What the United States Got Wrong in South Sudan

Learning From Past Failures to Prevent Future Atrocities

South Sudan's President Salva Kiir holds hands with South Sudanese rebel leader Riek Machar as Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta witness before the signing of a ceasefire and power sharing agreement in Khartoum, Sudan on August 5, 2018.  Kenya Presidential Press Service / REUTERS

When a peace agreement is signed, the international community typically responds with congratulations, gratitude, and optimism that the deal will stop the fighting. Sometimes, well-wishes are accompanied by commitments of financial support to help the countries involved recover and rebuild.

But when the main belligerents in South Sudan’s five-year-long civil war signed a new peace agreement on August 5 in Khartoum, the international response was circumspect at best. The agreement is fundamentally a power-sharing deal between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. It resembles a 2015 peace deal between the two sides that failed spectacularly and triggered renewed fighting. The “Troika” of western countries long involved in issues related to South Sudan—Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States—criticized the agreement and its signatories. In a statement published on August 10, the group emphasized its concern. “The arrangements agreed to date are not realistic or sustainable,” it warned. “Given their past leadership failures, South Sudanese leaders will need to behave differently and demonstrate commitment to peace and good governance.” The White House issued a statement shortly before the deal was signed, saying that the United States was “deeply concerned about the direction of the current peace process,” citing the failure to include a broad range of South Sudanese groups in the negotiations.

This reaction reflects a new attitude on the part of the United States, which for years failed to sufficiently pressure Kiir’s government even as his forces massacred civilians, carried out widespread sexual abuse, and tortured prisoners as part of a civil war that has displaced more than four million people since it began in 2013. The Trump administration’s skepticism toward the new agreement suggests that the United States might be rethinking the assumptions that have shaped its response to the conflict so far. Washington should seize the opportunity to learn from its past policy mistakes.

Lessons Learned?

South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011, and Kiir, as president of then semiautonomous Southern Sudan, became the new

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