When President Donald Trump took office, there was considerable uncertainty as to how his administration would address the ongoing crisis in South Sudan, a complex foreign policy and national security issue that carried a heavy U.S. imprint from previous administrations. However, the administration—to the surprise of many—has outperformed admittedly low expectations. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has been especially engaged on this issue, travelling to South Sudan, meeting with President Salva Kiir, and rebuking the South Sudanese government as “an unfit partner.” The Trump administration’s directness, at least on this one issue, has been a welcome change where international and regional efforts to resolve this conflict often have been sluggish. Still, despite this change of tenor, the policy approach from the past administration to the current one has been remarkably consistent. Substantively, at least thus far, the two administrations share more similarities than differences in their approach to this issue.
But the Trump administration indicated its willingness to break from past policy approaches in one major aspect when it announced that it was considering ending all assistance for South Sudan. In a May 8 press statement, the White House said it “will not continue in a partnership with leaders who are only interested in perpetuating an endless war characterized by ethnically-motivated atrocities.” This announcement follows the administration’s imposition of a largely symbolic arms embargo on South Sudan in February.
U.S. frustration with South Sudanese political leaders has been high since the country descended into civil war in 2013. South Sudan’s independence was a goal shared by the Bush and Obama administrations and the country’s secession via referendum almost certainly would not have occurred without this political support. Accordingly, the Obama administration watched with dismay as a dispute between President Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar led the country first into war and now into near total state collapse.
Now, the Trump administration is threatening to take action, suggesting U.S. assistance could actually be prolonging the conflict, not helping it come to an end.
Cutting the Cord: Policy Change or Negotiating Gambit?
The backdrop to the Trump administration’s threat is a new effort to revitalize peace talks between the South Sudanese government and the armed groups that it is fighting.
As the civil war drags on, government and armed opposition leaders again convened in Addis Ababa to discuss the revitalization of a 2015 peace agreement and the implementation of a 2017 cessation of hostilities. Beginning May 17, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade and development bloc comprised of eight East African states, convened the third round of negotiations to the High-Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF). The HLRF conveners hope the forum can breathe life into a near, if not entirely, collapsed peace process. The parties to the conflict extended the HLRF negotiations, as mediators urged the parties to reach an agreement that ends the fighting and allows the country to begin to rebuild. The peace talks ended without a deal on May 23, as the gaps between the government and opposition on a number of key issues proved too large to overcome.
In its May 8 statement, the Trump administration seemed to conclude that the prospective revocation of foreign aid by its largest donor would spur the South Sudanese government to behave more responsibly and enter the peace negotiations with a genuine willingness to end the conflict. To this end, the White House said that it planned to initiate a comprehensive review of U.S. assistance, including funding for the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, an important mechanism designed to support the implementation of the 2015 peace agreement. The press statement went on to note that while the U.S. government is “committed to saving lives,” the U.S. “must also ensure our assistance does not contribute to or prolong the conflict, or facilitate predatory or corrupt behavior.”
The Government of South Sudan responded somewhat incoherently, calling the U.S. “the real obstacle to peace” for its interference in the country’s affairs, but also urging the U.S. not to abandon it, as U.S. assistance to the people of South Sudan “is crucial and cannot be ignored.” Humanitarian groups expressed serious concerns for the people of South Sudan should the Trump administration follow through on this decision. Ciaran Donnelly of the International Rescue Committee said: “While frustration and anger with the Government of South Sudan is justified, the U.S. and the international community must not give up on the people of South Sudan,” noting that “halting or cutting humanitarian aid would only punish innocent civilians, not their leaders who are responsible for the ongoing crisis.”
The argument that humanitarian aid can directly or indirectly prolong armed conflict is neither new, nor without some merit. For example, one recent study suggests that humanitarian aid leads to increased uncertainty as to the relative strength of combatants within civil wars and thereby prolongs conflict. By looking at humanitarian aid expenditures from 1989 until 2008, the study finds that increased levels of humanitarian aid lengthen civil wars, especially conflicts involving non-state armed groups fighting on the outskirts of the state. Superficially, this argument would appear to apply to South Sudan, where a handful of non-state armed groups continue to fight the government in the country’s rural areas and peripheral towns and cities. Indeed, after bouts of heavy fighting in the capital, fighting is now more sporadic, occurring in rural areas where civilians are much more likely to be targeted and killed than combatants.
