The United States is ratcheting up pressure on the South Sudanese government over a conflict that’s teetering on the brink of genocide. On Wednesday, Washington slapped new sanctions on key South Sudanese leaders amid frustration that government officials there were not doing enough to honor a cease-fire and revive a 2015 peace agreement meant to bring an end to the conflict.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in South Sudan since 2013 in what the U.N. calls a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Nearly half the country — some 6 million people — faces severe food insecurity spurred by the violent conflict.
Last year, 1 million South Sudanese fled Uganda in what has become Africa’s largest refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
While the conflict in South Sudan is lethal for many, it’s highly profitable for the few in charge. Amid the war and wide-scale displacement of civilians, South Sudanese officials close to President Salva Kiir have profited from what experts describe as a culture of corruption.
Recent reports revealed that South Sudan’s top officials and armed group leaders have amassed and offshored millions of dollars through dubious businesses.
The latest measures “make clear that the U.S. government will impose consequences on those who expand the conflict and derail peace efforts,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “This is a man-made crisis and one the government of South Sudan can stop.”
Human rights groups praised the administration’s decision to ramp up sanctions on South Sudan. “The actions taken today are critical steps forward,” said John Prendergast, the founding director at the Enough Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, noting that much work remained. “Individual sanctions are inadequate in the face of the violent kleptocratic system that has been assembled under President Kiir’s administration.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control levied sanctions against Lt. Gen. Malek Reuben Riak Rengu, Gen. Paul Malong Awan, and Information Minister Michael Makuei Lueth. The three South Sudanese officials, along with three companies linked to them, were placed on the department’s specially designated nationals list.
The new sanctions will force the commercial world to “pay attention” to offshore wealth from corrupt leaders in South Sudan, according to Doreen Edelman, a sanctions expert with the U.S. law firm Baker Donelson.
“If those three guys have businesses anywhere in the world, U.S. parties cannot do business with them or any company they own 50 percent or more of in the aggregate,” she said.
In addition to the new sanctions, the Treasury Department also issued an advisory to financial institutions to crack down on suspicious funding related to South Sudan.
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