Katherine Almquist Knopf, director of National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, discusses the ongoing violence in South Sudan and policy options for ending the civil war, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series. Ms. Knopf is the author of the recent Council Special Report, Ending South Sudan’s Civil War.
CAMPBELL: Good afternoon from Washington, DC, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series. I am John Campbell, Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies here at the CFR. Thank you very much for joining us.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, www.CFR.org, and on the iTunes podcast channel Religion and Foreign Policy.
We are delighted to have Katherine Almquist Knopf with us today to discuss ending South Sudan’s civil war. Ms. Knopf has served as director of the America (sic; Africa) Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S. Department of Defense, since July 2014. From 2001 to 2009, she held several senior positions at U.S. Agency for International Development, including as an assistant administrator for Africa, Sudan mission director, deputy assistant administrator for Africa, and special assistant and senior policy advisor to the administrator. Ms. Knopf has also served as a senior advisor for the crisis management initiative, and a visiting policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. She is the author of a recent Council special report titled, “Ending South Sudan’s Civil War.”
Welcome, Kate, and thank you very much for being with us today. Could you start us off by giving us an overview of the situation on the ground in South Sudan, and review policy options for ending the civil war?
KNOPF: Well, thank you, John. And, again, thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for the opportunity to continue to talk about the situation in South Sudan and what ways we could better address the ongoing tragedy there.
Let me just add a further word of background for the listeners. My foray—my first engagement with South Sudan began in 1995, when I worked for the international relief and development organization World Vision, and have continued over the years from both the non-governmental side of things, and then to being involved in the north-south peace agreement during the Bush administration, between Khartoum and the Southern Sudan opposition movement, the SPLM. And then, following that, as you mentioned, serving as the first USAID mission director when USAID reopened its mission for Sudan and South Sudan in 2006, following the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement.
So I just preface my comments here as someone who’s been on the ground over many, many years—back in the mid-’90s, when it looked utterly hopeless that there would be a solution for the people of South Sudan that would respect their dignity and their right to self-determination. I participated in, from a U.S. government perspective, both the diplomatic and the humanitarian and reconstruction assistance efforts during the 2000s, as South Sudan saw the end of the tunnel, so to speak, and finally did succeed in having a referendum on self-determination, on independent. And in fact, was able to witness the moment of independence in July of 2011. Sadly, a few short years later—for those who may not have been following so closely—in December 2013, South Sudan descended into its own civil war, and now is the worst refugee crisis on the continent of Africa, the third-worst refugee crisis on the planet after Syria and Afghanistan. It is a case of unprecedented and extreme state failure for this part of the world.
And that is saying quite a bit. The bar has fallen very, very, very low for the people of South Sudan. We are seeing over a quarter of the population has been displaced from their homes, and nearly 2 million are internally displaced, as we say, so still inside the borders of South Sudan. Over 1.6 million South Sudanese have fled the country, many of them into Northern Uganda—hundreds of thousands just since the last major outbreak of fighting in the capital city in July of last summer, 2016. So we have over 3.5 million people now outside of their homes and without means for sustenance. That means that we’re at a situation of famine in several parts of the country. The food, the security situation overall is probably the worst South Sudan has ever seen, even during its north-south days of fighting in what was then Africa’s longest-running civil war, up until its conclusion in 2005. The conditions that we see how are every bit as bad as what we would have observed back in the mid-’90s in the height of that war.
And this is a manmade problem. It’s a manmade famine situation that has created just absolute starvation conditions for at least 100,000 people. Nearly a million more are at risk of starvation in the very near term, if there’s not a radical change in the situation on the ground. And millions more than that are in need of food assistance in order to survive over the coming months, and looking forward into the next year. Now, on top of the very dire humanitarian situation, we have a situation of ongoing conflict and mass violence against civilians, largely. Every part of the country has now been affected by the conflict. There is current offenses going in several parts of the country, some of the worst fighting at the moment in Unity and Upper Nile states. There are maps in the Council’s special report, and also on the AfricaCenter.org website, for those who are less familiar with the terrain. The region of Equatoria, which is where the capital city, Juba, is located—and so it’s just across the border from Uganda, has seen some of the worst fighting in recent months, and is the epicenter of the main areas of displacement, as I mentioned. That continues today as well, and is of grave concern.
