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16 September 2020

Despite Ceasefire Agreement in South Sudan, Intercommunal Conflicts Increase, Humanitarian Needs Grow, Civil Society Representative Tells Security Council

The international community must swiftly step up support to change the course of spiralling violence and growing humanitarian needs across South Sudan, a civil society representative and the heads of the United Nations Mission and agency working in the country told the Security Council, briefing the 15-member organ in a 16 September videoconference meeting.

Nyachangkuoth Rambang Tai, representing the organization Assistance Mission for Africa, said ongoing intercommunal conflicts have seen a violent tide rolling across most of South Sudan, despite commitments made in a ceasefire agreement among parties.  Meanwhile, flooding, locust infestation and the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened the situation, including the plight of women and girls, who face rising gender-based violence.  Calling on the Council to ensure civilian protection activities, she emphasized that all returns are safe and dignified and that respect for human rights must accompany all changes, including ending impunity for gender‑based violence.  She asked that Member States provide more funding to local organizations to continue their peacebuilding initiatives, adding that efforts must also support transitional justice as a critical tool to end impunity.

Outlining pressing challenges in South Sudan, she said years of conflict there have reinforced tribalism and fueled a cycle of violence.  Recalling her life, much of it lived against a backdrop of violence, she said she did not want her children to face the insecurity she and her parents had faced.  Today, women’s civil society groups are playing an important role in addressing intercommunal violence, she said, adding that part of her work is facilitating dialogue among parties to foster peace.

But, cooperation is needed among those aiming to help South Sudanese communities, she said.  Pointing at United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) civilian protection efforts, she said that, in some areas, residents had been surprised by its withdrawal, stressing that ample notice should be given ahead of transferring security duties to national authorities.  In addition, she, along with other women leaders, are currently challenging gender-related issues, including quotas in the Government based on the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan.  As such, she urged the Council to demand the full implementation of the agreed‑upon 35 per cent quota for women in all Government institutions, and to ensure the application on the ground of provisions in all agreements.

David Shearer, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, addressing political and security challenges, said that the Transitional Government of National Unity continues to function, and activities are progressing well within the clusters of ministries headed by the five Vice-Presidents.  State Governors have been appointed, easing tensions in the regions.  In the historically volatile Upper Nile State, however, a deadlock remains with the Government unwilling to appoint the opposition’s preferred candidate.  State ministerial positions were recently agreed, but county commissioners are delayed by the disagreements over the number of counties.

Elsewhere, progress has been painfully slow, he continued.  Cabinet meetings occur irregularly, and South Sudanese want to see the President and Vice‑Presidents meeting and working collectively.  There has been almost no movement on the critical area of security sector reform.  Forces who have collected for training are yet to graduate and those remaining are abandoning the camps because of lack of food and other shortages.  Despite the urging of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) heads of State in July, the Transitional National Legislative Assembly is yet to be reconstituted, so necessary new laws are not being passed and progress on the Constitution has also been delayed.  COVID-19 has slowed implementation of the peace agreement, including meeting key benchmarks, but the pandemic is not entirely to blame.  The continuing delays risk pushing elections out well beyond the timeline prescribed in the agreement.  That will add to the growing disillusionment among communities about whether the political will exists to give South Sudanese citizens the opportunity to choose their own leaders.

He said that there has been an upturn in subnational conflict stemming from splintering between and within groups.  The difference in 2020 is that external political actors are fuelling these local conflicts with military advice and heavy weapons.  From January to July, UNMISS documented 575 incidents of subnational conflict — an increase of 300 per cent compared to the same period in 2019.  In Jonglei alone, 600 people were killed in six months, women and children were kidnapped, and thousands fled their homes as they were looted and torched.  UNMISS organized a meeting with senior leaders to chart a way forward and will provide political and logistical support to build peace in Jonglei, including peacekeepers to monitor buffer zones, increasing capacity of police, and help with infrastructure development.

In Central Equatoria, the National Salvation Front has launched a series of politically motivated attacks, he said.  Despite claims that its actions are defensive, civilians and humanitarians are among the casualties of their ambushes.  The heavy-handed response of Government security forces has also taken its toll.  All parties are signatories to the ceasefire, and should respect this commitment, stop fighting and pull back.  UNMISS deployed peacekeepers to the area, but its troops were blocked by Government forces, despite earlier agreements for the deployment.

