October 8, 2013 (JUBA) - South Sudan has for the first time clarified a diplomatic incident involving vice-president James Wani Igga and foreign affairs and minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin during a recent visit to the United States.
The officials were part of a delegation dispatched to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) by member states at its headquarters in New York.
A senior diplomat who asked not to be named told Sudan Tribune that both Igga and Marial were singled out and made to undergo an aggressive and impolite security check on arrival at JFK International Airport on 21 September, despite showing diplomatic passports to security operatives.
According to the diplomat the two senior officials were made to remove their shoes and told to stand in an isolated area an entrance gate inside the airport lounge before being patted down by security staff.
It is understood that neither Igga or Marial raised the matter with their US counterparts during meetings on the sidelines of the UNGA.
In an exclusive interview with Sudan Tribune on Tuesday, ambassador Mawien Makol, who was speaking on behalf of the ministry of foreign affairs, said his government had received a letter from its embassy in Washington notifying them of what transpired.
Makol said it is understood the incident occurred after US officials who were expected to meet the delegation and assist with diplomatic processes failed to show up at the airport.
He said the South Sudanese government therefore did not believe the incident was a “deliberate act”, adding that relations remained strong and cordial between the two countries.
“We received the letter from our embassy in which they said the arrangements did not go well. They [the South Sudanese delegation] were expecting their counterpart to have been around so that they [could] help in making necessary diplomatic arrangements and processes”, Makol said.
“But still we believe it was not deliberate. Our relations can never be shaken”, he added.
Makol went on to explain that ties between the US and South Sudan were “strong and historical”, having been built around issues of mutual interest and cooperation, including economic development, security and good governance.
“Our ties with America are progressively advancing and holding fast for the benefits of the two countries”, he said, adding that the US had played a strong role in advocating for the July 2011 referendum in which South Sudan gained its independence from the north.
Makol has also warned against misinterpreting the incident.
However, critics say the incident relflects the level of frustration the Obama administration has reached with how Juba is managing the affairs of the country, given rising concerns over gross human rights violations, as well as the erosion of democratic principles, good governance and press freedom.