The situation is so bad, in fact, and the intent of the government as well as other armed actors—but principally of the government—in terms of clearing populations of—going after different ethnic communities, that we’ve had several very serious, very credible warnings of possible genocide unfolding in South Sudan. You know, the U.N. special advisor on the prevention of genocide has warned of it several times. The U.N. Human Rights Commission on South Sudan has warned of it again, even as recently as yesterday in Geneva to the U.N. Human Rights Council. The U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan to the Security Council, and other human rights and expert bodies, are very concerned with the level of ethnic incitement and the intent behind mass atrocities against the civilian populations. That leaves us gravely concerned and incredibly saddened for what is happening for the people of South Sudan and the associated effects for regional instability that comes with this massive level of a problem and extreme outflow of people in very short order.
So because of this dire, dire situation, what I would characterize as extreme state failure, the government of South Sudan does not control its territory, does not have a monopoly over coercive power in any meaningful way, it does not provide basic security to its citizens, and it does not deliver any public services or administer justice, and it has failed to act as a legitimate sovereign state. And in fact, it continues to take explicit decisions and actions that deepen and worsen the crisis. And we can go into those in more detail in the Q&A, but just for instance obstruction of humanitarian assistance is one of the gravest offenses of this regime at the moment. The ongoing military offenses against civilian populations, of course, contravene all international humanitarian and human rights law. The fact that the government continues to buy arms and to use its heavy weaponry—that means attack helicopters and even small jets—against the civilian population is testimony to where its misplaced priorities are at the moment.
My proposal and my argument in the Council’s special report on South Sudan is that it’s incumbent upon us in the international community, and particularly the United States, which has had the leading role as an outside friend and partner of the people of South Sudan for many decades, to say enough is enough, that this can’t continue any longer, and to help the people of South Sudan find a way out of this unrelenting nightmare, as it is now. So what do I mean by that? I specifically mean that there should be a policy decision and process to move South Sudan towards a temporary international administration, to allow time to calm down the security situation and to bring the humanitarian situation back up to some level of stability and viability for the majority of the people of South Sudan, and to give time and space for reconciliation processes and for political processes to unfold so that the people of South Sudan can decide for themselves what form of government they would like to live under, what the rules of the game will be for who gets to lead and guide that government, and how they would see their state society relationship going forward.
Right now, we have a situation of unfolding potential genocide. We have a situation of famine. We have ongoing active violence and conflict. We have regional spillover effects. And we have no end in sight. There has been a peace process that a regional organization, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development or IGAD, as it’s referred to, has led for the last couple of years. A peace agreement that was signed in August 2015, that provided for a transitional government of national unity through a power sharing arrangement between the current president, Salva Kiir and, at the time, the leading opposition figure, a man named Dr. Riek Machar. Now, that agreement took a lot of time to get it going in terms of implementation. And sadly, collapsed in July of last year when fighting broke out between the two principals, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, and their forces in the capital city, Juba. And the opposition leader, the first vice president, was forced to flee the capital and ultimately to flee the country.
So de facto that agreement has collapsed. There is no meaningful transitional government. The government continues to take actions that are predatory and against the interests of its people and against regional stability. And to date, sadly, none of the actions of the U.N. Security Council or the African Union have been able to reverse that course of events and that trajectory. Maybe I’ll pause there. There’s a lot more we could unpack with what comes with an international transitional administration. Maybe I’ll just quickly note that this is not a foreign concept. It’s been used in other ways and forms to help other countries come out of dire conflict situations. And there’s no reason why the international community shouldn’t be thinking of this as an option and a way to help the country of South Sudan get back on its feet, back on a path towards stability and viability, and to ultimately prosperity for its people.