Turning to the protection of civilians sites, he said that the Juba site has become more of an outer suburb of the town.  Residents move back and forth daily to attend schools and university, to shop and go to work.  In consultation with Government, civil society, donors and internally displaced persons themselves, the Mission has gradually withdrawn troops and police from static duties at Bor and Wau sites.  That is likely to occur at the remaining three sites.  The spike in subnational violence is occurring in remote areas, not near these sites.  Freeing up troops from Wau and Bor sites has allowed the Mission to redeploy its forces to hotspots like Tonj and Jonglei where people are in immediate danger.  Following the gradual withdrawal of peacekeepers, these sites will be under sovereign control by South Sudan’s Government, not the United Nations.  Nobody will be pushed out or asked to leave when this transition occurs.  Humanitarian services will continue.  South Sudan’s police will be responsible for law and order, but United Nations police work closely with them to build capacity, and in some areas, co-locating with them.  Responsibility must lie with the Government to help its citizens to return home or find other land to settle.  The Government also holds primary responsibility for protecting their citizens — and respecting the rights of those displaced.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, briefing on the current situation in South Sudan, sought the Council’s support in three areas:  continued backing for efforts to find political solutions to end violence; using its influence to ensure that humanitarian relief operations are facilitated and aid workers are protected; and providing additional resources for the Humanitarian Response Plan.  Despite some encouraging developments since 2018 and the formation of the Transitional Government, humanitarian needs are again rising due to more violence, flooding and the COVID‑19 pandemic, which is bringing a host of health and wider consequences, including increasing food insecurity.

Citing recent reports, he said nearly 6.5 million people — more than half the country’s population — face severe food insecurity, with the pandemic worsening conditions.  Another 1.6 million vulnerable people — mainly in urban settings — have been pushed to the brink, he said, adding that, in 2020, 7.5 million people need humanitarian assistance, close to levels in 2017, when his office warned of looming famine.  In addition, 1.3 million children under age five are forecasted to be malnourished.  The risk is re-emerging in areas experiencing localized violence, with famine-like conditions reported in Jonglei and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.  Violence in these areas has destroyed livelihoods, forced people to flee their homes and driven down food production, he said, citing the experience of a 19-year-old woman from Pibor, who recently told United Nations staff that:  “We have been living a miserable life.  This all started in February, and we did not expect this situation to last for so long.  I ran into the bush with my three-month-old daughter.  She was sick and died in July.  Today is the first time that I have had access to a health-care facility since February.”

In addition, South Sudan’s economy is contracting, affected by lower global oil prices and the wider global recession, he said.  Juba has little money to respond to the pandemic’s health and socioeconomic impacts, basic commodity prices have increased sharply and COVID-19 is further pressuring an already fragile health system.  Around 75 per cent of all child deaths in South Sudan arise from preventable diseases.  While the Council of Ministers decided that schools, closed since March, can reopen, he said 2.2 million children were already out of school before the pandemic.  Emphasizing that two consecutive years of severe flooding has exacerbated food insecurity, malnutrition and displacement, affecting 1 million people in 2019, he said that:  “we fear the worst is yet to come”.

He said the pandemic, along with increased violence in some areas, has magnified pre-existing humanitarian access challenges.  Humanitarian agencies’ capacity to reach people who need aid is now limited in some areas, and authorities imposed a range of restrictions early in the pandemic.  Other challenges, however, continue to limit on-the-ground presence in some conflict‑affected areas.  Turning to concerns about safety for civilians and aid workers, he said this year’s violence has resulted in hundreds of deaths, another 157,000 displaced and the abduction of large numbers of women and children.  Although the 2018 revitalized peace agreement has allowed an expansion in humanitarian coverage and enabled some 1.1 million displaced people to return, about 1.6 million remain internally displaced.  To address this, efforts must ensure sustainable peace, land allocation and the presence of basic services in areas of return or where people choose to settle, he said, adding that an additional 2.2 million South Sudanese are still refugees in neighbouring countries, mainly in Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda.

The violence continues to take its toll on women and girls, he said.  Most incidents between May and July occurred during waves of local violence, with survivors unable to access timely medical or psychosocial assistance.  South Sudan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarian workers, with at least 122 aid workers killed since 2013.  Aid supplies have been looted on at least 17 occasions, and a number of health centres have been forced to suspend activities.  Still, the humanitarian response in South Sudan has assisted more than 5 million people in 2020, and is keeping millions of people from sliding into famine.  But, continued funding is needed, he said, adding that only one third of the $1.9 billion South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan has been funded.

Council members echoed calls for more sustained support during this critical time.  They also agreed that the Government must boost efforts to ensure all provisions of the 2018 peace agreement are implemented, with many calling for greater participation of women and for more efforts to support South Sudan during these challenging times.

