South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin assured U.S. officials this week during a trip to New York and Washington that talks to end a year of war in the world's newest nation are moving forward and peace could be restored in the coming weeks.
"The message about coming here was actually to relate that the peace process has progressed tremendously," Marial told reporters in Washington on Thursday, the last day of his U.S. visit.
Marial visited the United States even as the United Nations Security Council mulls imposing targeted sanctions on South Sudanese who are deemed to be thwarting efforts to restore peace in the country.
In November, when Australian ambassador to the United Nations Gary Quinlan was head of the Security Council, he said council members were looking "very closely" at imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan and sanctioning anyone who continues to block peace in the country.
Quinlan had expressed "frustration" with the "...seeming unwillingness of the parties to abandon their commitment to their own military strategies for a military solution and engage meaningfully in the peace process."
The United States, European Union and Canada have already frozen the assets of and imposed a travel ban on South Sudanese officials on both the government and rebel sides in the conflict.
Sanctions 'not helpful'
Marial said more sanctions are not the right way forward in South Sudan. "We think that suggesting sanctions at a time when the peace process is about to be, is not helpful," he said.
"The facts on the ground... are that both sides have agreed on everything to bring peace to the country except on the issue of the structure of the transitional government. Then why not give the chance? Why not help now since it is the last lap?"
"It's just like you're running a marathon and you're just 10 meters away" from the finish line, Marial said.
The South Sudanese diplomat questioned why the international community is feeling frustrated with the peace process in South Sudan.
'No frustration here'
"What is this frustration from our friends?" Marial wondered.
"We understand they are saddened... because they didn't expect South Sudan, after the help, the contribution and the great hope that the south was going to rise, and now, look! They are fighting among themselves... We understand that and we appreciate their concern; we appreciate they're saddened," he said.
"But... there's no frustration here. What is simply needed (is that) we analyze where we are, what are the challenges. Come in, help us and help us to reach the marathon finishing line, to cut the line and win the gold medal, isn't it?" he said.
Marial said he met at the United Nations with U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power "and informed her of the progress we have made on the peace front."
He and his delegation -- which included the Minister in the Office of the President Awan Riak -- also met in New York with the U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, representatives from the U.N.'s peacekeeping operations, and some Security Council members.
In Washington, Marial said the delegation delivered a letter to President Barack Obama from his South Sudanese counterpart, Salva Kiir -- although the foreign minister did not say what the letter says.
The South Sudanese officials also met with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and briefed her "in detail on how the peace process has developed," Marial said.
"It is an important narrative because what I read in your press is that there are sanctions that are being dangled ... because we have not moved forward on the peace process. We say there is another narrative -- that the peace process has moved forward," he said.
Marial told reporters at the news conference that the international community will "soon congratulate us for bringing peace" to South Sudan.
"The government of South Sudan is committed to having peace in our country, and the process has progressed," he repeated.
Rather than imposing more sanctions on South Sudanese, Marial asked the international community to support the young country. "We need assistance. We need help, not punishment," he said.