CAMPBELL: So South Sudan has failed as a state. Its leadership has failed. There is an almost unimaginable humanitarian crisis underway. And the various solutions that have been proposed up to now have all failed. You suggest that, in effect, the international community must, essentially, help South Sudan rebuild itself from the bottom up. And you propose something like an international trusteeship, which in fact could last for, say, 10 to 15 years, to provide the country with the time and the impetus to rebuild itself. Is that a fair summary?
KNOPF: Yes, that’s a fair summary. Obviously, the word “trusteeship” is a loaded word and it has historical connotations. But in the sense that South Sudan would borrow both capacity and legitimacy from an external administrator that would be mandated and authorized—I proposed, by the United Nations and the African Union jointly—that is exactly what I’m proposing here.
CAMPBELL: And that, of course, is very, very different from the post-World War II trusteeships—
CAMPBELL: —which were basically individual countries assuming trusteeship authority.
KNOPF: That’s right.
CAMPBELL: Well, shall we open it up to questions from our audience?
OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And our first question comes from Allen Hertzke with University of Oklahoma.
HERTZKE: Yes. Katherine, this is Allen Hertzke from the University of Oklahoma.
And as you know, the American religious community and its advocacy has played a big part in the creation of South Sudan. And I’m wondering if you think, or what you think the role of an aroused American religious constituency might be in helping to provide the support for this international transition administration. Because I have been struck by the fact that a lot of the groups that really were fired up about South Sudan have been virtually silent in some respects. And I’m pondering what might be done in that way. Thank you.
KNOPF: Mmm hmm. That’s a great question. Thank you very much.
And, yes, during my time at World Vision, I was part of World Vision’s advocacy efforts on the situation in Southern Sudan in the mid-’90s. And there was a very vibrant and robust both bipartisan and multi-faith advocacy effort on behalf of Southern Sudan, I think was instrumental, really, in President Bush’s own prioritization of that conflict situation when he took office in 2001. I agree that we don’t see the same level of activity now. I think it is as important as ever in terms of raising awareness to just how dire the situation has become in South Sudan. I think it would be incredibly important for members of Congress and for this administration to hear voices of American citizens saying we care about what’s going on there. And in fact, I think the United States has a unique and special role to play because of its history in helping bring the country to the point of independence and into its early years of statehood. It would be a real travesty in many respects for the United States to walk back from that role now.
So the voice of the faith-based community in America and abroad, continued to raise the cause of South Sudan, I think is incredibly important to that. And I think the particular aspects that would be helpful from the faith-based community in America is to support what faith-based leaders on the ground in South Sudan are saying, and trying to do, to help bring their country out of—out of conflict and out of the abyss now, so to speak. The churches have traditionally been a source of incredible legitimacy and credibility amongst the people of South Sudan. They’ve been well-respected over time. They’re fighting hard to maintain, I think, their neutral space, and to be the voice of conscious for South Sudanese during this terrible phase that the country is going through. I think church leaders are standing up with great courage to speak out to the whole host of political and armed actors that are continuing to perpetuate the crisis and deepen the crisis. And so for our community in America to be informed and to be backing and supporting the voices of religious leaders in South Sudan would be very meaningful for people in South Sudan, and I think would also add weight and credibility to the advocacy efforts that we could do here in the U.S.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Constance Freeman with Syracuse University.
FREEMAN: Yes. Thank you for taking my question.
If we assume that some kind of international government for South Sudan is desirable thing at this point, what are the practical steps that must be taken to get there? In other words, where would we go from here? Thank you.
KNOPF: Great question as well. And not a very easy one, I will readily admit. But I do think that South Sudan is not as complex as some other challenges that we have around the world right now in terms of the number of interests and competing powers, shall we say, that might be at play behind the scenes. So I think that’s helpful in this case, as we think about how to untangle the current situation and defuse and put the incentives and disincentives, the carrots and sticks, on the table that would be needed to change the behaviors of the current political and armed actors on the ground.
