While the Trump administration applauds this week's progress in South Sudan's peace talks, it expects that ending nearly five years of civil war and rebuilding confidence in the eastern African nation's governance will be "a long process," the top U.S. diplomat there says.
"We're excited about the progress made so far," said Thomas Hushek, U.S. ambassador to South Sudan. "And we're really hoping that the parties stick to their efforts to come to the table, compromise where necessary, uphold their commitments first and foremost to the cease-fire, and then start working on ways to resolve remaining issues of conflict" so they can sign a final peace agreement.
The peace talks are "at a very critical stage," he acknowledged in an exclusive interview Thursday at the U.S. embassy here with VOA's "South Sudan in Focus" radio program.
On Sunday, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar signed a power-sharing pact that will restore Machar as the first of several vice presidents in a transitional government of national unity. Machar, who leads the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), has been in exile in South Africa.
Hushek said the U.S. government would take what he calls “tough measures” against people who either obstruct the peace process or divert public funds for war rather than peace.
In September, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on three people closely affiliated with Kiir for "their roles in threatening the peace, security or stability of South Sudan," it said in a statement. Three companies also were sanctioned.
Asked what it might take to lift sanctions, Hushek said that if the transitional government rebuilds public confidence and proves itself trustworthy, "I think you would start to see some changes."
South Sudan gained independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But ethnic violence erupted in 2013 over a power struggle between Kiir and Machar. The fighting has left tens of thousands of South Sudanese dead and dislodged millions from their homes.
The United States, South Sudan's biggest single benefactor, has allocated $481 million in humanitarian funding for fiscal 2018 for refugees there and in neighboring countries, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. It has spent more than $3.4 billion since 2013.
For Hushek, "one of the first barometers" of peace prospects is "whether people are upholding the ceasefire," he said. "And, in fact, there's been a reduction in violence on the ground.
"There are still other things that I'm a bit concerned about," the diplomat acknowledged. "I think recruitment is continuing into various militias, and that's something that doesn't necessarily bode well."
As Hushek said early in the interview, "The ultimate yardstick of whether or not there is success in the peace process is whether they can set up a system that resolves conflicts through peaceful means, without resorting to arms."
Hushek, a career Foreign Service officer, was appointed ambassador in May after serving as acting assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.
The following transcript of the ambassador's interview with VOA has been lightly edited for clarity and context.
VOA: What is the U.S. government's position on the latest South Sudan power-sharing agreement reached in Khartoum?
Hushek: Well, the peace talks are ongoing and they're at a very critical stage. So we're excited about the progress made so far, and we're really hoping that the parties stick to their efforts to come to the table, be willing to compromise where necessary, uphold their commitments first and foremost to the cease-fire, and then start working on ways to resolve remaining issues of conflict.
… The ultimate yardstick of whether or not there is success in the peace process is whether they can set up a system that resolves conflicts through peaceful means, without resorting to arms.
VOA: If the warring parties sign a final peace agreement and the government of national unity is formed, what measures are the U.S. and other countries in the international community putting in place to prevent, you know, the July 2016 scenario? [That month, clashes between armed government and opposition forces in the capital, Juba, killed at least 300 people.]
It is a revitalization of the old peace agreement. … [These are] some of the reasons everybody remains concerned and kind of wonder, how will we make it work this time?
One of the first barometers that we look at is whether people are upholding the cease-fire. And in fact, there's been a reduction in violence on the ground. There are still other things that I'm a bit concerned about. I think recruitment is continuing into various militias, and that's something that doesn't necessarily bode well.
But I really think that with this progress already made in Khartoum, you really are hearing a change in the way people are describing what are the next steps. A lot of people are talking about confidence-building. So we know the government and the [SPLM-IO opposition party] both have to build the confidence of their constituencies that they're moving in the right direction. The people of South Sudan have to have confidence in this process.
Similarly … are there things that the government or the future unity government and the international community can do to build confidence in each other?
Again, [the] first thing is the peace process. Can we see very visible steps that the government is helping us remove impediments to humanitarian assistance? Are there active consultations by the government or by the opposition with civil society? Those are the kinds of things that will build confidence in the international community and the process.
VOA: The U.S. government sometimes slapped sanctions on South Sudanese individuals accused of obstructing the peace process and the companies thought to be fueling the conflict here. If a final peace agreement is signed, and a government of national unity is formed, how long is it going to take to lift these sanctions? And under what conditions?
Well, again, the signing of an agreement isn't the final step in the process, of course. … Even the transition period set up by the first chapters of this agreement talk about a three-year period or three years plus a pre-transition period. So it could drag on. And I would emphasize that peace – building peace – will take even longer than that. It will have to continue even after elections (originally set for July 2018, they have yet to be rescheduled). …
[The peace process] won't be triggered immediately with a piece of paper, but that's of course an important first step, a necessary first step. So if we continue to see people seriously obstructing the peace process or diverting the people's money from the people's needs and into war, rather than peace and development, then we will continue to take tough measures.
If this confidence I was telling you about is resurrected, I think you would start to see some changes.
VOA: Since fighting flared up in Juba in July 2016, the U.S. government has focused more on providing humanitarian assistance rather than development assistance. What’s going to happen once final signatures are on the agreement?
Since the conflict started at the end of 2013, you’ve seen this very deliberate and necessary shift from what was a huge development effort to what is now humanitarian needs.
These are humanitarian needs that are not caused by a flood or a drought or an earthquake. These are caused by people – namely the leaders of the government and the opposition who have gotten into a civil war. And the war has included direct attacks on civilians, massive displacement, and has put [an] incredible number of people in severe humanitarian needs. So by necessity, we’ve had to shift an incredible amount of resources to humanitarian assistance.
If that ceasefire holds, if people start feeling they have the confidence that security will stay in their region, then they can start concentrating on development. Then I think if that holds, you will see a gradual shift back. You know, when the humanitarian needs go down, there will be the ability to focus a lot more on development.
VOA: You mentioned the cease-fire. I was wondering [what] the U.S. government is doing to respect to the agreement on silencing the guns.
Well, of course, the primary responsibility remains with the parties themselves. … Also, we were convinced that the outside countries – the neighbors, the broader international community – could have done more to enforce the cease-fire agreement.
The outside world has to measure the changes on the ground. Are the parties actually implementing the things they agreed to in the cease-fire or not? So, monitoring is important and [so is] enforcement.
If there are people [who] are breaking the peace agreement, what do we do about it? Some of that enforcement – again, the responsibility does and should rest on the shoulders of the actual leaders, the government or the opposition.
If a commander initiates an attack or an atrocity against civilians … the leaders should take steps to pull that commander aside, take action to affect discipline.
But the international community as well – and this is an IGAD [Inter-Governmental Authority on Development] agreement – needs to take steps to impose consequences on people that are violating the cease-fire agreement.
VOA's Carol Van Dam Falk and Carol Guensburg contributed to this report.