July 9, 2011, was a hopeful day in Africa. It was the day the Republic of South Sudan became an independent country afternearly 100% of its population voted for independence in a referendum six months earlier. The new nation and its citizens looked forward with hope to a peaceful and prosperous future.
Barely two years later, that hope was shattered, as South Sudan descended into one of the most horrific civil conflicts of our time. Now the promise of South Sudan’s hard-fought independence is slipping away.
Just to the southwest, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been in turmoil since the 1990s. The DRC has never witnessed a democratic, peaceful transfer of power. Instead, this mineral-rich country in the heart of Africa has been plagued by dozens of armed groups vying for power and control, with rape used as a weapon of war, and children recruited as soldiers.
In both cases, mass populations of innocent civilians are bearing the consequences. In South Sudan, 6 million people face life-threatening hunger. Nearly 2 million refugees — two-thirds of whom are children — have fled South Sudan, creating Africa’s largest and fastest-growing refugee crisis.
In the DRC, the government cannot provide basic services to 8 million civilians in need, 5 million of whom are children. Displacement has increased over the last year, and the country now has nearly 4 million internally displaced people — the largest in all of Africa.
The United States has many interests in these war-torn African countries. Our interests are certainly humanitarian, but they are also economic and strategic.
Throughout the world, we have seen that desperate situations can lead to dangerous results. For this reason, President Donald Trump recently asked me to travel to the region to get a first-hand picture of what can be done. I will also visit Ethiopia — which hosts both the headquarters of the African Union and one of the largest communities of South Sudanese refugees in the world.
In crises like these, the United Nations can play a critical role. That usually takes the form of humanitarian assistance, facilitating a political process and, when necessary, providing a peacekeeping force. In South Sudan and the DRC, the UN is engaging on all three fronts — including maintaining two of the world’s largest peacekeeping missions, and operating two of its most complex relief operations.
At times, the UN’s efforts are invaluable. The relief operation in South Sudan has helped avert the spread of famine. However, the UN’s track record of long-term success is not good. Neither South Sudan nor the DRC has shown any real progress toward political solutions that would stop the violence. Without political will from these countries, the UN cannot achieve its goals.
The UN spends over $2 billion per year on the peacekeeping missions in these two countries alone. The United States is by far its largest financial donor. The goodwill and generosity of the American people are well-known, and we will continue to help the most vulnerable. But we will not do that if our assistance is continuously blocked from reaching people in need. We need to see progress toward political solutions in both countries that lead to sustained peace and stability for their people.
While we’ll take a critical look at what the UN is doing on the ground, we’ll also meet DRC and South Sudanese leaders to deliver a strong message that their governments need to stop making the work of aid workers and peacekeepers more difficult. Crucially, we’ll also hear directly from refugees and internally displaced people who have fled the violence.
I’m sure we’ll meet some brave people and hear some disturbing stories. These stories must continue to be told so the world can put faces next to the harrowing statistics.
The United States remains committed to easing the suffering of civilians wherever we can, to engaging with leaders to ease the suffering of their people, and to ensuring the UN is efficient in addressing these crises. Our goal is to serve American interests, and to help give the tens of millions of citizens of the DRC and South Sudan the opportunity to return home, live in peace, and build a prosperous future for their countries and their families.