Peace talks started in South Sudan, but quickly hit a roadblock

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World.
Warring factions in South Sudan may have taken a small step towards peace. The two sides actually sat down, today, for peace talks in Ethiopia. So far, they don't have much to show for it; the talks hit a bump right away over rebel demands that the government release several supporters of former vice president, Riek Machar. South Sudan's government blames him for starting the violence, which so far has killed more than a thousand people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Gayle Smith is a senior director at the National Security Council, and one of President Obama's advisors on South Sudan.

Gayle Smith: This is a part of Africa centered right in the heart of East Africa and the horn, where neither we nor the people of the region can afford to have a failed state. And it's a fragile country to begin with. It's newly independent. South Sudan, and the people of South Sudan, have lived most of their lives in war until they achieved independence a couple of years ago.

Werman: And where do oil interests come into play, and specifically, China's domination of that South Sudanese and Sudan market? Does that concern the US?

Smith: China has vast interests in oil in Africa, and has been very assertive in trying to acquire as much oil as they can from the continent. I don't think that plays in this conflict in particular at all.

Werman: You don't?

Smith: I mean, it's a factor in the sense that Riek Machar's forces and government forces are fighting in the areas where South Sudan's oil is found. That will be a nice patch of territory for either side to grab a hold of. But it's not a driver of the conflict in any sense.

Werman: Do you think China could, or even should, be playing a bigger role in getting parties to the table?

Smith: I think China could play a very important role, and they have--I mean, what they have said publicly is that the parties need to negotiate politically. I think hearing more of that from China would be very helpful.

Werman: So, US officials, as you know, played a key role in helping South Sudan split from the north, and the Obama White House was proud of helping to usher in the newest nation in the world, two years ago. But now, government soldiers in South Sudan, and rebels, they're killing their own citizens. I mean, does that make you think any differently about the role the US has played there?

Smith: No, I think in fact if you look at the US role, it's really quite interesting. You can go back 20 years and there's a long history of successive administrations, members of Congress, both parties, both Houses, students, faith-based groups across the country, working very arduously for a very, very long time in support of the rights of the people of South Sudan. I don't think that we would, in any way, say that because what has happened over the last three weeks, their right to self-determination or to vote in a referendum wasn't a valid one; it certainly was. I think the challenge, again, that we're facing is after, pretty much, straight conflict from 1955 to until it reached independence. A lack of development, weak institutions; we are seeing the vulnerabilities of what people commonly refer to as fragile states, and we're making every investment we can in trying to bring this conflict to a quick end, and focus on what will be the very, very, very difficult process of political negotiations.

Werman: How close is the White House watching these allegations of people being killed based on ethnic group that they belong to?

Smith: Very, very, very closely. That's very much in the forefront of everybody's mind, and again, it's one of the reasons that this conflict is so terribly, terribly dangerous, and why we, and everyone else, are pushing very hard on all the parties, whatever their disputes may be, to solve them politically rather than militarily. Because it has unleashed a current of ethnic violence that could spiral well out of control. So we're very focused on that.

Werman: Gayle Smith, the senior director for Global Development and Humanitarian Issues at the National Security Council. Thank you very much for your time.

Smith: Thank you, Marco.

Do you enjoy our audio? Please help support it with a donation.