An Interview with Susan D. Page, U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan
Susan D. Page was confirmed as the Ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan on October 18, 2011. She first joined the State Department in 1991 in the Office of the Legal Advisor for Politico-Military Affairs. From 2002-2005, Page was the legal advisor to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Secretariat for Peace in Sudan. She was instrumental in negotiating and drafting key provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) for the Sudan. Afterwards, Page served as the Director of the Rule of Law and Prison Advisory Unit at the UN Mission to Sudan, where she provided legal and constitutional advice to the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) to the Sudan on the implementation of the CPA. From 2008-2010, Page served as Regional Director for Southern and East Africa at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). She is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
Well, I actually had a sort of interesting start to my career; I actually started after I finished Harvard Law School. Afterwards, I won a fellowship to do some legal research in Nepal and I ended up getting an offer from the legal advisor’s office to join when I came back, which I did, and the legal advisor was actually civil service, so it was unusual that I actually switched from the Office of the Legal Advisor into the Foreign Service. I wanted to do public international law and promote policy, but I also wanted to be overseas, so it was because of a desire to make a difference, but also to advance foreign policy.
The Politic: You are the U.S. Ambassador to the newest country in the world and were involved in the comprehensive peace agreement for the Sudan. How do these unique circumstances affect your role in South Sudan? Do you feel as if you are nation-building? Or is it similar to your experience in other countries?
For me, it isn’t really a unique opportunity. As that old commercial goes, you never really get a second chance to make a first impression. I really feel as if this is such an exclusive opportunity to be the first ambassador in a brand new country. And the experience that I had embarking on Sudan and South Sudan issues through the peace agreement and peace process — that carried over, and I have been actively engaged in trying to build a new nation. That has been very helpful for outreach and access, so that has been very good.
In terms of if I feel as if it is similar to other places, yes and no. Oddly, nobody thinks about Sudan as the first country to gain its independence. But they gained their independence also from Anglo-Egyptian condominium, but, in any case, most countries in Africa at least inherited these institutions of the colonial power. There wasn’t really much of that here in Southern Sudan. So even after the comprehensive peace agreement was signed it took several months before the South Sudanese could institute a capital. It was a kind of garrison town controlled by the Sudan Armed Forces — they had to pull their troops out and then for the civilian-led government to come in. There was almost no infrastructure; there were not any paved roads; dilapidated buildings that were literally falling apart because of the war.
So we really inherited almost nothing; they really had to start from scratch. We are not talking about just ordering some new furniture — they didn’t have pens, papers, and stationery, let alone computers, electricity, and running water, vehicles, roads. It certainly is nation-building. I don’t know that I would say that I feel my role is nation-building, but certainly to try to encourage South Sudan along their path to build a nation and using their resources to try to help the citizen population, but they have just started off after independence. Anyways, they are even further behind than most of the nations that need foreign assistance and that’s pretty striking.
The Politic: In the wake of the creation of South Sudan, there are still several areas along the shared border of Sudan and South Sudan that are under dispute. What efforts are being taken to resolve these conflicts?
Last year, the African Union Security Council passed a joint resolution that the African Union highlighted that the Constitution have a proposal, which had a High-Level Implementation Panel, or HIP, led by former President Thabo Mbeki. And, basically, the corner of this proposal was a resolution dealing with outstanding issues — it passed a joint resolution that encouraged the African Union Security Council to remain active and engaged with the AUHIP. It included in the resolution a measure to combine the different security cooperation agreements that sort of led to this agreement.
The AUHIP is essentially charged with dealing with the different parties in the disputed territories, demarcating a border, beginning the creation of a demilitarized border zone, and mandatory law enforcement of the borders by long-term monitors from both Sudan and South Sudan. The AUHIP is really in charge of this process because that will result in the final status of the outstanding border issues. And the UN Security Council Resolution 2046 supported the UN Security Council resolution. That is good. We need the negotiating parties of Sudan and South Sudan to mutually resolve disparities so the part of Sudan we want to create a demarcated border across is no longer disputed. But for now it is still inside Sudan. The point of that was to create negotiations between the AUHIP and the government of Sudan over access to food and healthcare for the people from inside the two states who are really suffering from the border conflict. So, essentially, it is the AUHIP that has the main responsibility and opportunity to facilitate peace and security along the border. This is supported by the United Nations Resolution.
The Politic: Recently, there have been reports of major human rights violations, lack of rule of law, and repression of freedom of speech within South Sudan. These issues are a challenge to a democratic governmental system. How are you and the current government addressing these issues and supporting the burgeoning democratic government of South Sudan?
There are a number of issues we are trying to address. We have very active programs; one is the State Department, the Center for Peace, as well as the Justice Department. The government of South Sudan is trying to address issues like the professional army — how they need to address the control and expansion of security, how they can have a professional army with virtually no military educational training — so those kinds of programs that create a military educational training program. We have programs supporting a highway police unit, really working with police to help garrison roadways and to improve their strength. Of course, where the garrison is not assisting, there are still a lot of problems and crime; however, we are determined and committed to identifying direct violations.
