UN Ambassador Power: U.S. engaged in ‘relentless’ diplomacy in South Sudan

As South Sudan battles a widespread and volatile rebellion, the U.S. has focused on securing American citizens and helping the U.N. to strengthen security forces in the region. Gwen Ifill talks to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power about the outlook for diplomacy in South Sudan, as well as the Central African Republic.

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    I spoke with Samantha Power this afternoon just before Security Council voted.

    Ambassador Power, thank you for joining us.

    It's only been a week since everything fell apart in South Sudan. How did it happen so fast?

    SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Well, as you know, there have been deep political divisions that have been playing themselves out for some time.

    But when president Kiir responded to maneuverings within his own government by making arrests, then a full-on rebellion was declared, and, as they say, the rest is history. We have been living with the consequences of that.

    So, you now have SPLA, the Sudanese government — South Sudanese government army, up against a rebellion that's pretty widespread and very volatile.


    We know that there are some American forces on the ground in neighboring countries poised to act. Do we know how much U.S. military action might be involved?


    Well, we have been focused on securing the fate and security of U.S. citizens.

    And we have performed and the U.S. military has help perform, along with the United Nations, evacuations of personnel, U.S. citizens who wanted to get out. There was also a departure of embassy staff and so forth. We just have a small presence remaining to try to help with the diplomacy. So, that is our emphasis.

    Our parallel emphasis is helping the U.N. secretary-general beef up the U.N. forces that are on the ground. As you know, yesterday, the secretary-general came to the Security Council and asked for permission to move about 5,500 troops and police from other missions, principally in Africa, but also elsewhere in the world, to South Sudan so that the relatively small U.N. force there could get support.

    And so we're focused on doing what we can to support the secretary-general, do that as quickly as possible, because time is of the essence.


    When the president said in his letter to Congress that he may take further action to support the security of Americans on the ground, how far would further action go?


    Well, I'm not going to speculate on what is going to happen on the ground. We have so many contingencies, so many things that we're working through right now.

    Again, our focus is working the political track, the diplomacy. Don Booth, our special enjoy, is in Juba today, just as he was yesterday. He will be there again tomorrow. He's shuttling between the parties, reinforcing the efforts also by African foreign ministers to try to get President Kiir and Riek Machar, the person who is leading the rebellion on the other side, to start negotiating and to have a political dialogue, because this armed approach that both sides are taking is going to be extremely perilous for the country.


    Are those talks imminent?


    Well, I think we're pushing. It's very hard to say, and I don't want to get in to the details.

    But the contacts between U.S. officials and senior officials on the ground in South Sudan have been extensive, even relentless, you might say. And we are determined to do everything we can and leverage the very strong relationship we have had with South Sudan and with the South Sudanese people for so long to try to help calmer and cooler heads prevail here.

    But the African Union and a number of African foreign ministers are also active in this regard. So, it's safe to say that President Kiir and Riek Machar are hearing from a lot of people this Christmas Eve.


    You're just back from a trip to the Central African Republic, where things also seem to be veering out of control. How did that happen?


    Well, again, similar, in the sense that there's a rebellion that took hold in part of the country and swept through the country, run by a group that call themselves Seleka, which just means alliance. It was a principally Muslim group.

    There had been, as I learned on the trip again, great religious harmony between and among Muslims and Christians on the ground in the Central African Republic for many years. But the looting and the killings that accompanied this sweep through the Central African Republic have led to Christians on the other side forming these self-defense militia known as anti-Balaka, or anti-machete, militia.

    So, now what you have is a dynamic where you have ex-Seleka forces who are seen as Muslim forces and anti-Balaka forces seen as Christian forces targeting people sometimes just on religious grounds, in fact, increasingly often just on religious grounds.

    The good news, such as it is, is that the African Union has been very responsive to the circumstances on the ground and themselves have increased the troop ceiling, just as we're doing in South Sudan, to try to deploy more Africans into the Central African Republic.


    You mentioned the dependence on African Union peacekeepers, not only in CAR, but also in Sudan. Are they being stretched a little thin, and does the U.N. need to beef up its peacekeeping presence?


    I will take — let me take each question in turn.

    Are they being stretched a little thin? I think the answer is yes. The demands on African peacekeepers are higher than they have been in a very long time. Let's recall also the Somalia mission, which has made a lot of headway against Al-Shabab, the mission in Mali, which contested the presence of al-Qaida-affiliated forces, and is doing a very important job not only maintaining peace and security for the people of Mali, but also fending off the presence of extremists who could present problems across the broader region and beyond.

    So, if you combine those very large missions with these two that we have discussed, yes, the demands are very high. And so it is true that U.N. peacekeeping as a whole right now is at one of its high watermarks in the history of the U.N. peacekeeping. And so one of the things that we're seeking to do is to try to get more countries interested in deploying their forces and wearing blue helmets, because the needs are feeling very great right now.


    You mentioned Somalia.

    Around the world, there are a couple of different lessons to be taken from that. One is to stay out. And the other is that you can't allow big states to fail. Which lesson can you apply in this case?


    Well, I think that what we all know now is that, particularly when you have a failed state or an undergoverned or ungoverned space — and that is the Central African Republic — that's how I would describe it, having visited it, just so little electricity across the country, so few roads that are even impassable.

    When you see then state failure, where a government collapses as occurred in the Central African Republic over the last year, nothing good comes of that. And the people who take advantage of environments like that are extremists of all kinds, whether it's Boko Haram or Al-Shabab or al-Qaida-affiliated forces or just extremists of the kind who are now lynching Muslims or lynching Christians in the Central African Republic.

    So, there's both the imperative of the international community and the regional players coming together to try to help the people of the Central African Republic, because they matter intrinsically. And then there's the additional collateral reality that we have encountered, as you suggest, in Somalia and Mali and elsewhere, which is that these borders are huge among these countries, not very well-patrolled, and the kinds of unsavory elements that gravitate toward situations like this are ones that cross borders and cause havoc for our core interests as well.


    U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, thank you so much for joining us.


    Thanks for having me, Gwen.