Dispatches from the Field: Security Council Visiting Mission to South Sudan
Addis Ababa – Yesterday (20 October), Security Council members visited South Sudan, ahead of the 12 November deadline for completing the pre-transition period of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS). Council members arrived from Nairobi in the morning. The day-long mission included one meeting with President Salva Kiir and another with the signatory parties and stakeholders of the R-ARCSS, including opposition leader Riek Machar. The mission was co-led by South Africa, this month’s Council president, and the US, the penholder on South Sudan.
At the start of the mission, Special Representative and head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) David Shearer briefed Council members in a meeting with UNMISS and the UN Country Team at an UNMISS base in Juba. Shearer underscored the importance of forming the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity by 12 November, while the signatory parties must continue working on other critical issues. The greatest challenges for the agreement’s implementation are fulfilling the cantonment and training of forces to create a unified national army and agreeing on the number and boundaries of states. Despite an extension granted earlier in the year for the pre-transition period, implementing the security arrangements and resolving questions about borders appear far from being met. Similar to Shearer’s message, the AU Peace and Security Council on 15 October urged all parties to adhere to the 12 November deadline to form an inclusive transitional government and to address the issues relating to transitional security arrangements and to the states.
Deputy Special Representative and Humanitarian/Resident Coordinator Alain Noudéhou briefed on the humanitarian situation at the meeting, including food insecurity and South Sudan’s poor humanitarian indicators. Noudéhou noted concerns about the Ebola outbreak in nearby eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which could overwhelm the health care system if it were to spread to South Sudan.
Council members then met with civil society organisations. This included meeting with a number of women’s groups to consider the issue of gender-based violence that has been widespread during the conflict. Civil society organisations impressed on members their view that the political elite have little regard for the general population, that they are largely interested in accruing power, and that political freedoms and space were being narrowed. It seems that they also noted the problem of corruption related to oil revenues.
Members met with Kiir at the presidential palace, who said he was committed to forming the transitional government by 12 November, and addressing all outstanding issues. He apparently indicated his hope to include all the signatory parties but would go ahead with forming a transitional government whether or not opposition leader Riek Machar decided to join. The Chief of Staff of the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces, who is listed under the South Sudan sanctions regime, Gabriel Jok Riak, apparently claimed that quick progress could be achieved in training forces for the unified army.
Council members’ final meeting was a public session with the signatory parties and other stakeholders of the R-ARCSS. Leading up to the Council visit, there was uncertainty as to whether Machar, who has been living in Khartoum, would attend. But Machar arrived in Juba the day before the mission, his first time back in South Sudan since he met with Kiir in Juba on 9 and 10 September. The co-leads, followed by Russia, the UK and Germany, began the session by making statements on the need to fully implement the peace agreement. They urged compromise and the formation of an inclusive transitional government by 12 November, recalling that after this date, the new government must remain committed to the agreement’s implementation.
Machar spoke first among the signatory parties and stakeholders. He said that he had met earlier in the day with Kiir. He made clear that he would not join a transitional government until the security forces had been unified and called for a further extension of the pre-transition period, noting that it would still take months for a unified force to be ready. Machar contended that unless unified security forces were established, people that had fled violence would not feel secure enough to return to their homes. Those still not integrated into the new army would abandon the peace process. Machar predicted that it would be the end of the ceasefire if the transitional government were established first. This issue, and the question of state borders were the same challenges that led to the eruption of fighting in 2016 and the breakdown of the 2015 peace agreement, he said. Additionally, Machar blamed a lack of donor funding for delaying the process to unify forces.
Unlike Machar, most of the other speakers called for forming the transitional government by the deadline and claimed that security arrangements and the border questions could still be dealt with during the transition period.
Several speakers denounced the “power struggle”, which they described as the root cause of the war, and the failure of political leaders to prioritise the interests of the people of South Sudan. A government representative downplayed security risks facing Machar’s return, claiming the government would guarantee his security.
Having said that they had come to listen to the views of the signatories and other stakeholders and given the number of speakers, Council members decided during the session to cancel a planned visit to a training facility on Juba’s outskirts for the integration of forces.
After the meeting, apparently concerned by Machar’s position, co-lead ambassadors Jerry Matjila (South Africa) and Kelly Craft (US) met alone with the opposition leader.
The visit concluded with a press conference by Craft and Matjila at Juba International Airport. They read prepared remarks, stating the mission’s purpose to demonstrate the Council’s support for the agreement and urge its revitalisation by the parties. They said that members had called on the parties to “expedite the process of transitional security arrangements, to continue consultation on the number and boundaries of states and peacefully form the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity by November 12”. This required leaders to make political compromises. While noting Kiir’s expression of commitment to the peace process, they said that members were “disappointed by Machar’s statement that the ceasefire may be in jeopardy”. Asked what measures the Council would take if the 12 November deadline is not met, Matjila said that once the Council returns to New York, it would assess how it might proceed in such a case.
Council members then departed for Addis Ababa for their annual joint consultative meeting with the AU Peace and Security Council and other related meetings over the next two days.