NAIROBI, Kenya — Secretary of State John Kerry condemned South Sudan's warring president and opposition leader as "disgraceful" Monday for squandering the promise of the world's youngest country and pledged $5 million to create a court or another institution that might one day hold perpetrators of the nation's violence accountable.
Speaking in neighboring Kenya, Kerry delivered an impassioned and even angry plea to President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar to compromise for the sake of their impoverished nation — and one the United States, more than anyone else, was instrumental in establishing. Tens of thousands have been killed in a power struggle that has raged since December 2013. More than 2 million have been uprooted from their homes.
"With each day, the ranks of the hungry and the malnourished grow," Kerry said after discussing South Sudan's crisis with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and other officials. "And none of this had to happen. But it did happen because the country's leaders failed to act on behalf of the best interests of their people and their nation."
Kerry demanded that Kiir and Machar "silence the guns" and agree to establish a transitional government, while lamenting that neither has "chosen to make the compromises needed for peace."
And in an implicit threat, the secretary of state said the U.S. was committing new funds to "create a credible, impartial and effective justice mechanism, such as a hybrid court, in order to hold perpetrators of violence to account." He called on governments around the world to donate money to efforts that promote justice and reconciliation, which South Sudan's citizens "so richly deserve."
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 following decades of armed struggle. But almost immediately, the impoverished, landlocked country was beset by interethnic and political rivalries. Those broke out into full-scale civil conflict 17 months ago when Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of trying to overthrow the government. Machar denied the accusation, accusing the government of rooting out political opponents.
The violence quickly spread, sparking a series of ethnically motivated attacks and counterattacks and drawing in troops from neighboring countries. Washington has tried desperately to pressure each side into peace talks, and Kerry said in an interview with South Sudan's "Eye Radio" on Monday that he spent his Christmas vacation on the phone with Kiir and Machar trying unsuccessfully to get to them to impose a cease-fire.
He called the political stalemate and their avoidance of responsibility for human rights violations "disgraceful," saying such behavior was destabilizing all of East Africa and indirectly keeping al-Shabaab and other extremist groups alive.
For the United States, South Sudan isn't just another example of a weak African state struggling to deal with political infighting, endemic poverty and deadly battles between the military and rebels. Because of its history as a largely Christian nation that was able to win its freedom from Muslim-dominated Sudan, the South has a powerful constituency in Washington. And the bloodshed has been an ongoing embarrassment to the U.S., which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the country and been its strongest international champion.
In his radio interview, Kerry said the U.S. wouldn't abandon South Sudan and instead was trying to keep it from disintegrating. He noted the recent appointment of a U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, William Booth, to spearhead efforts.