true accountability for those who continue to fight with impunity would help, the final decision on acting against perpetrators is up to regional heads of state, who have so far shown little appetite for robust measures. As I argued in January, publicly naming the individuals responsible for truce violations, and imposing effective disciplinary measures on offenders, particularly those with command responsibility, is vital to deter further violations.

Meanwhile, on the same day in New York, the UN Security Council (UNSC) narrowly passed a resolution that largely kicks the prospect of substantive international action down the road. The United States, joined by the United Kingdom and France, wanted to impose a comprehensive arms embargo. This followed a public plea by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley to introduce an embargo as a “humanitarian measure.” Important U.S. allies, including Ethiopia, which leads the mediation, argued that it was not the right time for such measures and that even the “[proposed] resolution would be detrimental to the peace process [and] that for the Council to take action without calibrating its position [with the region] would be harmful and seriously undermine the peace process.” In the end, the resolution the U.S. was able to pass only requires the UN secretary-general and ceasefire monitors to report at the end of June whether there has been further fighting, and in the event they report further violence, the Council will consider taking further measures, including sanctions and/or an arms embargo.

Because there was not an initial understanding between the United States and Ethiopia on the minimum conditions for a credible mediation process, the region’s mediation effort is essentially open-ended, no matter how ill-prepared or poorly executed the mediation might be. Any action by the UNSC to pre-empt the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) process will be resisted by the region, and by countries like Russia and China that defer to the principle of regional subsidiarity.

What happens next?

The mediating countries have proposed that South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir and former vice president and principal opposition leader Riek Machar meet before the upcoming African Union Summit in July. While this would not be the first mediation-facilitated meeting of Kiir and Machar, it would be the first since the last peace agreement collapsed in July 2016. Recent news reports indicate Sudan might host the meeting. However, the conflict has evolved significantly in the last two years, with a proliferation of other armed groups not under Machar’s control. Even if the two men do meet and were able to come to some sort of agreement, it would be insufficient for the conflict to end now.

Meanwhile, flagrant truce violations have already been reported since the UNSC resolution passed. UN peacekeepers were attacked in Unity state on June 4, part of a further escalation of the violence in the state over the last month, documented by humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders.

Disappointingly, the ceasefire monitors have not publicly disseminated a violation report in almost five months, although the media have obtained some recent reports and published some details of the latest atrocities. The pressure is on the ceasefire monitors to deliver a credible and comprehensive report to the UNSC in June.

What should the United States do now?

Individually sanctioning warlords and political intransigents might feel morally right, but unless sanctions are in service of a broader strategy, they will not achieve the change South Sudanese desperately need, or that the United States seeks. While an arms embargo is still useful as a means to prevent the conflict from becoming more militarily sophisticated, there are millions of small arms and light weapons in South Sudan, which is all that is needed for most fighting, and the time when an arms embargo could have had the most impact has long since passed.

There are at least four other things the United States can do now.

First, the United States extensively funds the ceasefire monitors. The U.S. should insist that the monitors return to their prior convention of publicly releasing findings, and that violation reports be more assertive in suggesting actions that are practical and specific to the geographic areas where violations have occurred. While there are legitimate concerns about the safety of monitors, if the UN can successfully conduct public human rights monitoring in South Sudan, there is no reason these military observers cannot also transparently conduct their work. If findings are never released, there will never be the social and moral pressure on military commanders to modify their actions.

Second, it is vital that the U.S. get on the same page with regional ally, Ethiopia, both in New York and in Addis Ababa. Without Ethiopian support, the U.S. will be unable to implement any revised political strategy to resolve the crisis in South Sudan. The new Ethiopian administration has demonstrated it is willing to reconsider long-standing foreign policy positions; now is the time to begin that conversation on South Sudan.

Third, in the wider region, the U.S. can more meaningfully exert its influence over important American allies, Uganda and Egypt, both of which strongly back the government of South Sudan. The government of South Sudan may be more willing to compromise if it knows its intransigence and bad behavior will not be protected by its regional friends.

Finally, the U.S. should ensure its comprehensive assistance review confronts the difficult questions: what to do if the current negotiations fail to deliver a sustainable outcome, and what meaningful action the U.S. will take if the government in Juba unilaterally extends its term in office. While the frustration of the U.S. government is clear, strong words will not be enough to end the desperate crisis faced by millions of South Sudanese.

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