Ten years ago, on July 9, the world watched with hope and optimism as the people of South Sudan jubilantly celebrated the birth of their new nation. An overwhelming majority—some 99 percent—had supported independence, reflecting the shared aspirations of millions of South Sudanese to move past decades of war and build a peaceful, equitable country. A decade of political instability, mass displacement, and extreme violence has shattered this dream. For all those who support the people of South Sudan—the United States included—this tenth anniversary of independence is a moment for humble reflection about the severe challenges they face, an honest accounting of what went wrong, and a recommitment to supporting the South Sudanese in charting a new path in the coming years.
South Sudan’s leaders have squandered the world’s goodwill, the country’s oil revenues, and countless opportunities to lift up their population of 12 million people. Meanwhile, South Sudan’s elites and armed groups have enriched themselves, perpetrated unspeakable atrocities, and perpetuated a vicious cycle of displacement and misery. Today, nearly two-thirds of South Sudan’s population faces hunger, more than ever before. Additionally, 3.8 million people—a third of the nation—remain displaced; 2.2 million as refugees in neighboring countries, and 1.6 million internally.
2021 has been one of the most dangerous years ever for humanitarian workers who risk their own lives on a daily basis to meet South Sudan’s vast humanitarian needs. Fifteen aid workers have been killed in 2021 so far, including a South Sudanese doctor, a South Sudanese nutrition expert, and a Ugandan reproductive health expert. Armed gangs now threaten and attack humanitarian workers, demanding humanitarian aid intended for vulnerable South Sudanese. Together, the world must continue to speak clearly and demand action by the South Sudanese authorities: These attacks are unacceptable and those responsible must be brought to justice.
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A different future for South Sudan is still possible. The country can be defined not by the tragedies of its first decade, but by its resilience and renewal in the decades ahead. For our part, the United States is committed to supporting the brave religious and civil society leaders, journalists, educators, health workers, and activists who strive to build an inclusive, equitable, and democratic South Sudan, as well as the government civil servants who are doing everything in their power to deliver quality services to their citizens with few resources and little recognition.
But to achieve that different, brighter future, South Sudan’s leaders must put their people first. They must deliver on the commitments they made to each other, to the world, and to their fellow citizens. To unify armed combatants into one national army. To provide a forum to peacefully redress grievances of victims and survivors, including by establishing the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, as well as by launching local, reparative truth and justice efforts. To implement economic and financial transparency reforms so public resources are expended in helping the country’s people. To prosecute those who obstruct humanitarian aid delivery. And to give the people of South Sudan an opportunity to choose their own form of government through an inclusive constitution-drafting process and genuinely competitive, accountable, and transparent elections by mid-2023.
It is time for South Sudan’s leaders to forge a new direction for South Sudan for its second decade. It is time for them to work to actively end conflict, to protect and promote human rights, to deliver on the promises of the peace agreements they signed, and to start the difficult task of building the nation they dreamed of for decades in their struggle for independence.