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'Both Sides Are At Fault': Susan Rice On South Sudan's Civil War


Now, we are going to talk about South Sudan, a country the United States once had hopes would succeed. South Sudan gained independence in 2011 after decades of war. But, for the past two years, a new civil war in South Sudan - between the country's president, Salva Kiir, and its vice president, Riek Machar - has been tearing the country apart.

Last month, I was in South Sudan with NPR's Jason Beaubien where he met Rebecca Njardek (ph) and her 2-month-old son.

REBECCA NJARDEK: We are Sudanese. We are targets now. Some people go to Kenya, Khartoum, (unintelligible) - everywhere because of war, you see.

MCEVERS: Both sides in South Sudan have signed a peace deal, but it has yet to be implemented. A few weeks ago, troops wearing government uniforms attacked a civilian camp that is run by the United Nations, and they killed at least 25 people.

Earlier today, I talked to White House national security adviser Susan Rice, and I asked her about that attack.

SUSAN RICE: We've condemned that in the strongest terms. We've called for an investigation, and we've demanded that the government hold the perpetrators accountable, whether they were acting under government orders or not. But this is symptomatic of a much larger problem which is that, rather than build their fragile brand-new country, which only became independent in 2011, the elites on all sides have chosen to fight for power and wealth at the expense of their people.

MCEVERS: And so what can the U.S. do to keep them from doing that? I mean, there are several things. I mean, President Kiir has, you know - has proposed this idea for 28 states, which is not part of this peace agreement. What is the U.S. doing to get him back on track?

RICE: Well, first of all, understand that both sides are at fault here, and both sides have committed atrocities, as documented by the African Union Commission of Inquiry and many other human rights groups. Our interest is in peace and stability and, ultimately, prosperity for the people of South Sudan. To achieve that, what has to happen is that the peace agreement is fully and faithfully implemented. And we are working very hard every day to push the process along so that there is implementation.

And in fact, there's been some progress. There's been partial steps that have been taken. But there are many steps that haven't been taken, so we're maximizing pressure - diplomatic and otherwise - leading an effort at the Security Council in New York to make clear to both sides that in the event that they do not implement the agreement, they're going to face mounting international pressure.

MCEVERS: What kind of pressure? Are talking about sanctions? I know...

RICE: Yes.

MCEVERS: ...The U.S. imports an arms embargo, but Russia does not.

RICE: We are talking about sanctions, including, potentially, an arms embargo and/or additional targeted sanctions on leadership of both sides. And if Russia or another country were to block action in the Security Council, we would work with our European and other like-minded partners to ramp up the pressure outside the Security Council.

MCEVERS: As you know, we were just reporting on South Sudan. The situation is not good. People are running out of food. We met people who walked for days to get to places just where aid groups are distributing food. You know, people said if things continue as they are, we haven't seen anything yet in terms of a civil war - that the big war is still coming. If that happens, what are the options for the U.S.? What else can the U.S. do?

RICE: At the end of the day, now they're an independent country, and there is but so much the U.S. or any other outside power can do if their leaders refuse to serve their people. But what we will do is continue to be the largest donor of assistance to South Sudan. We have provided $1.5 billion in assistance in the last couple of years, and we'll continue to do our part. We'll use all of the weight of our diplomacy and that of the countries in the region that share our interest in seeing a peaceful South Sudan. Are we're going to stay very actively engaged because we have a moral and a humanitarian and a security stake in the people of South Sudan.

MCEVERS: You know, this was a pet project of yours in particular. I mean, how does it feel - how has it felt to watch this, you know - what was once such a success story fall apart?

RICE: Well, sadly, it never fully was a success story. It was a success to the extent that the people of South Sudan finally, after many years and active U.S. diplomacy, were allowed to vote in a referendum to determine their fate. And they voted 97 - 98 percent for independence, but soon thereafter, the South Sudanese government fractured. and we have the conflict that you saw firsthand when you visited.

So this is a sad story, but it's not the end of the story in my judgment. If you have been to South Sudan as I have, on a number of occasions, and as you have, you'll know that the people are incredibly resilient, incredibly hopeful for their future and committed to building a better life. And ultimately, even if their leadership proves to be venal and utterly unwilling to serve their interests, I'm hopeful that the people of South Sudan and their aspirations will ultimately prevail.

MCEVERS: That's Susan Rice. She's the president's national security adviser and she joined us from the White House.

Thank you.

RICE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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