There are some units of the military in particular that we cannot assist, but where we can, we are concentrating on education and security programs. We also have an Access to Justice program that is helping people through the Judicial Review Initiative. We have a program to educate the population on the Constitution, on the Constitutional review process, as well as national elections negotiations. We have to monitor the ongoing political process in South Sudan; it is very different from other parties, it is not just a mission statement, but includes a resolution for the establishment of political parties in Southern Sudan on a Constitution that is eternally based on democratic documents, that is something I never expected.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies and how so?
When you say “my country,” do you mean the United States?
The Politic: I mean the country you are ambassador to — South Sudan.
I am going to give you two. When I first got to Sudan and South Sudan, I had been an officer in Rwanda and I had gotten a call to rejuvenate the peace process in Sudan. I said I really didn’t know that much about Sudan and they said, “You’re aware, you have state department negotiating skills, you have been in Africa for umpteen years, so we think you would be the right person for the job.” So I did, and I was at the beginning of that rejuvenated peace process, where I had the opportunity to initiate how the IGAD mediation worked and we came right to the mediation table.
We were a very tiny mediation team and we were led by Lieutenant General Lazaro Sumbeiywo, who was just a fabulous negotiator. We also had experts that came in to help us as mediators listen to the Sudanese and Southern Sudanese. They talked about what their grievances were and we tried to figure out the best way to incorporate that and how to resolve those issues in a fair way. I have come here and worked almost exclusively on Sudan- and South Sudan-related issues. And when I first came to Sudan after the peace agreement was signed, even though I had been in other countries, I was able to watch the development. I heard and understood their ideas, which might not have been politically correct during the time they negotiated. But hearing why they believed what they believed was very important to me.
Even though there may have been other qualified people and even though I know you can’t know everything about a place, I feel like I have a connection to South Sudan because of my experience with them through that process. I had the opportunity to travel with General Sumbeiywo to South Sudan and meet not just with their leaders and representatives and different officials — it had a bit of a subtext. Is it just a rally because they know important people are coming or because they have been told they need to go out and rally behind this leader, or is it something more than that? That was really important, that I had the opportunity to meet with John Garang [the President of Sudan between January and July of 2005] and hear what his revisions were.
I was able to ask for Machakos, which was the very first part of the peace agreements to help secure the signature of Salva Kiir, who had been deputy to John Garang, and then went on to become Vice President. That was the one and only part of that entire CPA protocol that he signed. He signed that first one, which was very important, because that gave Southern Sudan the right to self-determination and the right to have a secular South Sudan. And I think about that often and I think about how privileged I am to have witnessed the signing of the document that ended the longest-running Civil War in Africa. I feel like I am privileged in the people I have met along the way — General Sumbeiywo is really just a fantastic person that I have stayed in touch with. He is fantastic at listening to others and not being intimidated by people that had good ideas — he would accept that idea and he would give that person credit for coming up with something creative. It is not about him, it’s really about peace. And that, to me, is being a ‘peacemaker.’
The Politic: Do you have any advice for young people interested in the Foreign Service or State Department?
I believe that there’s not just one path; you need to explore all of your options. There are fellowships — there is the Pickering Fellowship, there are other opportunities for fellowship, there are fellowships for after you graduate and can finish that Fellow’s Program, there are opportunities outside the State Department. The State Department has USAID, but there are actually a number of foreign affairs agencies and I encourage people to think about those agencies as well, which include, for instance, the Commerce Department, Treasury Department, the various military agencies. There are also lots of opportunities in the Justice Department, you know; I could go on. There are the Diplomats in Residence at a number of colleges and universities. So for university students, or even if you are in your Master’s program, look up your Diplomat in Residence at your school or your college.
We also have the Hometown Ambassadors Program. You don’t need to be an actual ambassador for this program, but when you go home to visit your family or your friends, you get to actually go into the high schools and visit. Now, it’s not a separate program that pays well because you are already doing that, but you can give information, at least, about recruitment and things like that and sorts of ideas to talk about. The average American does not live in the Washington D.C. area, so you meet lots of different kinds of people that may be interested in international relations or foreign affairs. Moreover, they get to hear from young, middle-aged, or older-aged diplomats who might be a management officer, or a public affairs officer, or a political affairs officer, or even an econ officer. And you’ll find that they are very interested and they have a lot to contribute to a conversation about foreign affairs. You’ll be encouraged to pass the Foreign Service exam — you can always take it again if you don’t.
There are other options as well. The best thing to do is to talk to people who work in the area of interest of you, reach out to people who may work in the State Department — they will have plenty of advice.
Embassy of the United States to South Sudan: http://southsudan.usembassy.gov/index.html