U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, arrived in South Sudan last week amidst a political, security, and humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions: A country engulfed in civil war that is hemorrhaging more refugees than any African state since the Rwandan genocide and where two-thirds of the population is starving.
To her great credit, Haley delivered an unequivocal message to the brutal regime led by President Salva Kiir: The U.S. has lost its trust in South Sudan’s government. The United States must now act to provide the African Union and the United Nations with the necessary leverage to broker an end to the conflict.
History suggests that successful negotiated settlements to other civil wars have depended on the parties recognizing that they cannot prevail militarily. However, the absence of a UN arms embargo on South Sudan; the fragmentation of the opposition; and the failure of the guarantors and witnesses of a 2015 peace agreement, including the United States, to impose any meaningful consequences for violations of that agreement have ceded military dominance to Kiir’s regime.
This dominance has entrenched a belief in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, that the opposition can be neutralized by force, leaving little incentive for compromise. Fortunately, the United States and other Western governments have several non-violent leverage points to create a new context for a more successful mediation effort.
First, by renouncing its support for a failed 2015 agreement that the South Sudanese regime has co-opted, the United States can set the stage for a new diplomatic push. In doing so, it would be standing in solidarity with nearly two dozen South Sudanese civil society leaders who recently called for a “less politicized, more technocratic leadership.” The United States could then work with its international partners, including South Sudan’s neighbors, to orchestrate a negotiated exit for the morally bankrupt elite that is squandering—not defending—South Sudan’s sovereignty.
Second, while efforts by the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan have stalled, the regime’s main weapons suppliers are not shadowy arms dealers but key security partners of the United States: Uganda, Egypt, and Ukraine. The United States and its allies must deploy their unique leverage on these governments to end their complicity with the regime’s atrocities. Uganda in particular is both the main transit point for arms and ammunition for Kiir’s forces and the largest recipient of U.S. security assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. The United States can make clear that it will no longer tolerate the contradiction whereby Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni empowers Kiir’s regime on the one hand and is then applauded for hosting the more than one million refugees fleeing that same regime—all while the United States spends nearly $1 billion a year for the humanitarian response.
Third, building on Haley’s statements this week, African and Western governments must shift the international consensus on the legitimacy of Kiir’s government, which is questionable at best. A public signal now from the United States that it is de-recognizing the regime and downgrading its diplomatic status could alter calculations in Juba and generate an urgency for compromise, not least because de-recognition would call into question Kiir’s privileges and immunities as a sitting head of state. De-recognizing the government does not imply de-recognition of the independent state for which South Sudanese fought and died bravely for decades or of their right to self-determination; the sovereignty of the state is vested in its citizens, however, not in a regime that multiple international bodies have found responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
President Trump’s decision to dispatch Haley to east Africa is a welcome, if nascent, indication of the administration’s intention to address the magnitude of South Sudan’s implosion. By following it now with a sustained diplomatic initiative, her visit can be the beginning of the end of South Sudan’s nightmare.
Payton Knopf (Writer of This Article) is the former head of the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan and a former U.S. diplomat, now with the U.S. Institute of Peace.