OPINION-EDITORIAL

Narrow window to advance South Sudan peace

By Reps. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) and Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.)

A much-heralded peace deal that doesn’t bring peace is barely worth the paper it is written on. Having just returned from a mission to South Sudan, we are convinced that the warring parties there, who signed an August deal providing for a permanent ceasefire and power sharing, continue to kill, rape and attack civilians with impunity.

South Sudan’s leaders will need to make a series of decisions in the next few weeks that will determine whether the hope embodied in the August peace agreement will be realized, or whether South Sudan remains the latest of the world’s failed states.

Now that the Department of Education has released its draft framework for rating post-secondary education, we are renewing efforts to build support for our resolution, introducing it in the 114th Congress as H. Res 26.

Unfortunately, we found scant progress towards implementing the deal. We met South Sudanese at a United Nations Peacekeeping camp in the capital city of Juba who cannot leave — despite the peace agreement — for fear of violence. Camp residents also have little waiting for them even if they could return home. Their homes and livelihoods have been lost in the senseless inter- and intra-ethnic violence that began in December 2013 as a result of a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar.

We talked to a young mother at a UN Peacekeeping camp in Bentiu who had arrived just a few hours ahead of us. Only days before finding shelter at the camp, her husband was killed, and she told us she was raped by five South Sudanese government soldiers. Only one of her twin infant children survived the treacherous 80-mile trek by foot to the UN enclave.

The opposition forces led by Riek Machar, and the militias he supports, have violated the ceasefire as well. According to independent monitors, Machar’s forces killed seven in the town of Guit in September, and recently held more than 30 UN peacekeepers and contractors hostage while they stole fuel intended for the peacekeeping mission.

Friends need friends to tell the unvarnished truth. The United States has been an ally of South Sudan and its wonderful people since long before the birth of the world’s newest nation four years ago. President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar must immediately live up to their August commitments and stop the killing. UN peacekeepers and other humanitarian workers must have unfettered access to the communities where violence continues to occur in the months since the peace deal was inked, and to the 3.9 million South Sudanese who are running out of food.

Moreover, the international community needs to significantly boost the resources devoted to the independent monitoring commission charged with holding ceasefire violators accountable. Currently, they have only 125 personnel to monitor a country four times larger than Georgia. At a minimum, the UN Security Council, when it renews the UN Mission mandate in December, must set aside enough peacekeeping resources to support the monitors, and Congress can do its part by ensuring sufficient funding for peacekeeping in its forthcoming budget.

Despite our bleak findings, there is room for optimism. Unlike the violence wracking Syria that has rightfully commanded global attention, the key parties in South Sudan have actually reached a detailed and verifiable agreement that could return South Sudan to the road towards peace and prosperity. Now they need the political will — backed up by strong and consistent pressure from the many international and regional powers so instrumental in bringing about the August agreement — and the United States has an important role to play.

South Sudan also hosts a large presence of UN peacekeepers and humanitarian actors who are well positioned to return to their original core mission of helping South Sudan stand on its own. However, their work can only bear fruit if civilians can safely return to their homes without fear of being killed or raped. The UN peacekeeping mission — which in places like Bentiu is sheltering over 100,000 civilians — is currently all that is standing between civilians and unconscionable violence. Overall, there are almost 200,000 civilians in the six UN peacekeeping bases and many of them would not be alive today if not for the UN’s presence.

South Sudan is fortunate to have a small but potentially effective group of civil society organizations who can play a vital role in monitoring the peace deal and working with political actors on effective policy. But they have been marginalized by South Sudan’s politicians. The U.S. and other donors should continue to ensure they get the support they desperately need.

When South Sudan celebrated its official independence on July 11, 2011, Americans across the political divide celebrated this nation’s hard-won independence. The U.S. played an essential role in winning the South’s nationhood, and the country’s new motto echoes American hopes and values: “Justice. Liberty. Prosperity.”

The goodwill felt that day in the U.S., Europe and the region towards South Sudan still exists. The decades of investment made in the country’s independence is not easily thrown away. But goodwill is not limitless, and South Sudan’s leaders are almost out of time. World leaders at the highest levels must increase pressure on South Sudan’s warring parties in the weeks ahead to make the right decisions for their country and its people.

Capuano represents Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1999. He sits on the Ethics; the Financial Services; and the Transportation committees. He is chairman of the South Sudan Caucus. Higgins represents New York’s 26th Congressional District and has served in the House since 2005. He sits on the Foreign Affairs and the Homeland Security committees.