JUBA - South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his cabinet are reviewing the executive order signed by U.S. President Barack Obama that threatens U.S. sanctions against anyone who incites or commits violence in South Sudan, or blocks the peace process, a spokesman for Kiir said Friday.
"The... order that was signed by President [Obama] yesterday, we received it this morning and the President has briefed the Council of Ministers," presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told reporters at a hastily convened news conference.
"The Council of Ministers is studying the document and will... respond to the letter in question. But as of now, they are still studying the document,” he said.
President Obama signed an executive order Thursday, clearing the way for travel bans and the seizure of assets in the United States of any person or entity found by the U.S. authorities to have incited violence in South Sudan or to be impeding the country's slow-moving peace talks, which have been put on hold until the end of April.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a written statement that the executive order "sends a clear message: those who threaten the peace, security, or stability of South Sudan, obstruct the peace process, target U.N. peacekeepers or are responsible for human rights abuses and atrocities will not have a friend in the United States and run the risk of sanctions."
The order applies to "both the Government of South Sudan and Riek Machar’s rebels," the statement said, calling on both sides to "immediately engage in and follow through on the inclusive peace process" that east African regional bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has been mediating since January.
Samatha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said the executive order showed that the United States "firmly intends to hold accountable those bent on undermining a peaceful, political settlement of the crisis in South Sudan, and anyone who threatens the safety and well-being of civilians."
More than one million civilians have been forced by the fighting to flee their homes and nearly four million -- more than a third of the population -- are threatened by severe food insecurity and illness as the conflict stretches into a fourth month.
The fighting has gone on for more than 100 days and it is not known how many people have been killed but international aid and human rights officials have estimated the number of dead to be in the tens of thousands.
Obama order will 'further obstruct' peace process, minister says
South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei said the executive order will further obstruct the peace process for South Sudan, and denied that anyone in the government of South Sudan was impeding the IGAD-led peace talks in Addis Ababa.
He also questioned how U.S. authorities would determine who would be sanctioned.
"I don’t know what are the criteria used by him (President Obama) to decide whether X or Y has committed human rights violations or abuses,” Makuei told VOA.
Zachariah Diing Akol, a director at the Juba-based Sudd Institute think tank, was doubtful that the threat of targeted sanctions would have the effect of pressuring the warring sides in South Sudan into stepping up their efforts to reach an inclusive peace deal.
Instead, he warned, average citizens could suffer.
"Usually, what happens as a result of sanctions is that the masses suffer more than the elites who are the targets," he told VOA, suggesting that a better way for the United States to help to restore peace in South Sudan would be to engage with the government and opposition "in a meaningful way... rather than threats here and threats there on the public air waves."
But many residents of Juba, where the unrest that is still rocking the young country began in mid-December, praised the U.S. action.
A youth leader in Juba said the threat of sanctions could be what is needed to force the government and opposition sides to take peace negotiations seriously.
"If they give sanctions for some individuals... we can give pressure to the government and the rebels to come to consensus,” said the youth leader, who asked not to be named.
“If the international community gives sanctions to some individuals, I think it will be good because the people of South Sudan have suffered for that conflict," he said.
A first round of peace talks in January resulted in the signing of a cessation of hostilities pact and an agreement to expedite the release of 11 politicians who were detained when the unrest erupted in mid-December.
Fighting continues in parts of South Sudan, and four of the 11 politicians are still in detention.The four politicians are appearing in court hearings to determine if charges of treason can be brought against them for their part in what the government says was a coup attempt on December 15 that triggered the nationwide violence.
Edmund Yakani, the executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, said the way the government and opposition sides react to the threat of U.S. sanctions will show how dedicated they are to peace.
“If they are for us, they will pick up a dialogue with the U.S. administration on what do they prefer as the best way forward," he said.
"It is a pressure, not something negative, to make people go quickly to peace and stability. We are expecting a humanitarian disaster if this crisis continues,” he said.