It is a symbol of how broken the international response system is to genocide and mass atrocities that after nearly three years of fratricidal war, and more recently of flashing neon warnings by normally circumspect United Nations officials of impending genocide in South Sudan, that there is no legitimate diplomatic mechanism to address the demands of the various warring parties and their proxy militias in the world’s newest country. The peace agreement signed in 2015 appears dead in the water, and the peace process seems just as lifeless.
What is needed is something to dramatically shake up the deadly status quo and the inertia compelling the parties toward greater escalation. This requires a major new diplomatic initiative with some fresh faces at a very senior level to divert some of the energies now focused solely on war to instead focus on possible solutions through a negotiations process.
It is not unprecedented that combatants in a war do not want to meet or say they won’t negotiate directly. For example, in the deadly war between Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000, the two parties never met face to face for two and a half years of World War I-style trench warfare. As part of the joint African and American negotiating team, my colleagues and I shuttled between the parties, conducted proximity talks, and put together an international coalition to press, push and cajole the parties into compromising until a peace deal was finally signed. The idea that the South Sudanese leaders—President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President turned rebel leader Riek Machar—must meet face to face to achieve any progress is not accurate, and certainly wouldn’t be sufficient.
To supplement the work of his current envoy and ambassador, President Obama should send a very senior high level representative straight from the White House to deploy to the region until the end of his administration, working right through the holidays, a time when some of the worst violence has occurred in prior years, perpetrated by opportunistic warmongers who know the world is distracted. Someone with bipartisan credibility would retain the possibility of staying on in the new administration and overcoming lame-duck perceptions by South Sudan’s leaders toward the existing diplomatic team. The presidential representative and the U.S. team could work closely with the existing if moribund African-led peace effort to create a new dynamic within that process. Effective diplomatic engagement could alter calculations and spur new diplomatic activity by regional states. Business as usual on the diplomatic front condemns South Sudan to almost certain escalation of the deadliest kind. The trajectory must be altered.
But why should leaders whose forces are burning villages, recruiting child soldiers, committing mass rape, and obstructing life-saving food aid be willing to make compromises at the negotiating table or alter their human rights practices? The only way to ensure their willingness to moderate positions and behavior is to alter their cost-benefit calculations so that war begins to become costlier to them personally than peace. That requires the United States and other interested international parties to create leverage to support that diplomacy.
We know what doesn’t produce much leverage for political compromise: naming and shaming public statements, threats of consequences without action, UN Security Council resolutions that foreshadow possible future measures but don’t impose them, and human rights missions disconnected to consequences for their findings. All these may be important for raising awareness and demonstrating culpability, but unless they are tied to serious actions, South Sudanese leaders largely discount them all as barking without biting.
Biting requires a hard-target search for real vulnerabilities or pressure points that actually could alter calculations and influence behavior. After a great deal of study by our financial forensic investigative initiative, The Sentry, the group I co-founded with George Clooney to dismantle the funding sources for violence in Africa, found that the most potent vulnerabilities result from illicit money flows and the proceeds of grand corruption that are laundered and stashed abroad by the kleptocrats and their networks who are destroying South Sudan.
The decision-makers in South Sudan’s war don’t keep their money under their mattresses, but rather offshore and launder it in real estate, companies, and bank accounts. Because the U.S. dollar is the currency of choice for the corrupt dealings of South Sudan’s leaders and rebels, the U.S. government has jurisdiction, and if financial crimes are committed, the United States can act. The policy cocktail of choice when the United States gets serious about a foreign policy objective—for example, whether countering terrorism, nuclear weapons, or organized crime—is the combination of anti-money laundering measures with highly targeted sanctions against networks, not just a few individuals. The result is not just freezing a few assets, but freezing targets out of the international financial system altogether.
South Sudan stands on the brink of the world’s most heinous human rights crime. If these policy tools are good enough for countering terrorism, why not for countering genocide?