Superficialities aside, this argument does not apply to South Sudan as aptly as it might seem. First, even though the U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to South Sudan, it is not the only donor and the U.N., other donor states, and humanitarian organizations are unlikely to follow suit, thus muting the effect that the U.S. policy would have. More importantly, the South Sudanese government is unlikely to show much concern with this policy change because it provides almost no services to its people and it has shown a remarkable ability to detach itself from meeting even the most basic aspects of governance such as food security or rudimentary medical services. In contrast, the government has shown an appreciable aptitude for silencing dissent, targeting journalists, and allowing or perpetrating mass atrocities against civilians, even while enriching itself by looting the state’s wealth and resources. Against this backdrop, it is difficult to discern how ending humanitarian aid will push government elites already cushioned from the reality that most South Sudanese citizens endure to reconsider their actions.
Moreover, the Trump administration’s argument that withholding aid would push the South Sudanese government to pursue an end to the conflict does not hold because the key decision makers in the government only have two intertwined goals: remaining in power and self-enrichment. The wellbeing of its citizens is almost entirely beside the point. A more likely outcome is that even more civilians will die and the South Sudanese government will try to spin the narrative by blaming the U.S. for allowing these preventable deaths to occur and for abandoning the country in its time of need.
Whether humanitarian aid contributes to prolonging armed conflict is a particularly difficult question for policymakers. Taken to its logical end, this policy requires allowing greater civilian suffering, or even death, in the immediate or near term, with the expectation that overall, fewer people will die because the conflict will end sooner. Morally, this argument is untenable for most humanitarians and many policymakers. It is also important to remember that in situations such as South Sudan, government elites remain relatively sheltered from the effects of these policies, whereas civilians, already enduring the worst aspects of the conflict, do not. Likewise, framing the delivery of humanitarian assistance and recalling the purpose of this assistance is vital. Thus, the Trump administration’s concern of continuing a partnership with South Sudanese leaders focused on perpetuating war or engaging in predatory or corrupt behavior is misguided because the real U.S. partnership is with the South Sudanese people, with whom the U.S. continues to stand, and because these leaders engage in corrupt and predatory activities through ransacking the South Sudanese state, not the delivery of aid. As such, policies aimed to bring accountability to these leaders, including their illicit financial activities, should receive greater attention.
Risk to Humanitarian Workers and Effect on Civilians
Against the backdrop of this debate, U.S. policymakers must consider the dangerous conditions that humanitarian workers and medical personnel already encounter within South Sudan, which may be the most fragile state in the world. Government and opposition forces continue to target humanitarian workers and at least 100 workers have been killed since the conflict began. These same forces have committed numerous crimes against humanitarian and medical workers, including deliberately destroying, burning, and looting hospitals, as well as abducting and killing medical personnel and aid workers.
Local aid organizations, as well as U.N. and international staff, have had to adjust their operations due to these tactics, many of which may be violations of international law. In April, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) suspended its operations in the town of Leer after an armed attack on its facilities left one guard injured from gunshot wounds. Later in the month, 10 aid workers representing the U.N. and a handful of NGOs were abducted near Yei. International and South Sudanese civil society organizations condemned the act and the aid workers were released four days later after negotiations with the U.N. and ICRC. This kidnapping followed the detainment and eventual release of seven aid workers in Central Equatoria in April and the death of an aid worker in Bentiu after gunmen opened fire on the worker’s vehicle. The same month, Médecins Sans Frontières stopped operating a clinic in the small town of Mundri after armed robbers halted the organization’s convoy before assaulting the staff and stealing their personal belongings and medical supplies. Last Friday, the humanitarian organization World Vision announced the release of nine aid workers after assailants abducted and then held the workers for several days.
The effects of these tactics are evident throughout South Sudanese society. A recent report by Watchlist, which included more than 90 interviews through various regions of South Sudan, demonstrates the devastating impact that these tactics have had on South Sudan’s children.
“I have never seen anything like what I saw in South Sudan,” said Christine Monaghan, a research officer at Watchlist. “Parties to the conflict are attacking health care and regularly denying humanitarian access in tandem. The result has been man-made public health crises such as cholera and famine and the most vulnerable, children, are the most impacted.”
Likewise, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock visited South Sudan last week and condemned the poor treatment of aid workers, noting that the targeting, harassment, and attacks on aid workers only reduces their ability to serve the civilian population.
A decision by the U.S. to end humanitarian assistance to South Sudan would penalize civilians already facing widespread displacement, severe food insecurity, and near constant violence. It likely would also make humanitarian and medical workers even more of a target, which in turn would further deplete the ability of these workers to assist the South Sudanese people. While the Trump administration is right to be frustrated and even outraged by the inability and unwillingness of South Sudan’s political leaders to stop the conflict, ending humanitarian assistance will not move the warring parties closer to peace. It will, however, contribute to even greater suffering for the South Sudanese people.