The signing of a peace deal in South Sudan on August 26 is a welcome and long overdue flicker of hope amid immense ongoing suffering of the people of South Sudan. The human cost of the war is immense: since war began 20 months ago, tens of thousands have died, two million people have fled their homes and nearly half of the country is at risk of starvation. Without continued pressure by the United States and international community, the country may easily slip back into war.
Regional and global attention and pressure opened the door to peace. And the demands by human rights activists for President Obama to pressure South Sudan’s leaders for a peace deal during his trip to Africa in late July made a critical difference.
The activists and political actors who have helped build up to this decisive moment should celebrate but then be ready to do the hard work to sustain the peace. Efforts to avert the humanitarian crisis and bring those responsible for the violence to justice are needed to ensure that this peace deal will be more than just a glimmer of hope.
To reinforce a fragile peace, the U.S. and international community’s must keep the threat of an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on the table to make sure that South Sudan’s leaders know that turning away from this agreement will have immediate consequences. And there must be a strengthened commitment to the UN peacekeeping mission on the ground and continued monitoring of the involvement of South Sudan’s neighbors.
Even with a peace deal in place, the humanitarian crisis caused by 20 months of war will require a massive commitment from the U.S. and international community. Nearly a quarter of a million children in South Sudan are at significant risk of malnutrition. Funding for humanitarian aid efforts is woefully short, UN agencies report a nearly $1 billion dollar shortfall this year alone. Unless the U.S. and international community move quickly, the lives of millions of people will be at risk.
A turn of the pen will not address ongoing suffering and the atrocities that have already occurred. While South Sudan’s leaders smile in front of the cameras, the UN’s top humanitarian official reported earlier this week about the horrible atrocities including rape and burning and abduction of children that have taken place during the last 20 months of conflict.
Peace also requires accountability. The truth of what has happened and who is responsible must be known. Ending impunity for perpetrators of genocide and mass atrocities and providing measures of justice to survivors is essential for creating peace and preventing future genocides.
As the leader of United to End Genocide representing faith-groups, student activists, and Diaspora who have advocated on behalf of the Sudanese people, I was in Juba for the birth of South Sudan, literally going to sleep in one country and waking up in another without moving.
I remember the great joy and hope of that moment and it underscores the depth of despair to which the leaders of South Sudan have brought their citizens today. I am thankful for the relationship the United States has with the people of South Sudan, and I am even more thankful that President Obama is using that relationship to push for peace in South Sudan today.
But true celebration can only come once concrete measures have been taken to stop the violence, reduce arms, provide humanitarian aid, and hold those responsible for the violence accountable.