‘Cling to every little sign of hope’ – outgoing head of mission in South Sudan
On 23 July 2014, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced the appointment of Ellen Margrethe Løj of Denmark as his Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS). Ms. Løj succeeded Hilde Johnson of Norway, who had completed her assignment two weeks earlier, on 7 July 2014.
As head of UNMISS, Ms. Løj has been serving in one of the most challenging UN peacekeeping missions. About eight months before her appointment, a bloody conflict had broken out in South Sudan – in mid-December 2013 – casting a gloomy cloud on the prospects of the world’s youngest nation, which gained its independence in July 2011.
The conflict has been raging for almost three years, with thousands of people dead, while more than two million have fled their homes.
Having served as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) from 2008 to 2012, Ms. Løj was regarded as bringing to the position “a wealth of experience in peacekeeping and international affairs.”
As she comes to the end of her tenure, Ms. Løj stressed, in an interview with UN News Service, the importance of clinging “to every little sign of hope” in South Sudan as the country continues to suffer civil unrest and insecurity.
UN News Service: The reports we have coming out of South Sudan portray it as a country in chaos, where the rule of law has broken down. What’s your impression?
... guns must be silent, and we must think of the future of the boys and girls of South Sudan
Ellen Margrethe Løj: Well, in December 2013, a conflict broke out between the President and the then Vice President, and that led to armed struggle between the two, and now today, we also see insecurity increasing, and sporadic fighting in several other places in the country. On top of that, the economy is in very bad shape; we all know that the price of oil – which is the main source of income in South Sudan – has fallen drastically on the world market, and therefore the income to the government from the oil production is heavily reduced. Inflation in South Sudan now stands at over 700%, and when all many of the goods are imported from neighbouring countries, you can imagine what that means for the ordinary people and their ability to purchase food and other stuff.
UN News Service: One senior UN official has been talking about the conditions existing for genocide; it sounds like South Sudan is in a dark place right now.
Ellen Margrethe Løj: Well, I’ll leave him to use that word. What I would say is, South Sudan has 64 ethnic groups, and it is right that recently, the talk and appeals for hatred among ethnic groups has increased. But I think it’s crucial that both the South Sudanese leaders, but also with the support of the international community, try to quell that before it gets out of control. That is why I am a very strong supporter of increased nation-building activities, at the community level. As I say to South Sudanese whenever there has been a rift between ethnic groups, I tell them, I don’t understand it; they fought and fought, and suffered to get independence. I thought it was for once independent South Sudan, where all ethnic groups would live in peace.
UN News Service: What are the people you meet in South Sudan telling you about how they are coping?
Ellen Margrethe Løj: That it’s very difficult; the humanitarian needs are increasing, as we speak, and we now have urban poor. We have food insecurity in some parts of the country where there has been no fighting. So, I feel, from ordinary South Sudanese, a very strong desire for the guns to be silent. That is why I’m repeating, over and over again – including to the South Sudanese leaders and politicians – that guns must be silent, and we must think of the future of the boys and girls of South Sudan.
UN News Service: It sounds like an extremely challenging environment in which to work, is it not?
Ellen Margrethe Løj: Yes, it’s very challenging environment, also because the UN is not 100% trusted by the South Sudanese – be it the leaders or the people – because of this conflict that broke out in December 2013. Both sides actually believe that we are taking sides with the opposition or the government, and we are just trying to be impartial, as our mandate from the Security Council says. We are trying to think of creating a better future for the people of South Sudan.
UN News Service: What progress has been made with the deployment of the Regional Protection Force, which was of course mandated by the Security Council?
Ellen Margrethe Løj: Well, the government has accepted the deployment of the Regional Protection Force, including with infantry battalions from neighbouring countries. With the first, we are hesitant about – Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya. We will now see what happens with Kenya. We have been in discussion with them about getting land, because we don’t have enough space, and those discussions are continuing. And we have also been discussing with the government regarding how to read the mandate and interpret the mandate; what is the Regional Protection Force going to do? We are not there yet, but we have those discussions.
UN News Service: Are there any reasons for optimism right now, in South Sudan?
Ellen Margrethe Løj: Well, you cannot be head of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, and not cling to every little sign of hope. It looks very difficult, and it’s very difficult, but we cannot give up, because if we give up, it’s the people of South Sudan that suffer. So, it’s a bumpy road ahead; it’s difficult; we have had many setbacks, but we have to try and try and try because, as I said, we have to think of the future of the boys and girls of South Sudan.
UN News Service: There are still many restrictions on the movement of the UN in the country. The government is telling you they’re prepared to lift these restrictions, but the reality on the ground is different, isn’t it?
Ellen Margrethe Løj: Yes, we have had quite a number of meetings and discussions with the government, and I think we have reached an understanding that we inform them where we are moving, but we don’t seek permission. But then the question of course arises: does that understanding reach the commanders on the ground? Secondly, as I said, the economic situation is very dire; that means that criminality is also increasing. There are criminal elements that, for instance, are stopping World Food Programme (WFP) trucks with food and saying, “we need some of that food, too” and so on.