And so by that, I do mean that President Salva Kiir and the leading opposition leader, Riek Machar, would need to agree to step aside. We would need to negotiate with them diplomatically, using a series of carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives, to see that as their best course of action. And by that, I mean negotiating some package of if you move aside and take his honorably way out, then perhaps there won’t be further prosecution for any war crimes, crimes against humanity that the two leaders are responsible for.
Without agreeing to take that action, I absolutely think that, you know, all avenues of seeking international justice against them should be pursued, including the proposal that comes from the peace agreement that was signed in August 2015. And it provides for a hybrid court between the government of South Sudan and the African Union to prosecute, you know, the range of crimes that have unfolded since this conflict broke out in December 2013. That has great potential and power for accountability. And to—I think even some initial steps to move forward on setting up the hybrid court could persuade the leadership to act in different ways than they currently do now.
Now, I don’t think that we can impose an international administration on South Sudan militarily. I do think it needs to be agreed to, which can sound implausible but I contend otherwise, having worked closely with a number of these political leaders and having spent a fair bit of time listening to colleagues both from South Sudan and within the region right now. I think there’s a way to find a path forward that better addresses the interests of the regional power, the neighboring countries, as well as responds better to the desires of the people of South Sudan.
It would require some hard negotiations and some difficult deals with some of the leading actors on the ground. But I point out in the paper, that I think there would be sympathy, in fact, for an option that would have a better chance of protecting the interests of South Sudan in the long run, which I believe the international administration idea would, than the current trajectory, which is South Sudan continues to spiral downward. And eventually, the neighboring countries will need to assert to better protect their national interests, as they deal with the spillover effects of South Sudan. That’s the worst-case scenario that we see, any of the neighbors—Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan—having to come in and take care of their interests. And one provokes another to come in and before long you see South Sudan carved up in a way that would take years and years longer to undo again.
CAMPBELL: Thank you.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Darius Makuja with Le Moyne College.
MAKUJA: Thank you so very much for the wonderful presentation. I am from South Sudan, personally.
I would like your comment. Over the past year the Obama administration, particularly with John Kerry, while the agreement was signed, the attitude of the American government seems to have been completely sidelining the opposition, to the extent to which eventually the government abrogated and we have a civil war, violence continuing, and people are suffering. And nobody’s saying anything despite the United Nations Security Council resolution. The IGAD, the OAU, the regional bodies seem to be helpless in resolving this situation. And the government is simply, (according ?) to me, emboldened by its weaponry to use it against the opposition. Certainly, it seems to be that it is arming one side, the Dinka, against everybody else. What will be the way forward for—the ways forward for the United Nations and the American government to enforce or to do something so that the President Salva Kiir can do something—(inaudible)—about this? Thank you very much.
KNOPF: In fact, I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last September on South Sudan. And at that time, I highlighted what I felt was a damaging approach in terms of focusing on one side of the conflict versus—and not appreciating just how increasingly ethnized the government had become in its approach and its intent, in terms of its policies and actions. And our caller is referring to some policies of the previous U.S. administration.
And once Riek Machar, the opposition leader, was forced to flee the capital city last summer, after the fighting in July, the United States and other international partners undertook to preclude Dr. Machar from returning, not just to South Sudan, but not returning to one of the neighboring countries. So he, in fact, sits in exile in South Africa today because he has a hard time to travel anywhere closer to South Sudan at the moment. I think the hope was that the remaining elements of this government of—transitional government of national unity would somehow be able to calm the situation and move other elements of the peace agreement forward.
Sadly, that’s not been the case. And it’s not the case because it’s a one-sided government. There’s no national unity there. And the gentleman that replaced Riek Machar in that government doesn’t represent that opposition faction in any significant way, nor the Nuer ethnic constituency that Dr. Machar principally represents and does feel marginalized and has serious grievances due to some of the previous actions.
There are grievances on all sides of the equation ethnically and geographically in South Sudan these days, but I think it is paramount for the international actors, whether, you know, partners such as the United States or Norway and the United Kingdom, which are the—you know, the three traditional Western actors that have been most involved in the independence of South Sudan along with the European Union and of course other donor partners of South Sudan along the way, as well as the United Nations and the African Union to accurately understand these dynamics and the way that the conflict has moved from a political fight between two leaders who both wanted to be president when Salva Kiir’s mandate ended, which—it has since ended, and we’re now seeking a way forward for, you know, restoring legitimacy somehow to South Sudan.
