Co-authored by Alexandra Lamarche, Advocate, Refugees International
As the highest-level Trump Administration official to visit South Sudan, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley experienced first-hand the volatility of the country, when she had to be evacuated during her visit to a displacement camp on Wednesday. As protests against President Salva Kiir started to threaten her security, Ambassador Haley got a glimpse into the everyday life of South Sudanese people, trapped in the violent power-struggle between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar and desperate for change.
This comes only hours after Ambassador Haley tweeted about her visit to the Nguenyyiel refugee camp in the Gambella Region of Ethiopia, in which she wrote: “S[outh] Sudan is a reminder we can’t look away. We can’t let armed conflict be their only choice.” She’s right: we can’t look away, and this sentiment will hopefully be put into action as Ambassador Haley continues her three-country tour.
We’re very encouraged by Ambassador Haley visits to Ethiopia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where she is focusing on humanitarian challenges consuming both South Sudan and the DRC. The problems are daunting, but there are opportunities for progress in both countries.
South Sudan’s independence in 2011 was widely celebrated by the international community as an important step toward peace and prosperity, but civil war erupted in December 2013 between forces loyal to President Kiir and those loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. The fast-moving conflict resulted in serious human rights violations on all sides, leaving two million people internally displaced and forcing two million to seek refuge or asylum in other countries, according to UNHCR figures. Civilians experience violence every day and remain in extreme danger, while humanitarian efforts are systematically obstructed and aid workers are targeted.
Ethiopia, which was Ambassador Haley’s first stopover, contributes to UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan and hosts some 400,000 South Sudanese refugees. The Haley visit was important in communicating the importance of Ethiopia playing a strong role in working for peace in South Sudan.
Reports suggest that, in South Sudan, Ambassador Haley has pressed President Kiir to take action to end abuses against civilians and to ensure the safety and access for humanitarian aid workers. This is good news, as President Kiir’s recent statements and actions reflect little concern for international opinion or the urgency of the humanitarian situation. And if abuses continue and negotiations continue to stall, the United States should not only take tough measures against the Kiir government, but consider support for a joint AU-UN effort to establish joint administration of the country in a transition period.
Ambassador Haley’s visit to the DRC is no less difficult. As a result of poor governance, constant interference by other regional actors, internal conflict, and horrific abuses by security forces, nearly four million are internally displaced and 1.4 million forced from their homes due to the recent conflict in the Kasai region. In addition, more than half a million citizens have fled the country as refugees, while the DRC hosts some 500,000 refugees from other African states.
The UN stabilization mission to the DRC, MONUSCO, has an extraordinarily challenging mandate to protect civilians, humanitarian personnel and human rights defenders, while also supporting the government’s stabilization efforts. We are deeply concerned that recent proposed cuts to peacekeeping operations driven by the U.S. Administration were motivated not by the need for efficiency but rather the desire for budget savings, and risk undermining civilian protection in the DRC and worldwide.
During her visit, Ambassador Haley should not only review the peacekeeping operation, but also announce support for a careful assessment of the impact of cuts on basic protection and monitoring activities in the DRC and other countries hosting peace operations. Moreover, the process of budget reductions should not be opaque; the UN must provide public information on the specific programs that are being cut.
Ambassador Haley should also take the opportunity of her visit to press the DRC government to investigate abuses by DRC security forces, which have been responsible for numerous violations of human rights. Finally, she should announce continued and increased humanitarian aid to the DRC to help fill critical humanitarian assistance funding gaps.
Taken together, these actions would powerfully communicate an interest in U.S. leadership and engagement in humanitarian issues that would be warmly welcomed in Africa and around the world.