To stop the death spiral, the United States and South Sudan's neighbors must urgently fashion a new approach to peacemaking that creates a more effective peace process, one with serious, biting consequences for those South Sudanese government and rebel leaders who continue to fan the flames of war and who are completely insulated from the suffering of their people.
With this in mind, President Barack Obama's visit to Kenya and Ethiopia next month provides a golden opportunity to help rescue one of the central legacies of his administration in Africa: American support for the creation of the world's newest state.
South Sudan was born in 2011 via a referendum that occurred peacefully in part because of deft diplomacy by the Obama administration, at times led by the President himself. The referendum was the result of a peace deal that ended a war between the north and the south of the country, one that cost over 2 million lives.
After securing their country's independence, however, South Sudan's political leadership embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury, leaving little for education, health or other services. Soon, this violent kleptocracy degenerated along factional lines, and by December 2013, a power struggle among a handful of the country's elite mutated into civil war. A year and a half later, those men are still holding the country hostage to their ambition and greed.
Since the war began, our Satellite Sentinel Project has reported on the wanton destruction of South Sudan in back-and-forth, scorched-earth campaigns. Abuses being committed by South Sudan's fighting forces are not unlike those we documented right across the border in neighboring Sudan. Chilling atrocities by both sides in the past month have also been exposed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
In response, both the United States and the U.N. Security Council have authorized targeted sanctions against specific South Sudanese government or rebel leaders obstructing peace.
Sanctions in this and other African conflicts, however, have been more of a box-checking exercise rather than the instrument of serious financial pressure they should be. Illustratively, the United States has so far imposed asset freezes and travel bans on a few South Sudanese field commanders who have little known contact with the global financial system, and the U.N. Security Council has actually sanctioned no one despite the authorization to do so.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently promised additional "sanctions against the individuals... who have hidden money away, hidden property away, who have literally stolen from the nation, even as they are letting the nation kill itself."
If those important words are followed up by a comprehensive assault on the financial underpinnings of South Sudan's extreme violence by the United Nations, United States, European Union and South Sudan's neighbors, real leverage could be gained in support of peace and human rights. But establishing a sanctions authority cannot and should not be an end in itself. Instead, it should be seen as a beginning, requiring serious investigations into where the financial pressure points are, laser targeting against human rights perpetrators and their financial facilitators, and robust enforcement.
Africa is full of cases in which post-colonial transitions have been undermined by grand corruption, civil war, dictatorship, gross human rights abuses and interventions by former colonialists. This hijacking of the state by corrupt leaders willing to use mass violence and harsh repression to maintain or gain power is the deepest root cause of Africa's continuing woes. In contrast, the many African states that have overcome this cycle are thriving.
This is why targeting the corrupt networks and their international enablers -- including unscrupulous bankers, corporations and traffickers looking for easy but illicit money -- should be the centerpiece of the international community's response to countries in crisis such as South Sudan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Zimbabwe and others. As study
has shown, much more money is flowing out of Africa illicitly than is coming in through aid and investment.
In response to this intersection of grand corruption and protracted conflict, we are launching a new initiative in July supporting efforts to dismantle the financial networks fueling and profiting from Africa's deadliest wars. Our investigators will follow the money wherever it leads into the international system, and we'll seek action against those facilitating and enabling the atrocities in Africa's killing fields.
Late next month, President Obama will be right next door to South Sudan, meeting with the very regional leaders in Kenya and Ethiopia that together with the United States have enormous financial leverage to end the suffering.
Since greed is driving the calculations of South Sudan's government and rebel leaders, the surest route to peace is by hitting them in their wallets.