Without appreciating the ethnic tensions, the ethnic perspectives, the agendas of some of these armed actors, the conflict drivers only continue to increase and deepen. And so, for instance, one of the actions of Salva Kiir, you know, since signing the peace agreement—in fact, twice now he’s issued executive orders expanding the number of states inside South Sudan, which contravenes both the peace agreement and the constitution of South Sudan. And it’s very clear from anyone who knows the particular geography of South Sudan that these new states are created in a way to advantage the Dinka ethnic group and to disadvantage a number of other ethnic populations in South Sudan. And that now has become one of the principal drivers of the ongoing violence and conflict that continues.
So I think it’s a fair point and question. It’s important for policymakers to have good and current political economy analysis, shall we say, of the dynamism of this conflict situation and of the grievances of different population groups inside South Sudan in order for the political processes to actually mitigate the drivers of conflict and not deepen them inadvertently.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Lois Frank with Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
FRANK: Ms. Knopf, can you talk about the willingness or the issues that the international community is considering? Are they reluctant, and why? And what are those political forces?
KNOPF: So the lead for resolution of this conflict has resided with this Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, which is a regional body of states of the Horn of Africa. So South Sudan is a member of that sub-regional organization. They have—they initially took the lead on mediating between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar in early 2014 that did culminate ultimately in a document, a peace agreement, that the two parties reluctantly signed in August of 2015. And Salva Kiir in fact signed it two weeks after Riek Machar did under significant diplomatic duress, we could say. And he did so with a list of 19, I think, explicit written reservations of things that he was not going to implement in that agreement.
And so not necessarily a good-faith effort in any meaningful way to agree to that. But nonetheless, the international community has been focused and rallied behind this IGAD process that has been supported through various resolutions of the African Union Peace and Security Council as well as through the United Nations Security Council. And I think it has continued to hope and to believe that the parties and the actors in the conflict would start implementing the agreements in some meaningful way. There’s been no record of that, sadly. Every ceasefire attempt has failed to hold at all. And of course this agreement has not meaningfully changed anything.
There’s a body called the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, or JMEC as it’s referred to, that is supposed to oversee the implementation of agreement. And that’s led by a former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae. And he regularly reports to the African Union and to the U.N. Security Council that implementation is not proceeding and the parties are not acting in good faith.
I think for bilateral issues and intra-regional politics within East Africa, it’s been difficult for IGAD, being, I think, too close to the situation in this case to effectively deal with those competing tensions in some ways and drive a process forward that would send a different set of signals and messages to the actors in the conflict, including Salva Kiir as president of South Sudan.
You know, so in this case it’s been complicated by the fact that we’d all like to see Africa institutions lead in the conflict—in the management of this conflict, the resolution of this conflict. I think they’re impeded for various geopolitical/regional dynamics from doing that. And I think we’ve become a little bit inured to the level of suffering that happens in this region and specifically in South Sudan. And it’s taken too long to fully appreciate, you know, just how bad the situation has gotten while these political processes have been given extensions on deadlines and extensions and extensions on deadlines.
So the U.N. Security Council meets again in a few weeks. I think it may even be meeting today, in fact, on an element of South Sudan, and then it receives the next U.N. panel of experts report at the end of the month. That’s an opportunity for it to review its own sanctions regime on South Sudan. They haven’t robustly used that sanctions regime against those who are impeding peace and security on the ground. It could do that. I think it hopes that the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development will call for that action first. And so we’re sort of in a chicken-and-egg scenario between our different sub-regional, regional, and international institutions that, you know, should be, you know, trying to move this political process to—forward to a more productive way.
