U.S. Maintains Humanitarian Assistance To South Sudan

Renee Montagne talks to Gayle Smith, senior director at the National Security Council about the current conflict in South Sudan, and what the U.S. can do to help get the new nation back on track.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The effort to restore peace in South Sudan included the person we'll hear from next. She's a White House official just returned from peace talks. The problem here involves a feud between the two top politicians in South Sudan. An estimated 10,000 people have died in vicious fighting that broke out six weeks ago. The carnage is all the more shocking, given that the country celebrated its independence in 2011. The United States played a big role in the creation of South Sudan, and has just helped to broker a ceasefire.

The officials at those talks included Gayle Smith, who sits on the White House National Security Council. She joined Renee Montagne in our studios.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

What was hopeful about that country when it became a country? I mean, would there have been reason to maybe try and hold off even longer, and try and get some of these institutions in place, the leadership, ways in which the country would not be so shaky when it was set up as its own nation?

GAYLE SMITH: I think the right of the people of South Sudan to choose their own future was the right thing. That's what they agreed. At the time of independence, it was a very fragile state. It remains so today. And there's been considerable effort by the international community to help build institutions that South Sudan has never had throughout its history, even when it was part of Sudan itself.

MONTAGNE: So, in that effort, over time, the U.S. has poured in billions of dollars into South Sudan. Where did that money go?

SMITH: The bulk of that money, over the past years, has gone to humanitarian assistance. As a result of war and acute poverty, South Sudan and Sudan have had very, very, very high levels of need for relief assistance. So that's been the primary source of our investment.

MONTAGNE: And the U.S. is prepared to continue pouring in more money to make this work?

SMITH: Well, I think we're prepared to invest in a couple of ways. First and foremost, we will, with other donors, continue to meet humanitarian needs in South Sudan. Second, is there are a number of programs that we run in for example, health and public health, that we think continue to be a wise investment.

MONTAGNE: You just got back, and while you are there, there was a cease-fire - what appear to be quite a shaky cease-fire. It is going to be able to get the two sides to another round of talks that will lead, at some point, to peace there or - and even better - to peace based on good governance?

SMITH: Well, the intention, following the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement, is first that that be monitored so that when there are allegations of violations, there's an independent way to determine whether they have, in fact, occurred and they can be addressed if they have.

The next round will be on political negotiations. The political negotiations will also need to take into account processes that were ongoing. On, for example, the completion of a constitution for South Sudan.

MONTAGNE: And what would be the key thing that would make that work?

SMITH: One is inclusion. It will be important that voices of citizens groups, of religious leaders, the church having been a very strong institution throughout South Sudan's history, young people, women and people from various parts of the country will need to be included, including different ethnic and tribal groups. The second is that it be a very transparent process so that people can both participate, but understand what their rights are and what kind of bright can be enshrined in a constitution, will also be necessary.

I think third will be the involvement of the region and the international community in that process and that dialogue, to ensure to the extent that that we can, that again, that it is both inclusive and transparent.

MONTAGNE: You know, I'm wondering about the leadership in South Sudan, because these leaders emerged effectively from the years of rebellion against Sudan and the north, but also at different points in time, they fought each other. Is it really, going to be for some time to come, these people who will have a very hard time working together?

SMITH: Generally speaking, the political leadership emerges from people who have fought, and that militarism does not translate well into politics. I think it's going to be critical that this not be a negotiation just between a small handful people at the top. This has got to be a negotiation that is broader than that that creates pathways for other people to come into government, including those who may not have been fighters during the struggle for independence.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

SMITH: Thank you, Renee.

INSKEEP: Gayle Smith is a special assistant to President Obama and serves as a senior director on the National Security Council.

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