Former U.S. Diplomats Lobby to Stop South Sudan War Crimes Court

The move sparked anger among experts, who see the court as critical to peace.

Personnel in the South Sudan People's Defence Forces, formerly named the Sudan People's Liberation Army, take part in a drill at their barracks south of Juba, South Sudan, on April 26. (Alex McBride/AFP/Getty Images)
Personnel in the South Sudan People's Defence Forces, formerly named the Sudan People's Liberation Army, take part in a drill at their barracks south of Juba, South Sudan, on April 26. (Alex McBride/AFP/Getty Images)

Former senior U.S. diplomats are now lobbying on behalf of South Sudan to block the creation of a war crimes court, even though the government in Juba agreed to the tribunal as part of a U.S.-backed peace deal, according to public lobbying disclosure filings.

The South Sudanese government hired Gainful Solutions Inc., a California-based lobbying group, for a two-year contract worth $3.7 million to boost ties between South Sudan and Trump administration. As one part of the overall contract between the South Sudanese government and the lobbying group, Gainful Solutions will push to “Delay and ultimately block establishment of the hybrid court envisaged” under a 2018 peace deal between the government, led by President Salva Kiir, and his longtime rival, opposition figure Riek Machar.

The U.S. government, which backs the peace agreement, provided $4.8 million in 2016 through the African Union to set up the court, a State Department spokesman confirmed to Foreign Policy in email. The project is ongoing, the spokesman said.

The lobbying contract provides an unusually candid glimpse into the South Sudanese government’s aims to undercut a peace deal it has committed to. Some current and former U.S. officials are outraged at the former diplomats involved in the contract for accepting millions of dollars from Kiir, whose government is accused of widespread human rights violations during the country’s five-year-long civil war.

Gainful Solutions is run by Michael Ranneberger, a former career U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Kenya from 2006 to 2011, and the lobbyist Soheil Nazari-Kangarlou. Constance Berry Newman, a former senior State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development official under the George W. Bush administration, is also named a consultant on the project for a $5,000 fee, according to public disclosure filings from the Department of Justice.

The filings, dated April 18, indicate that the South Sudanese government is dismissing its pledges to address war crimes and hold perpetrators accountable, according to current and former officials who spoke to Foreign Policy. While some foreign governments, such as Sudan, hire lobbyists to try and wind down existing U.S. sanctions, the South Sudanese government in its filing is asking Gainful Solutions to reverse current sanctions and also “further block potential sanctions.”

Newman does not the support dismantling of the hybrid courts and would never take part in any effort to dismantle them, according to a statement issued by Newman and the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank where she is a senior fellow, after Foreign Policy‘s story was published. The statement said Newman’s role in the project is strictly limited in scope, stressing she is not an officer of Gainful Solutions and pointing to her disclosure filing.

“It is almost unheard of—they’re charged with helping to undermine a peace agreement the government is a signatory to, and in which the U.S. is in some ways a guarantor of,” said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. diplomat and National Security Council staffer who worked on South Sudan issues.

“These two were well aware of the atrocities that have occurred in [South Sudan],” said one expert on the region in the U.S. government, referring to Newman and Ranneberger. “How do you take a job where your task is to make sure people responsible for war crimes aren’t held accountable?”

The new lobbying contract comes weeks before the next major deadline in a shaky 2018 peace deal, when Machar is set to return to South Sudan and become deputy head of a unity government with Kiir. The opposition is pushing for a six-month delay to the deadline until more security conditions are met to guarantee Machar’s safety, which the South Sudanese government has rejected. Experts fear the delay could derail the peace deal, plunging the country back into conflict and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

The hybrid court is a key part of the peace deal, aimed at holding war criminals accountable in the brutal civil war that killed about 400,000 people and forced 4 million South Sudanese to flee their homes.

Hudson, the former official, highlighted the price of the contract, given how widespread extreme poverty is in South Sudan. “Given the desperate economic situation in the country, it’s distasteful in what the fees are being charged,” he said.

The language on trying to avert future sanctions “suggests to me the government is going to continue doing all the actions it’s accused of by human rights groups,” Hudson said. “It suggests they are not looking to change their behavior at all.”

One State Department official, expressing surprise at how revealing the contract was, speculated that the South Sudanese officials who wrote it “probably don’t realize that this type of thing gets out.”

Gainful Solutions and Newman did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Violence in South Sudan has somewhat abated since the signing of the 2018 peace agreement, but conflict and human rights abuses still continue in parts of the country, according human rights watchdogs. South Sudan’s civil war was marked by brutal atrocities including the mass murder of civilians, gang rape, and torture by militias and forces aligned with both Kiir and Machar.

South Sudan agreed to establish the hybrid court to bring justice to victims of the violence in a previous 2015 peace deal but has slow-walked creating it in conjunction with the African Union.

“Both the United Nations and African Union see this body as an important part of remaking South Sudan on new foundations of respect for human rights and accountability,” said Godfrey Musila, a former member of U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan and an African Union inquiry into South Sudan’s conflict.

He said the hybrid court “constitutes an existential threat” to some members of Kiir’s government, who are directly accused of human rights violations.

“We continue to call on the Government of South Sudan to take the necessary steps to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, as it committed to do” in the 2015 and 2018 peace agreements, the State Department spokesman said.

Nearly eight years after gaining independence from Sudan, South Sudan is considered the home of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Up to 6.8 million people—60 percent of the country—could be at risk of food crisis or nearing famine-like conditions this year, according to CARE, a humanitarian aid organization.

In Washington, the contract between Kiir’s office and Gainful Solutions aims to improve U.S. economic ties and military cooperation with South Sudan’s government, including opening “a channel of communication between President Kiir and President [Donald] Trump … and his administration”; pushing U.S. companies to “invest in the oil, natural resources, and other sectors”; and persuading the Trump administration to “open a military relationship” with South Sudan to “enhance the fight against terrorism and promote regional stability.”

Lobbyists for foreign governments are required to file and publicly disclose contracts with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Update, April 29, 2019: This article was updated with a statement from Newman and the Atlantic Council clarifying her role in the contract.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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