Power: Leaders In South Sudan Disengaged Despite Crisis

NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power about her recent trip to South Sudan.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There are so many conflicts happening here and around the world that it is easy to lose sight of the incredibly brutal war in South Sudan. At the end of this past week, fighting broke out again in Africa's newest country. More than a million people have fled their homes in the last six months. And now much of South Sudan has missed the growing season because of that displacement. Leaders are now talking about famine there.

Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, has just returned from a trip to South Sudan, and she is with us from the UN Mission in New York. Thank you very much for taking this time with us.

AMBASSADOR SAMANTHA POWER: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now you said on Twitter on Friday that you are sadly not shocked by the new violence in South Sudan. Could you tell us why? Presumably you're basing that on what you saw this past week?

POWER: Indeed. I traveled to South Sudan with the entire UN Security Council which doesn't happen very often. And what we found in engagements with the president of South Sudan, his cabinet and with Riek Machar, the former vice president who broke away, is a detachment and far more passivity than is needed when the country is facing a famine and a massively destructive war.

WERTHEIMER: Detachment - what do you mean by detachment?

POWER: Just a sense that it was someone else's problem. Blame the opposition if you're the government. Blame the government if you're the opposition. And lose sight of the fact that before December of just last year, these leaders were operating together to bring the country to independence in the first place three years ago and to govern the country.

But all of that is forgotten and in the polarization that happens when conflict starts. They're much more focused on he said she said and who did what and who started what then actually doing what is required to put together a transitional government to get through this crisis and begin the long process of reconciliation.

WERTHEIMER: Now you met with the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, who, I gather, likes to appear in a big cowboy hat like the one given to him by former President George Bush. What was your message to the president?

POWER: The message is famine is looming. People are being killed in the countryside largely on ethnic grounds. The Security Council and most of the international community has lost patience. You have got to make compromises in the regional negotiations that are being led by Ethiopia, Kenya and others. And if you don't, there will be consequences.

WERTHEIMER: What kinds of consequences are you talking about?

POWER: Well, the United States has already imposed targeted sanctions on a couple individuals so far who were involved in committing gross violations of human rights and spoiling the path back to peace. We made it very clear that that is just the beginning and that more sanctions can be imposed on leaders close to President Kiir and on leaders close to Riek Machar and on the leaders themselves.

WERTHEIMER: Now you have said that there is no military solution here - that it has to be negotiated, worked out. But what about the famine? What is the solution to the possible famine if it develops? And what is the rest of the world's role there?

POWER: Well, there are several causes to the famine. The main cause, however - the precipitating cause is the conflict. So the first thing that is needed is peace. The other thing that is needed, though, is money because money buys food. The United States just this week announced an additional $180 million in assistance. It is extremely important that other countries step forward themselves even at a difficult time like this.

WERTHEIMER: I want to turn briefly to Iraq because the UN Security Council on Friday approved a resolution aimed at weakening the militants from the group Islamic State. Can you explain what this resolution is intended to do?

POWER: Well, the resolution is aimed at cutting off financing to the Islamic State. It sanctions six individuals who are prominently involved as leaders of the Islamic State, but it also makes clear that anybody involved in actually facilitating the work of the Islamic State themselves can be sanctioned going forward. It goes without saying that they are managing to self-finance as they take territory, as they take over banks, as they take over equipment.

And that's where one should look at the resolution on Friday in conjunction with what happened in Baghdad which is the beginning of the formation of the Iraqi government. If they are able to do that, then you will see the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish fighters more successful on the ground against the Islamic State. You will see fewer Sunni tribes going along with the Islamic State and, perhaps, it will be in a position to see something along the lines of the Sunni Awakening which we saw several years ago.

WERTHEIMER: One of the sort of byproducts - perhaps an intended byproduct - of the rescue of the Yazidi minority on Sinjar mountain was that it did slow the Islamic State down when they were headed right for Erbil which would be a disastrous situation.

POWER: Correct. The president announced a mission with two components. One of which was the rescue of people on Mount Sinjar and the second novel, of course, to will prevent the overrun of Erbil - not just the home to American diplomats and aid workers and much of the UN humanitarian community also in Erbil. But also to hundreds of thousands of refugees who had been displaced in the prior fighting in northern Iraq. So it would have been disastrous had Erbil been overrun. And so far that Islamic State offensive, as you say, has been halted.

But it is clear that the Islamic State's ambitions are very large, and that they will be unspeakably brutal wherever they take territory. And that's why, as the president has said, it's extremely important for us to engage with our allies and, most importantly, to engage with the Iraqi leadership in coming together to formulate an anti-Islamic State strategy that will actually halt the Islamic State in its tracks.

WERTHEIMER: Samantha Power is the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. She spoke to us from New York. Madam Ambassador, thank you.

POWER: Thank you, Linda.

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