I think there are conversations going on behind the scenes amongst various envoys and diplomatic actors who still are working around the clock to try and abate and resolve this crisis and to try in the very immediate sense to get the government to agree to meaningful humanitarian access. So that’s the most critical element of assistance for people, you know, suffering the greatest right now can reach them. But they’re not receiving a lot of success at the moment.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from Stephen Hilbert with U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
HILBERT: Yes, thank you, John and Katherine, for taking the time to go over this situation. It’s really—as you say, it’s a really dire situation and requires a lot of attention. I’d like to react a little bit to—Katherine, your comments about the church and then the professor from Oklahoma’s comments as well. I’m sorry, I don’t remember his name.
As far as the church in South Sudan goes, is—the South Sudan Council of Churches, which, as you know, is the overall grouping of all the Christian churches in the country, has started a three-track program. The first track is what they call a national forum. They’re trying to bring together local leaders, tribal leaders, government leaders, military leaders up and down, sort of from the middle level up to the—as high as they can get to try to bring the opposing sides together and build some kind of new dynamics that would hopefully over time counter the dynamics that you, Katherine, talk about, the political and ethnic dynamics that are driving the conflict.
So the national forum is one of the first—is the first track. The second track is—you mentioned IGAD. The South Sudan Council of Churches group wanted to visit with the various countries in the sub-region, the IGAD members, to try and change that local/regional dynamics that are not, one, resolving the conflict; and two, in some ways are actually contributing to the conflict.
They also—you may have heard that a month or two or three ago—I’m not remembering exactly—these three principal leaders, the Anglican leader, the Catholic Church leader, and the Presbyterian leader all went to the holy see for a visit as well—as part of this advocacy activity, which is a second leg of their program.
Third one is reconciliation at sort of—at the community level. That hasn’t started yet, I think in large part because of the wider-spread presence of conflict that exist, but that’s something that they’re working on.
Here in the States, we’ve tried—between the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopalian Church, and myself here at the Catholic Church—are trying to work together in a way that reflects the unity of the three most prominent faith communities in South Sudan. We’ve had several meetings—a couple meetings rather—with USAID. Last year we had some meetings with State Department during the Obama administration. And one of the things that we’re trying to put together is a visit of Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopalian church leaders to South Sudan as an effort in solidarity as well as support to the South Sudan Council of Churches. That’s become difficult because of the uncertainty and instability that exists in the country. But I think USAID along with the South Sudan Council of Churches and we here are trying to work on that nonetheless. We’ll see whether it happens.
But you’re right, the church—our last visit there was in 2016, and the church communities are extremely frustrated and increasingly feel like their hands are tied because they just aren’t getting any traction with the government. They’re not—the government will not meet with them anymore, and it’s become increasingly difficult.
So again, thanks for holding this conference. It comes at a—at a timely moment.
KNOPF: Yeah, thanks for those comments and detailing more specifically. The South Sudan Council of Churches is an absolutely critical institution and source of leadership for the country to come out of this crisis and to repair the social fabric really that has been pretty grievously torn at this point.
I mean, there’s been just, you know, challenge after challenge for the people of South Sudan over the course of 21, 22 years of north-south civil war. And now we’re into the fourth year of south-south civil war, intra-South Sudan civil war. So, you know, the churches have ever more work to do.
I think, you know, as a further comment, sadly the government has tried to manipulate and leverage that credibility and that, you know, legitimacy of church leaders in a way that has been deeply uncomfortable for them and that they, in my view, have been right to resist. And I do hope that their three tracks will continue to go forward or get off the ground.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but there is a process that the government has initiated that they call national dialogue. They tried to implicate church leaders in the steering committee of this so-called national dialogue that is just now in principle, you know, getting under way in South Sudan. I think the church leaders have been leery to be involved in that and rightly so since the patron of that process is Salva Kiir. And so it is inherently innately biased from the outset and not a confidence-building measure in terms of all of the various constituencies and parties that see themselves on the outside of the government and of what the government is trying to accomplish of the national project itself right now.
So—you know, so I think it’s vitally important to support the independent efforts that the South Sudanese Council of Churches is trying to do and to appreciate that their best effort for the people of South Sudan is separate from the initiative of the current regime in Juba.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Mohamed Elsanousi with Center (sic; Network) for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.
