Thomas Hushek, nominated as U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, told a Senate panel Wednesday that he is ready for the job despite the war-torn, impoverished East African country's complexities.
"If confirmed, I will press the leaders of all parties to the conflict in South Sudan, and especially the government, to disavow violence and make the hard compromises necessary to achieve a peaceful resolution of their political differences," Hushek said during his one-day hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
South Sudan, which separated from Sudan in 2011, has been caught up in civil war since December 2013.
Hushek is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, according to the State Department's website. A three-time deputy chief of mission and director of two State Department offices, he currently is an official with the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations.
Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who has visited South Sudan, told Hushek he was frustrated with the lack of progress on the country's peace process and with the Trump administration's failure to flesh out a policy regarding the conflict, now in its fifth year.
"My concern is compounded by not only the deteriorating effects in South Sudan, but I just feel we have no articulated strategy to deal with this crisis," said Booker. "And more than that, I have to say I am very concerned about this administration's concern about this crisis."
Booker also expressed frustration over what he calls the undermining of U.S. efforts in South Sudan by neighboring governments who help prop up the administration of President Salva Kiir.
He said the UN panel "has reported that Uganda has supplied Kiir's regime with weapons and we are giving weapons."
The U.S. Defense Department "has spent $130 million to train and equip in Uganda," he added. "And according to my notes, we have given a lot of heavy equipment, including helicopters and ammunition, and there is concern that they have been transferred from Uganda to South Sudan."
Booker wondered if this isn't "a serious undermining of our efforts in that area?"
Hushek said he was unaware of any transfer of U.S.-supplied weapons from Uganda to South Sudan. If true, he said the practice "needs to be ended if the idea of the arms embargo or stopping the ammunition and arms flows into the country is in order to reduce the suffering of the victims of the civil war."
Two aid workers were killed in South Sudan several days ago, bringing the number of such deaths in South Sudan to at least 98, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. And, as Hushek said, the numbers keep rising, making South Sudan the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers.
Hushek assured the Senate panel he is committed to working toward ending the violence.
Hushek added that he would "work tirelessly to urge respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms so that the people of South Sudan might once again aspire to a peaceful and prosperous future."
The State Department has sanctioned certain high-powered individuals in South Sudan, applied a domestic arms embargo and added restrictions on U.S. companies that do business with the country's oil sector. Hushek said those pressures would be increased.
"Last fall, we took it up to the next level and we put sanctions on some people that were on cabinet-level positions in the government of equivalence," Hushek told U.S. senators. "And the idea is to continue to increase this pressure."
A number of high-level vacancies remain at the U.S. State Department. Mike Pompeo is scheduled to undergo Senate confirmation hearings to be the next secretary of state, replacing Rex Tillerson. Still vacant are the posts of assistant secretary of state for Africa affairs as well as special envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.