The representative of the United States welcomed the briefing by Ms. Rambang, calling for the greater participation of women in all spheres of peace process.  Noting the two-year anniversary of the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, he said his country fully recognizes efforts to achieve key benchmarks.  “It is time for South Sudan’s leadership to redouble efforts to implement the peace agreement,” he said, urging the Transitional Government to work towards stability for its people, who are yet to see tangible benefits.  When asked if peace has come to South Sudan, women there did not believe so, unfortunately.  The humanitarian situation there is among the direst in the world.  The United States remains the largest provider of humanitarian aid, offering $40 million in COVID-19‑related assistance.  Welcoming the independent strategic review of UNMISS, he said South Sudan must treat the Mission as a partner, not a nemesis whose movements have to be restricted.  The country’s leadership must honour their own commitment so that the people of South Sudan can believe peace has come.

France’s representative noted that intercommunal violence continued, calling on the Transitional Government to implement the revitalized peace agreement.  He also urged the full participation of women and youth in the peace process, stressing the importance of security sector reform, the establishment of a hybrid court, and human rights protection towards creating lasting peace.  In Jonglei, violence and impunity are fuelling human rights violations.  He welcomed the adoption of a plan of action on children, also calling on the Transitional Government to uphold a moratorium on the death penalty and eventually abolish such practice.  The Mission should be granted freedom of movement.  Citing the tragic humanitarian situation, he called for the speedy unimpeded delivery of aid.

The Dominican Republic’s representative said he adds his voice to South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Beatrice Khamisa Wani in urging women to participate more in every area of governance and urges the parties to comply with the gender quota.  Under its Council presidency, his delegation held the open debate in April on accelerating implementation of the youth, peace and security agenda.  A South Sudanese young peacebuilder reminded the Council that young people there shaped the peace process through their participation in the High-Level Revitalization Forum and that a first Minister for Youth Affairs was designated, and a youth-led civil society coalition was created.  However, despite these achievements, young South Sudanese continue to face structural barriers to political, social and economic processes, he said, calling on Juba to ensure the full, equal and meaningful participation of youth in decision-making at all levels.

Germany’s delegate, wondering why the Government continued to restrict the movement of United Nations personnel, urged authorities to remove these obstacles.  He also wondered why a representative of South Sudan was not present at this meeting.  On security, he raised concerns about escalating violence, adding that the Government and peace agreement partners must do more.  Welcoming IGAD efforts in this regard, he wondered about which external actors were involved in fuelling violence.  More transparency, financial accountability and funding are needed.  Calling for the full implementation of the peace agreement’s provision on the 35 per cent quota for women in Government institutions, he also said action was needed to address humanitarian concerns, end attacks on aid workers and bring perpetrators to justice.  On the latter issue, he said it was unacceptable that two individuals on the United Nations sanctions list have just been promoted to high-level positions.  “The people of South Sudan deserve better,” he said, adding that progress would be impossible without good governance.

Viet Nam’s representative, while commending several recent gains, pointed out that progress has remained slow on several issues, with community violence a continuing concern.  Reiterating the importance of the full implementation of the 2018 peace agreement, he called on South Sudanese parties to spare no effort in advancing joint security arrangements and the formation of the Transitional National Assembly.  Encouraged to see female representation in the Government and the local leadership, Viet Nam anticipated women’s further participation.  Emphasizing the importance to uphold the permanent ceasefire, he said further effective measures are needed to address community violence.  As UNMISS is beginning to withdraw from various civilian protection sites, the Government must continue to strengthen its primary responsibility to protect citizens.  At the same time, economic and humanitarian challenges must be addressed.  Noting that the Council should only apply embargoes on a temporary and case-by-case manner, lifting them when conditions are met, he said that, as the Chair of the Committee established pursuant to resolution 2206 (2015), Viet Nam will continue to work closely with relevant Member States, the United Nations, IGAD and the African Union in advancing the implementation of agreements among South Sudanese parties, thereby facilitating a midterm review of the sanctions regime in December.

