South Sudan's President Salva Kiir shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.  REUTERS/Jim Bourg

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
REUTERS/Jim Bourg

With famine looming and just days before an important deadline, Secretary of State John Kerry took advantage of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to convene a meeting on South Sudan with its most influential neighbors. While Kerry’s message was muted, the Chair of IGAD, the regional group mediating the South Sudan crisis, provided a strong warning of “punitive action” if the parties in South Sudan fail to make progress by an August 10th deadline.

Kerry deserves credit for seizing the opportunity and for raising important points about the need for security, accountability, and humanitarian access. But Kerry’s more controversial meeting with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and the message he sent were disappointing. While Kerry did allude to the need for accountability through a commission of inquiry for atrocities committed, his message to Kiir should have been more direct.

Noticeably absent from the message was the Government of South Sudan’s role in some of the atrocities and continued blocking of access for humanitarian aid whether directly or through unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles. As I told Foreign Policy, the meeting with Kiir was controversial as it risks sending the wrong signals if not accompanied by a strong unified message by the United States and South Sudan’s most influential neighbors.

Whether the message sent from IGAD and from Secretary Kerry will be enough will soon be apparent as the negotiated deadline for setting up a transitional government arrives on August 10. Early indications are less than promising as the rebel side, led by former Vice President Riek Machar, walked out on negotiations in Ethiopia earlier this week. New ethnically targeted violence also saw the deaths of at least six humanitarian workers.

The situation is dire. United Nations officials and John Kerry himself warned that some 50,000 children are likely to die from malnutrition if the political deadlock is not overcome and aid provided to the millions in need.

Thanks to 12,164 people who signed our petition demanding that the crisis in South Sudan be on the agenda of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, we succeeded in gaining attention at the highest levels. But the message coming out of the Summit was mixed. The message if the August 10 deadline is not met, especially with targeted sanctions at the ready, can and must be decidedly clearer and felt more acutely by those who continue to block peace, whether on the side of the rebels or the government.

With the lives of millions at stake, we will continue to make our message clear: peace, humanitarian aid and accountability are needed now.

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