President Barack Obama has tapped two experienced U.S. diplomats to represent him in Khartoum and Juba as tensions grow between Sudan and South Sudan.
Mary Carlin Yates, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Burundi and as deputy to the commander for Civil-Military Activities of the United States Africa Command (Africom), takes up her new position today as interim Chargé d'Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in the Sudanese capital. The naming of a full-time ambassador has been delayed by ongoing U.S. concerns about the Khartoum government's military actions in two troubled regions of Sudan, Darfur and Southern Kordofan.
Obama has also nominated Susan D. Page as the first U.S. ambassador to newly-independent South Sudan. Page, who is currently deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Africa bureau, is a Harvard-trained attorney who helped draft the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) for Sudan that ended decades of civil war between the north and south.
The appointments coincide with calls for stepped up action by the United States and others to prevent further killing and suffering in a region that has experienced war and conflict for four decades. John Prendergast, a prominent peace advocate, warned in a recent report that the challenges facing South Sudan and the menace posed by "an angry, isolated, and besieged" regime in Khartoum, call for a new U.S. policy "rooted in the international responsibility to protect civilian life and democracy promotion."
While no immediate shift in policy is anticipated, the administration spoke out again yesterday on the worsening situation in Southern Kordofan, where human rights groups say bombings by the Sudan Air Force have killed dozens of civilians and displaced thousands more. A statement issued jointly by the White House and State Department called on the government of Sudan "to immediately cease aerial bombings, particularly of civilian areas," which the statement said have continued "despite the Government of Sudan's announcement of a unilateral two-week ceasefire last week."
The American statement also expressed concern over reports that South Sudan is supporting the rebel movement fighting against Sudanese control of South Kordofan. Aid organizations say they have been barred from the area. This has placed "many people in a life-threatening situation without any prospect of relief," Valerie Amos, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs said on Tuesday.
A report released this week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuses the Sudan Air Force of "indiscriminately bombing civilian areas" in Southern Kordofan and "preventing aid from reaching desperate displaced people."
Yates told AllAfrica the growing crisis in Southern Kordofan will be one of her first priorities. The U.S. government wants "both sides to provide unfettered humanitarian access to affected populations," she said in a telephone interview prior to her departure. She also called for the resumption of negotiations to work out a "permanent cessation of hostilities and a political settlement."
Since January, Yates has been in charge of Africa at the National Security Council, where, she said, "Sudan was a major focus for me as well as for the more senior administration officials," including the president.
The 2005 peace agreement promised Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile - both administrative regions of Sudan which border on South Sudan - popular consultations to determine their future. But those consultations have not happened and tensions have escalated since disputed elections in Southern Kordofan in May in which the incumbent governor appointed by Khartoum was declared the victor.
A framework for peace was agreed in June between the Khartoum authorities and the SPLM-N, the northern affiliate of the ruling party in the south, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. But implementation has stalled and Khartoum has sharply criticized the SPLM-N for forging an alliance with two factions of the Darfur insurgent group that is opposing Khartoum in that region. The Sudan government has also refused to allow the presence of United Nations peacekeepers in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Yates conceded the complexity of problems she will be addressing in her post. "I've got my work cut out for me," she said. She stressed that the administration "remains committed to the development of two viable states in Sudan and South Sudan" and to improving ties with the Sudanese regime. "I certainly hope that my presence in Khartoum signals this intention clearly to the government," she said.
While seeking improved relations, the administration remains committed to "international efforts to bring those responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity," she said. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising out of the conflict in Darfur. The United States does not support deferral of the ICC prosecutions against Bashir and other Sudanese officials, she said.
After Bashir agreed to accept the outcome of the January referendum in which southerners voted overwhelmingly for independence, the U.S. government offered a 'roadmap' to normalize bilateral relations. That process included a review of Sudan's inclusion on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. John Brennan, the president's chief counterterrorism advisor, visited Khartoum in June as part of the review, and, according to a White House statement, "underscored President Obama's deep concern over the continued presence of Sudanese Armed Forces in Abyei and urged a rapid and peaceful resolution to the crisis and to resolving outstanding CPA issues."
The 2010 list of state sponsors of terrorism, issued by the State Department two weeks ago, again includes Sudan, while also labeling the government "a cooperative partner in global counterterrorism efforts against al-Qa'ida." The report said although Sudan has restricted the activities of foreign terrorist groups, "gaps remained in the Sudanese government's knowledge of and ability to identify and capture these individuals as well as prevent them from exploiting the territory for smuggling activities."
Yates said Khartoum also needs to show willingness to resolve the dispute over another border area, Abyei, and to work out its economic relationship with South Sudan, which includes issues related to currencies and debt. She said she would be working closely with the president's special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman, on these issues.
During Senate testimony in July, Lyman pointed to continuing problems in Darfur as a factor delaying the lifting of remaining U.S. sanctions, which include trade bans and foreign assistance restrictions adopted by both the executive branch and the Congress. He said the administration is pressing Khartoum to ease access in Darfur for humanitarian assistance and for UN peacekeepers, for serious engagement in peace negotiations, and for "an end to the use of proxy militias and targeting of civilians and an improvement in justice and accountability so the reign of impunity in Darfur does not continue."
While Yates' appointment allows her to begin work immediately, Page's nomination as ambassador requires Senate confirmation, which normally takes several months. Prior to her current State Department appointment as one of four deputies to Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson, Page worked on east and southern Africa at the National Democratic Institute and served in the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), assisting with implementation of the 2005 agreement. Previously, she headed the Human Rights and Justice Unit for the United Nations Development Programme in Rwanda and, as a foreign service officer from 1993 to 2001, served in State Department and USAID posts in Rwanda, Botswana and Kenya.
Even with the appointments of Yates and Page, officials say Lyman is expected to maintain his current role. His distinguished career, which included ambassadorships in Nigeria and South Africa, along with his calming personality, have earned him wide respect and make him 'first among equals on the Sudan team', in the words of one former official who has watched him perform in varying situations.
Lyman became special envoy in March but has been a key interlocutor for the administration since August 2010, when he was brought onto its Sudan team to work alongside Scott Gration, his predecessor as special envoy. Gration, a former Air Force major general whose outspoken style sometimes caused friction, ended his tenure when Obama named him as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya in February.
The administration's Sudan lineup also includes Dane Smith, a former ambassador to Guinea and Senegal and special envoy for Liberia, who has served as lead U.S. negotiator for Darfur since December.
Yates's replacement at the National Security Council is Grant Harris, who has been a senior aide to Ambassador Susan Rice and the United States Mission to the United Nations. He is the third NSC senior director for Africa under Obama. The first person to hold that job, Michelle Gavin, has been U.S. Ambassador to Botswana since April.