ELSANOUSI: Yes, thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah, it’s the Network—my organization is the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers.
And just a follow-up question to my good friend, to Steve from the Catholic Bishops Conference. He spoke about the role of religious actors in reconciliation and all of that. And I think we see that as a critical one to—and we have discussed this with the World Council of Churches and others—to basically see what kind of support faith-based actors could provide to help the problem in South Sudan.
So my question is that do you see any—you know, any efforts that—such an effort and interreligious component to it to visit and talk to the religious actors, government, you know, to discuss how we can help them to reconcile and all of that? I understand that His Holiness—both that pope and the—as well as the archbishop of Canterbury—they had a meeting in Rome, basically same kind of effort. So I think that is one question I have.
And then the second—I also understand that Riek Machar is basically—it seems they are willing for a dialogue. One of my colleagues, you know, in the network in New York—he received a letter from Riek Machar, actually delivered by his wife in New York, basically to the United Nations secretary-general, basically talking about they need to find this place of dialogue first and then they can talk about other issues. So I want to hear your comment on that as well.
KNOPF: So—great. Thanks for both of those. I think absolutely interfaith efforts are very important, very valuable as messages of support to the people of South Sudan, to the religious leaders in South Sudan; as well as hoping to draw attention for, you know, the general public and for key policy constituencies in the outside, whether in Washington and New York and European capitals, in other capitals in the region, in fact where influence can be brought to bear on the different leading actors, whether Salva Kiir, Riek Machar, or some of the other political actors who are, you know, now coming to the fore.
The reality is that—you know, of course this is not a bipolar, two-sided conflict any longer. It may have started that way, but we’ve now seen multiple groups with different, you know, grievances, different objectives either take up arms or take up a political cause in defense of, they believe, their people, their constituencies.
And so it gets more complicated internally as time goes on in that sense. And the more that we can build on different threads of drawing communities back together, you know, whether across ethnic groups, across religious groups, across geographic divides; across different livelihood communities, pastoralists and farmers or fishers, et cetera, people who draw their livelihoods from different primary means, there—we have a lot of levels of conflict in South Sudan, so I think all of the efforts that can support repairing those ties socially are very, very valid.
Now, I think what the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury are doing in putting attention on the situation is vitally important and so compelling. I hope that they might—I think they’ve discussed the possibility of having a joint trip, which would be a historic event in any scenario but would be particularly compelling. In the case of South Sudan, if something like that could happen, obviously that, you know, would be a further message to the actors who are continuing to perpetuate this crisis that this is, you know, beyond the pale, that it really must stop, that the international community, different religious communities do not see any validity or legitimacy to continuing the violent conflict that is taking place in South Sudan now.
The more people and leaders that we can get to signal that—from religious, from political, from different communities—I think the more hope there is for the people of South Sudan to come out of it.
With respect to Riek Machar, I’ve heard from Angelina, his wife, who is a political actor in her own right and is currently in the United States, trying to raise awareness and advocate for, you know, their vision for a way forward. And I think certainly they need to be listened to, they need to be included in any political process going forward, that they represent still an important constituency inside South Sudan. And that matters in terms of finding an inclusive settlement on the way forward.
Now, I personally think—and other observers of South Sudan think—that Riek Machar is a polarizing figure for other communities just as Salva Kiir, the president, is a very polarizing figure now. In the best interest of his people, it would behoove Dr. Riek to step aside and let somebody else represent his movement or contest for the presidency whenever South Sudan gets itself back to the place of being able to entertain general elections.
I make that case in my paper. Of course—and I—they don’t like that position and take issue with it, but I think that’s part of the ongoing diplomatic dialogue and negotiation that would need to happen to move to a different dispensation and political pathway forward.
ELSANOUSI: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And at this time, speakers, we have no further questions in the queue.
CAMPBELL: Well, I have a question if I may. It’s John Campbell from the Council on Foreign Relations.
