The U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth, said in a major policy speech that South Sudan's political leaders are responsible for nearly 11 months of conflict that has displaced 1.8 million people, claimed thousands of lives and pushed the young country to the edge of famine.
"This conflict is the product of a failure of leadership, a collective failure by those who helped to deliver South Sudan its independence, not least among them, the dominant political party that controls the government, the SPLM," he said in the speech delivered Thursday at the Atlantic Council's Africa Center in Washington.
Booth said that instead of all South Sudanese uniting around a common cause -- "building a peaceful and prosperous state" -- after independence in 2011, the world's newest nation became mired in a battle of political ambitions and a power struggle within the SPLM.
"The people of South Sudan are now paying the price, as the aspirational principles of justice, equality, diversity, human rights and decentralization that catalyzed the struggle (for independence from Sudan) lie abandoned," Booth said.
'Shame on us'
Around a month into the conflict in South Sudan, Booth said a "prominent" government party official told him, "Shame on us, shame on us. We failed to learn the lessons of those African liberation movements that have gone before us." He did not name the official.
Booth said the main task the country faces is ending the fighting that has driven the country to the edge of ruin. The only way to bring llasting peace to South Sudan, Booth said, is through an inclusive peace process, not just a deal between political elites.
"A concentration on the interests of elites was a prime ingredient in the making of this conflict," Booth said. "Yet another elite accommodation among the very actors responsible for the fracturing of South Sudanese society will not and cannot deliver a sustainable peace.
The focus cannot only be on who occupies the presidential palace but on what needs to be done to put South Sudan on a path to peace and prosperity.US Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Donald Booth
"There has been, throughout the crisis, too great an emphasis on who can and should lead the country going forward, an unfortunate but familiar characteristic of South Sudan's highly personalized politics," he said.
Negotiators at peace talks in Ethiopia have focussed too much on who should head a transitional government, and too little on what the country's leaders need to do to bring peace and development to the young nation, he said.
"The focus cannot only be on who occupies the presidential palace but on what needs to be done to put South Sudan on a path to peace and prosperity," he said.
Booth called the crisis in South Sudan "man-made." Millions of people face severe food insecurity, and, in spite of the international community stepping up with aid -- the United States alone has pledged three-quarters of a billion dollars for South Sudan, Booth said -- enough help is not getting through to people who need it.
"The warring parties bear full responsibility for this crisis and the suffering of the South Sudanese," the U.S. Special Envoy said.
He also slammed the government and opposition for failing to fully commit to the peace process, led since January by regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Both sides have "attempted to walk back" on commitments made when they signed a cessation of hostilities agreement in January, Booth said, accusing the government and opposition of weakening the peace process, narrowing its scope and "excluding others from the negotiating table, all the while continuing a senseless fight on the battlefield."
The warring parties bear full responsibility for this crisis and the suffering of the South Sudanese.US Special Envoy, Donald Booth
"We cannot stand idly by as the warring parties neglect the suffering of their own people," he said, adding that the United States is mulling imposing tageted sanctions on more individuals who it says are fueling the crisis in South Sudan.
The United States and the European Union between them have already levied sanctions, including asset freezes and visa bans, on several South Sudanese officials who they say have been fueling the crisis.
Booth said the time might be right for the "broader international community to ... authorize targeted United Nations Security Council sanctions" on South Sudanese individuals. This would send a "unified signal that this senseless war is unnacceptable and that those responsible for its continuation will pay a price."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said early this month that the world body could impose sanctions on individuals on both sides of the South Sudan conflict, if the IGAD-led peace talks do not make substantial progress soon.