Expected Council Action
In May, the Council expects to renew the mandate of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). The Council is also expected to extend the mission’s support for the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM), established in 2011 to conduct monitoring and verification activities along the Sudan/South Sudan border.
The mandate of UNISFA and the mission’s support for the JBVMM expire on 15 May.
Key Recent Developments
Sudan and South Sudan are both undergoing significant political transitions and, according to the Secretary-General’s most recent report on UNISFA, “have paid limited attention to their responsibilities regarding Abyei”, the disputed territory along the Sudan/South Sudan border. Meanwhile, the security situation in Abyei remains fragile, with elevated intercommunal tensions, an increase in criminality, and the presence of armed elements in UNISFA’s area of responsibility, as described in the report, which covers 16 October 2019 to 15 April. As of 31 March, UNISFA included 3,486 troops (out of 3,550 authorised) and a police component of 37 officers (out of 640 authorised) with the low rate of deployment of the latter attributed to the non-issuance of visas by Sudan. According to the Secretary-General’s report, UNISFA continues to discuss the need to facilitate the deployment of the remaining police personnel with Sudan.
Discussions are also still ongoing on the appointment of a civilian deputy head of mission which was first requested in resolution 2469, adopted on 14 May 2019. The request was consistent with the views of the Secretary-General, who stated in a 20 August 2018 letter (S/2018/778) that the mission “has lacked the civilian tools to keep the parties engaged in the advancement of their dialogue politically” to resolve the final status of Abyei, and recommended the appointment of a civilian deputy head of mission to function as the main focal point on political matters. (The current head of mission is also the force commander, Major General Mehari Gebremariam.)
The Secretary-General’s most recent report also details steps being taken by the mission in response to COVID-19, including appointing a designated coordinator and task force. (Although Sudan and South Sudan have confirmed cases, at the time of writing, the mission itself has not recorded any cases among its personnel.)
The mandate of UNISFA was last renewed for six months by resolution 2497, adopted on 14 November 2019. The resolution maintained the authorised troop ceiling at 3,550 and the police ceiling at 640. It also extended the mission’s support for the JBVMM until 15 May. The resolution expressed concern about efforts by both Sudan and South Sudan to impede UNISFA from executing its mandate fully, including by withholding visas for police and blocking the appointment of a civilian deputy head of mission. In relation to the latter, the resolution reiterated the request to the Secretary-General to appoint a civilian deputy head of mission for UNISFA. (See our What’s In Blue story of 13 November 2019.)
The Council was last briefed on the issue on 28 April via VTC by Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix. He said that “a volatile security situation, rising intercommunal tensions and an increase in the presence of armed groups are part of a challenging landscape, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic” and called for a six-month extension of the mission’s mandate. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga also briefed.
Key Issues and Options
A key issue for the Council to consider leading up to UNISFA’s renewal in May is the overall appropriateness of the mission’s current mandate in relation to the situation on the ground and what modifications, if any, to make to the mandate and force structure. This assessment is likely to be informed by the observations and recommendations contained in the Secretary-General’s report on UNISFA, which include extending the mandate of UNISFA for another six months; emphasising the need for progress towards resolving the status of Abyei, “as an open-ended mandate for UNISFA is not acceptable or affordable”; and encouraging the AU to increase its involvement on the issue “as the main political mediator”.
The difficulty of obtaining visas for members of UNISFA’s police component, attributed to Sudan’s refusal to issue them, has been a longstanding issue. Another issue is the failure to appoint a civilian deputy head of mission as requested by the Council in May 2019, in light of ongoing discussions with Sudan and South Sudan. It is likely that the visa problems and the protracted difficulties with appointing a civilian deputy head of mission will be discussed further during negotiations ahead of UNISFA’s mandate renewal.
As in previous years, the Council’s attention to the situation in Abyei remains limited, largely overshadowed by its ongoing engagement on South Sudan and Sudan. However, the upcoming 15 May expiration of UNISFA’s mandate and its support for the JBVMM present opportunities for Council members to focus on the issue.
Negotiations around the mission’s troop and police levels have generally been contentious in the past, with the US typically seeking further troop reductions. It has asserted that UNISFA is persisting longer than intended for an interim force and that Sudan and South Sudan are taking advantage of the relative stability that UNISFA provides to delay attempts to resolve the status of Abyei. The US has also pressed for a viable exit strategy for the mission. Unlike previous years, however, the US did not seek a troop reduction during negotiations on resolution 2497 in November 2019, making negotiations far less contentious than during previous mandate renewals. Language on gender was slightly amended in resolution 2497 after Russia broke silence, with the reference to “adequate expertise on gender and protection” changed to “adequate expertise on women and child protection”. (See our What’s In Blue story of 13 November 2019.)
During negotiations ahead of the mission’s mandate renewal in May 2019, the three African members, supported by China and to a lesser extent by some other members, called for a renewal of the mandate without any changes, given the evolving internal political situations in Sudan and South Sudan. However, the US and other members were opposed to having the mandate continue unchanged. (See our What’s In Blue story of 13 May 2019.)
The US is the penholder on Sudan/South Sudan.
UN DOCUMENTS ON SUDAN/SOUTH SUDAN
|Security Council Resolution|
|14 November 2019S/RES/2497||This resolution renewed the mandate of UNISFA until 15 May 2020.|
|16 April 2020S/2020/308||This was the Secretary-General’s most recent report on UNISFA.|
|Security Council Letter|
|7 February 2020S/2020/112||This was a note from the Secretary-General on progress made in implementing the mission’s mandate, requested in resolution 2497.|