Estonia’s delegate said the full implementation of military unification and Government institutions is behind schedule, even though the compromise reached in June by South Sudan President Salva Kiir and First Vice-President Riek Machar on the allocation of states had given rise to hope for a new momentum.  As such, he urged both to agree on the Governor of Upper Nile and move on to other pressing issues.  The biggest “positive” step is the ceasefire between the parties to the peace agreement, but if ongoing subnational violence continues, things might take a turn for the worse.  Pointing out that high-ranking politicians and military commanders are also fuelling this violence, he said the current situation provides a timely reminder about the necessity of sanctions.  Meanwhile, impunity must end, he said, expressing hope that South Sudan authorities continue to prosecute and sentence members of the security forces to terms of imprisonment for serious crimes.  During these challenging times, it is important that humanitarian assistance and protection keeps flowing, he said, adding that the pandemic should not be used as a pretext to curb the UNMISS mandate or slow down the implementation of the peace agreement.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, speaking also for Niger, South Africa and Tunisia, welcomed progress, saying that the peace agreement’s full implementation is imperative.  She echoed the IGAD appeal for the dissolution of the current Transitional National Legislative Assembly and its reconstitution under the peace agreement.  Maintaining the ceasefire is also crucial to advance the dialogue process.  She welcomed the overall decrease in political violence and applauded the decision for disarming civilians.  South Sudan continues to demonstrate political growth as a maturing democracy, not only domestically, but regionally and internationally, as demonstrated by its approach to convening successful peace talks in Juba.  But, the country continues to face a dire humanitarian situation.  Acknowledging the international community’s support to complement Government humanitarian response efforts, she said much more needs to be done, encouraging donors to assist in filling the deficit gap and achieving the $1.9 billion required for South Sudan’s Humanitarian Response Plan.  She called on South Sudan leaders to assist in facilitating humanitarian access and urged the authorities to protect aid workers.  Beyond the headlines of South Sudan’s humanitarian challenges, the tale of climate change also needs considerable attention and action.

Indonesia’s representative emphasized the vital importance of ensuring humanitarian access, which was made even more difficult by the coronavirus.  With 6 million people affected by hunger, aid delivery is critical to avoiding famine.  The movement of UNMISS personnel in helping deliver humanitarian assistance must be respected, especially during the pandemic.  Turning to intercommunal violence, he said dialogue is the best solution to lasting peace, stressing the need for the Mission to enhance its community engagement.  On the safety of peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, he said the killing of aid workers is unacceptable and requires full accountability.

China’s representative, expressing a concern about the negative impacts of COVID-19 and falling oil prices on the economy and South Sudanese’s livelihood, welcomed progress made on the peace process.  All parties must sustain this momentum.  Sporadic intercommunal violence needs attention.  The fragile health‑care system, food insecurity and additional difficulties brought by COVID‑19 have weakened infrastructure to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  China supports Juba’s development path.  Enhancing the safety of peacekeepers requires progress on the political process and favourable economic conditions.

The Russian Federation’s representative took note of progress on the peace process, saying that, two years since its signing, the peace agreement is working, and the parties are committed to implement the accord.  In that regard, the international community should continue to provide support.  The sides have demonstrated their readiness to overcome differences.  Expressing a concern over an uptick in intercommunal violence, she urged not to dramatize the situation.  There is no doubt that regional partners, such as IGAD, play the leading role in advancing peace in South Sudan.  African problems need African solutions.  Progress on the peace process can be attributed to political will, not the sanctions or unilateral measures.  In that regard, her delegation wishes to see a comprehensive review of sanctions.

Belgium’s delegate, expressing deep concern about the alarming political and ethnic dimensions of the ongoing violence, urged the South Sudan Government to step up its efforts for dialogue and asked UNMISS to support initiatives that can lower tensions.  He encouraged the Mission to continue protecting civilians, including by establishing temporary operating bases.  Raising concerns about reports of human rights violations, widespread sexual violence and other atrocities, he said prevention efforts are needed along with ending impunity.  Indeed, transitional justice is indispensable to achieve sustainable peace, national reconciliation and healing, he said, urging the Government to make justice a priority.  The protection of civilians remains at the core of the UNMISS mandate, and pending meaningful progress on security sector reform, there is reason to act very prudently when transferring United Nations control of protection sites to sovereign actors.  In addition, all parties must return to the spirit of compromise and reaffirm their commitment to the peace agreement.

The United Kingdom’s representative underlined the need to accelerate the peace agreement’s implementation.  Ongoing violence remains the key driver of humanitarian needs in South Sudan, he said, calling on Juba and those involved to make concerted efforts to stop the killing and address the root causes of conflict.  He also called on all parties to engage in the Rome process and for all sides to respect the cessation of hostilities.  Given the current landscape, urgent action is needed to address food insecurity and to provide more resources.  In addition, South Sudan’s Government must ensure that humanitarian workers can access communities in need and that UNMISS can carry out its mandate.  The primary responsibility for protecting South Sudan’s citizens rests with the Government, he said.  The Mission’s plan for sites should be implemented in close consultation with affected communities and humanitarian actors, and Juba must cooperate rather than inhibit UNMISS.  He echoed others’ hope that South Sudan’s delegate can join the Council in December to give members the Government’s perspective on these issues.

For information media. Not an official record.