Secretary of State John Kerry is in South Sudan today to urge leaders there to end hostilities between rebels and the government that have left thousands of people dead and forced more than a million to flee their homes.
The visit, unannounced for security reasons until Kerry’s arrival this morning, gives the top U.S. diplomat a chance to press the government and rebels to honor a cease-fire signed in January, stop attacks on civilians and fully cooperate with the United Nations and humanitarian organizations helping affected people, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
South Sudan has been wracked by violence since mid-December when President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka community, accused the ethnic Nuer vice president he fired in July, Riek Machar, and other leaders of staging a failed coup. They deny the accusation.
Kerry yesterday said that if violence in oil-rich South Sudan continues unabated it would raise concerns about the possibility of genocide. “It is our hope that can be avoided,” he said.
The U.S. has prepared sanctions against South Sudanese leaders and is urging regional powers to consider their own punitive measures. Kerry said yesterday after meeting with foreign ministers from Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya that he hoped a personal appeal would also have some effect.
“We still hope that visits with serious discussion, with clear implications to the leadership about what is at stake and what the repercussions may be if they do not begin to move in a different direction, that that kind of effort might be able to make a difference,” Kerry told reporters yesterday in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
South Sudan was forced to cut oil production to 160,000 barrels a day from a capacity of as much as 400,000 barrels per day as rebels seized control of areas in crude-producing states. The government evacuated some foreign oil workers for their safety, leaving Upper Nile the only state still producing crude, whose sales account for almost all government revenue.
Kerry said Kiir’s recent release of the last group of detained opposition figures he had accused of planning a coup could create an opening for mediation and dialogue.
Kerry will meet with Kiir immediately after landing in the capital, Juba, and planned a telephone call with Machar, according to Psaki. Kerry will also meet civil society leaders, representatives of internally displaced people and UN officials, Psaki said.
Dealing with Kiir and Machar has been “very frustrating,” Kerry said yesterday.
“I had many conversations with both Riek Machar and President Kiir during the period of December and January when this was spinning up into the conflict it is today, and I was frankly disappointed by both individuals’ responses at that period in time,” Kerry said.
He added that power struggles run deeper than the two leaders. Some of the violence “comes from certain independent generals who have their own agenda, and so it’s not just reach Kiir and Machar, it’s also reaching those other players,” Kerry said. “But the place to start is the place where it started and that is with the former vice president, with the current president of South Sudan.”
Kerry arrived in Ethiopia yesterday to start a five-day trip to Africa that will also take him to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
He focused on South Sudan during meetings yesterday with officials from the African Union and East African ministers, in which Kerry urged for a regional peacekeeping force to be on the ground “as soon as possible.”
Kerry also pressed the case for regional sanctions to bolster punitive measures the U.S. may take to punish those who have committed human rights violations or blocked humanitarian workers’ access.
The U.S. sanctions would freeze any U.S. assets and ban travel there. Officials in Washington are still deciding what names would appear on the list, according to a U.S. official traveling with Kerry who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. The official didn’t rule out the possibility that Kiir and Machar could appear.
The official also acknowledged that U.S. sanctions on their own wouldn’t be as effective without regional measures as well. Kerry said the U.S. was prepared to go alone with sanctions if need be.
There must be accountability for those “responsible for targeted killings based on ethnicity or nationality,” Kerry said yesterday.