UN Interim Security Force for Abyei Mandate Renewal*
Tomorrow (12 November), the Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) until 15 May 2021. An initial draft was circulated to Council members by the US, the penholder on UNISFA, on 2 November. One round of negotiations was held on 4 November. A draft was placed under silence on Friday (6 November) until Monday (9 November). A slightly revised draft is now in blue.
Tomorrow’s adoption comes as bilateral relations between Sudan and South Sudan continue to improve. The draft resolution welcomes this and refers to several recent positive steps taken by the parties. On 3 October, the transitional government of Sudan and an opposition group, the Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minawi, signed a peace agreement in Juba that was facilitated by South Sudan. Council members welcomed the agreement in a press statement on 9 October (SC/14323). At the end of September, senior officials from the two countries met to discuss the status of Abyei and other border issues, and the Joint Political and Security Mechanism (JPSM)—the body employed by Sudan and South Sudan to discuss security matters of mutual concern–met at the end of October.
Despite the continued rapprochement between Sudan and South Sudan, however, little progress has been made in resolving the final status of Abyei and the security situation there remains tense, as described in the Secretary-General’s most recent report (S/2020/1019). The draft resolution refers to the fact that in the past nine years the parties have not made progress establishing joint institutions in Abyei, and it encourages Sudan and South Sudan to engage in substantive dialogue that can advance the political process to resolve the Abyei dispute.
As has been the case in the past two mandate renewals in May and November 2019, and unlike in previous years, the US did not put forward a troop reduction in the initial draft circulated, making negotiations largely uncontentious. The draft maintains the authorised troop ceiling at 3,550 and the authorised police ceiling at 640 police personnel, including 148 individual police officers and three formed police units.
According to the Secretary-General’s most recent report (S/2020/1019), the mission includes only 35 police officers, against the 640 authorised. The low rate of deployment, an issue for several years, is attributed to the non-issuance of visas by Sudan and, more recently, travel restrictions in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At a briefing on 22 October, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix emphasised that the low number of police officers “will inevitably lead to the closure of some team sites…and will have a negative impact on the mandate implementation” (S/PV.8772).
The draft also extends 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, until 15 May 2021. As in previous resolutions, this draft decides that this will be the final such extension unless the parties demonstrate measurable progress in relation to seven specific measures on border demarcation, including in relation to UNISFA and JBVMM patrols, JBVMM team sites, border crossing corridors. These seven measures are broadly the same as those contained in previous resolutions, with some adjustments reflecting recent developments. For example, the draft calls on the parties to implement agreements made at the end of October to withdraw from the Safe Demilitarized Border Zone (SDBZ) and reopen border crossing corridors.
The initial draft amended a paragraph contained in past resolutions that demanded that the parties allow humanitarian personnel full, safe and unhindered access, with an added reference to the principles of “humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence”. The reference was ultimately retained with slight adjustments following input from some members during negotiations.
The draft contains new language in relation to an exit strategy for UNISFA, as put forward by the US. At the briefing on 22 October, the US reiterated its position that it is time to consider a future that does not require a peacekeeping operation in Abyei and stressed that UNISFA’s indefinite operation, particularly with the restrictions placed on it, is “untenable”. In this regard, the draft requests the Secretary-General to hold a joint consultation with the governments of Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia, along with relevant stakeholders, to discuss the exit strategy for UNISFA and to develop options for its responsible drawdown and exit, and to report no later than 31 March 2021 on those options. It also expresses the intention to request an independent review of UNISFA in the context of recent political developments between and within Sudan and South Sudan and based on the outcomes of the joint consultation. It seems this language, contained in the initial draft, was acceptable to Council members, including in the context of warming relations between the two countries.
The draft requests the Secretary-General to inform the Council of progress in implementing UNISFA’s mandate in a written report, no later than 15 April 2021, including on progress in key areas, such as engagement by the AU and the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP); efforts of the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa to support the AU; and progress in relation to the increase in police, appointment of a civilian Deputy Head of Mission, usage of Athony airport, and the issuance of visas. (No progress has been made on the appointment of a civilian Deputy Head of Mission “to further facilitate liaison between and engagement with the parties”, as requested by resolution 2469 of 14 May 2019, due to ongoing discussion with Sudan and South Sudan regarding such an appointment.)
*Post-script (added 15 November): On 12 November 2020, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2550 renewing the mandate of UNISFA until 15 May 2021.