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Crisis In South Sudan Merits A High-Level U.S. Envoy, Proponents Say


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants to streamline the State Department, including getting rid of many special envoys, diplomats who are focused on a specific issue or conflict. But activists say there is one crisis that really needs a high-level diplomat and soon. South Sudan is in the midst of a civil war, and now parts of the country are facing famine. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Recently back from a trip to South Sudan, Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, is trying to raise the alarms. He says he warned the country's president Salva Kiir to stop using hunger as a weapon of war and told him South Sudan could lose U.S. financial support. The South Sudanese leader, Coon says, didn't believe him.


CHRIS COONS: He then asserted that President Trump would be his best friend and that he would now find a close ally and a supporter in our new president. And I, again, fairly pointedly suggested to him that President Trump may not know of South Sudan, may not know of President Kiir and may have other priorities.

KELEMEN: Coons, who was speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, is a proponent of U.S. foreign assistance. But he says leaders in South Sudan can't simply count on unending support from Washington.


COONS: That is the, I think, potential tragedy here. A slow rolling tragedy is the mistaken perception of the president of a young nation that he's not responsible for finding a path towards peace, towards opening an effective national dialogue and towards welcoming the opposition into a process that will actually reconcile the country.

KELEMEN: The United States played a key diplomatic role in South Sudan's independence. And Senator Coons says the Trump administration should name a new envoy to try to help end the civil war and the resulting famine. The Trump administration is trying to cut back the number of special envoys, but a former one, Princeton Lyman, says this conflict needs one.

PRINCETON LYMAN: There are an awful lot of special envoys that have been named over the years. And many of them are subject matter, and they could be folded into the regular bureaucracy. But when you have a complicated conflict situation that covers a lot of different countries and requires virtually nonstop attention, that's where you use a special envoy.

KELEMEN: Lyman has also been proposing something more dramatic, an international trusteeship with the African Union taking control of South Sudan. He says that's one option since peace talks have failed.

LYMAN: There is a recognition that this process is not working, but there is a reluctance, too, within Africa to the idea that you would re - take back sovereignty from an African country. But I think the peace process isn't working and something along those lines, if not formally, that is still going to be necessary.

KELEMEN: So far, it's just an idea being discussed in academic circles. But the former U.S. envoy believes it's gaining traction. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.