The newspapers were full this morning of the president’s budget proposals. They include cutting the State Department’s budget by 28 percent, largely eliminating foreign assistance and greatly reducing U.S. funding for various United Nations activities, including peacekeeping.
Now, it’s early days yet, and the budget will have to go through a process. Nevertheless, it’s an indication of administration thinking. We have been talking over the past hour about American leadership in South Sudan and the need for American leadership to continue. And yet, if something like the president’s budget is passed, the United States would seem to be in the future largely absent from South Sudan.
If that were to occur, who could take the place of the United States? What other country or group of countries might assume the role that we have played up to now?
KNOPF: Yeah, a really profound question at the moment. As I mentioned, the United States has played a pivotal role in the process that led to the conference of peace agreement between North and South Sudan in 2005 and then seeing that through to conclusion in the form of a referendum and ultimately the independence of South Sudan in 2011. The United States, by my own calculation, has invested more than $11 billion just between the years of 2005 and 2015 in making that happen across, you know, humanitarian, reconstruction, security assistance, peacekeeping support in all of its various forms for the people of South Sudan with tremendous effect.
It is a significant investment. It’s the biggest investment of the United States in Africa, sub-Saharan Africa. Let’s put Egypt aside in a different category. But yeah, this is an incredibly important part of the United States’ relationship with the continent, and it has a big impact, of course, on the region as well.
Now—so without U.S. leadership going forward in the same vein that the U.S. has provided to—in the past, both diplomatically and from an assistance perspective, the job gets harder, in fact, to see how we find the pathway that can navigate the different geopolitical interests within the region, the different equities of the different institutions at the regional and the international level.
But I do think that colleagues in the European Union, colleagues in the African Union, leadership from the new U.N. secretary-general, leadership from the new chairperson of the African Union—who’s just about to take seat now—could unite to drive a pathway forward that other partners—international partners of South Sudan, you know, could be instrumental in guiding and shepherding.
I think it’s very difficult, frankly speaking, to see how South Sudan can recover from the depth that it has dropped to. Its economy is utterly in shatters. We didn’t even have time to touch on that, but there is no economy to speak of. That’s one contributing factor to the famine conditions across the country and now part of the conflict situation itself.
So the macroeconomic needs, the humanitarian needs, the reconstruction needs for what was a nascent country to begin with are immense. And I don’t think there will be an easy replacement for the volume of assistance and, I think, the quality of assistance that has come from the United States through U.S. Agency for International Development, through the State Department; through other key actors and all of the U.S. NGOs, nongovernmental associations—organizations, that have participated in providing that assistance, whether through the public funding of our foreign aid budget or bringing private resources to bear, which—I know again firsthand that there has been an incredible commitment and interest from American citizens in South Sudan over time.
So the more that private fundraising can increase, the more that we can continue to draw attention to situations like this on the continent. Of course, the ramifications of the proposed budget cuts and changes in how the United States engages with the world will have to be greatly discussed and debated here in Washington. But I think there’s immense power that the United States has for good. You know, when we combine our diplomatic and our development, humanitarian resources, in a skillful way that can help to prevent, you know, conflicts from unfolding can help to end conflicts that have been long intractable on the ground.
And our presence—withdrawing from that does not make this situation go away. You know, in all likelihood, it probably gets much, much worse. And the implications for the people of South Sudan are clear in terms of loss of life, in terms of humanitarian distress. But the implications for regional partners that the United States relates to on other realms—counterterrorism and security dimensions in Africa—Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda are all key players in that regard. And these spillover effects will definitely affect the dynamics in—domestically inside those countries and their ability to care for these other transnational threat concerns that we share with Africa.
So it’s a very challenging prospect with what’s been proposed.
CAMPBELL: It is indeed. Kate, thank you for sharing your insights with us today. And thanks to all of you for your excellent questions and comments. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @AlmquistKate. And also we encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources.
Thank you all again. And thanks again to you, Kate. And we look forward to your participation in future discussions. Good afternoon.
KNOPF: Thank you, John, and thank you to everyone on the line.