Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that South Sudan's President Salva Kiir pledged to open talks with the former vice president who's leading an insurgency against him, though monitors of the conflict say it's too early to call the development a breakthrough.
Kerry visited South Sudan's capital, Juba, on Friday as part of travels this week throughout Africa. The visit comes as U.S., U.N. and international humanitarian officials warn that the violence in South Sudan is pushing the young nation ever closer to famine and charges of genocide.
Some international aid groups had hoped that Kerry would take the opportunity to announce sanctions against the rival factions of president Kiir and former vice president-turned-rebel leader Riek Machar; both are accused of using rape, child soldiers and massacres as tools of war.
President Barack Obama last month authorized punitive sanctions against anyone in South Sudan that U.S. officials determine to be threatening to peace efforts, but no sanctions have been announced and the White House seeks to avoid such punitive measures against a government it was instrumental in establishing when South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011.
Instead of announcing sanctions Friday, Kerry said after meeting with Kiir that the leader had vowed to take "forceful steps" toward implementing a cease-fire agreement that was dead on arrival, and toward opening talks about a transitional government. Kerry didn't meet with Machar, but planned to call him later Friday.
Kerry said South Sudan could face "major famine" and that "if both sides do not take steps in order to reduce or end the violence, they literally put their entire country in danger." Kerry's full remarks are here.
The White House has faced criticism that it's been too slow in acknowledging atrocities from not only the rebel side but from forces loyal to the U.S.-backed Kiir government. Only recently has the administration become more explicit in calling it out as contributing to the bloodshed.
In Juba, Kerry said that while the U.S. administration doesn't apply "any kind of equivalency" between an elected, sitting president and a rebel force, "both sides are now reportedly recruiting child soldiers and there are appalling accounts of sexual violence in the conflict."
The decision to wait on sanctions was frustrating to some humanitarian aid groups that have watched the violence soar in recent months. There's also growing impatience on the Hill; a bipartisan group of nine senators sent a letter to Obama this week urging him to impose sanctions.
In any case, according to close monitors of the conflict, targeted sanctions would be largely symbolic because so few of the potential targets have U.S. assets or travel regularly to the United States. Still, proponents of sanctions say, Kiir would get the message that the United States would no longer tolerate or ignore the actions of his government and its loyalists.