NEAR VERBATIM TRANSCRIPT Media Briefing by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, Mr. David Shearer Juba – South Sudan Monday, 09 March 2020
(Scroll down for Q&A session)
I want to start by acknowledging the breaking news coming out of Khartoum where an explosion has reportedly hit a convoy carrying Prime Minister Hamdok. I don’t have any more information than you do, at the moment, but I wanted to my express my concern at the situation and welcome the news that the Prime Minister is apparently safe and well.
Back here, in Juba, I would like to touch on a couple of issues, including the rapid changes we have seen in the political landscape in recent weeks and the sudden outbreak of intercommunal violence in Jonglei.
You’ll be aware that I addressed the Security Council a few days ago about some of the positive political developments that we have seen recently.
I particularly highlighted the compromises made by President Salva Kiir and Dr. Riek Machar which enabled the transitional government to be formed. Essentially, these two leaders showed they had the political will to put the interests of their country and people first.
As I said in my statement to the Council: “We often speak of courage in war and battle. But peace also requires courage.”
The Security Council also issued its own statement describing the developments as a “significant step towards sustainable peace”.
While there is a sense of relief that the new government has formed, there is still much to be done, and many challenges ahead that will test its unity.
There have been ongoing negotiations over ministerial and other appointments over the past two weeks. I understand from speaking to those involved, that while tough, they have been carried out cordially. There is some optimism amongst parties that an announcement may be possible by the end of this week.
The filling of the governor positions is particularly urgent. The absence of authority at the state level has caused a vacuum of power and decision-making – as we have seen in Jonglei – emboldening those involved in the recent violent intercommunal clashes. I’ll say more about that situation shortly.
There is also an urgent need to move on transitional security arrangements. Implementation is dangerously lagging, made worse by the absence of the NPTC. New lines of authority need to be set up by the government to lead this process.
UNMISS is assisting where it can, including transporting more than 300 metric tonnes of supplies to training locations to plug urgent gaps. But across the sites, a shortage of supplies remains. There is no registration and no substantial training underway.
Moving onto Jonglei where people continue to suffer from the devastating floods last year. Crops and livestock were destroyed at that time. Water supplies were contaminated which worsened health conditions.
This situation, as well as the absence of political leadership in the area, has contributed to the recent outbreak of intercommunal violence.
This fighting has caused significant casualties and the displacement of thousands of families, particularly in areas around Pibor and the villages of Likuangole, Waat, Manyabol and Anyidi. We have reports that women and children have been abducted by both sides. This is unconscionable. These people must be returned immediately. UNMISS is ready to support efforts by the communities to help calm the situation.
I flew into Pibor on Friday to see the situation for myself and to speak to some of those families affected by the violence. I also met with local authorities to understand what they are doing to deal with the conflict and to increase security in the area.
More than 8,000 people are currently living in makeshift shelters next to the UN base in Pibor.
UNMISS responded immediately to the violence by reinforcing that base with additional peacekeepers and carrying out a series of patrols to hotspots. Temporary bases have also been set up in Anyidi, Gumuruk, Manyabol, Yuai and soon in Waat.
Sadly, the towns of Manyabol and Likuangole have been almost totally destroyed.
Our Indian and Ethiopian troops carry out daily patrols to provide a protective presence, deter violence and assist humanitarian activities.
I really would like to thank the troops for their rapid response.
This action is having a very real and positive impact. Many people I spoke to on Friday thanked me for the UNMISS presence, for making them feel safer and giving them hope that they can begin to return to their homes.
This is the kind of nimble and proactive action that we want to be in a position to do more often in future.
Since the signing of the peace deal and the ceasefire, the protection environment has changed. While intercommunal conflict remains a concern in some areas, the risk of political violence has certainly lowered, including the threat to those living in UN Protection of Civilians sites.
This means that UNMISS can change its protection priorities as well.
For example, improving security in Bor means that we have reduced our military presence in the POC site by 70 percent. This frees up troops to carry out those life-saving patrols that I just mentioned to deter intercommunal violence across Jonglei.
Essentially, we can now prioritize deploying peacekeepers to hot spot locations and areas where we expect thousands of displaced families to return to rather than tying them down to static duties at protection sites.
In the past weeks, the parties have shown leadership and we hope that will continue.
It is imperative there is no reneging of the peace agreement or, most importantly, of the ceasefire.
Finally, the international community, including the UN, must continue to support the peace process. While there will be caution because of past mistakes, we cannot step back. Instead now is the time to fully engage.
I’ll stop there and I am very happy to take any questions you have.
Q & A
Agamlong newspaper: You said that the situation in Pibor is that of dire need. You went and you witnessed it. What did the authorities tell you? How was the situation on the ground? We have heard that the situation is still bad. What did you observe and what did the authorities tell you?
Dr. Riek Machar has taken the oath of office and has assumed his position as the First Vice-President but people are now asking why the delay in the formation of the government? According to the agreement, when the First Vice-President takes the oath of office, automatically the government will be formed. How is your observation since some people see these delays as another extension of the transitional period? What is your take on that?
SRSG, Head of UNMISS, David Shearer: Thank you very much.
First to your first question. The situation in Pibor is terrible for those people who have lost their homes, who have come into Pibor, who are living under plastic sheets in Pibor adjacent to our base. There are some humanitarian actors there and people there are getting water and toilet and washing facilities. But certainly, in Likuangole and in Manyabol, those two towns have been pretty much destroyed. The situation on the ground in terms of the security situation is still tense. There are still a lot of armed people around, but we understand that the Nuer force in and around the area has moved back and that some of the Murle forces are moving back as well and we hope that will continue.
The next step is to bring these parties together to ensure that women and children are able to go back to their homes - those that have been abducted and kidnapped by each side - and that we will be able to settle some of these differences. If we don’t do that in the coming very short period of time, we will have all the ingredients for conflict to break out again: people being very upset about their families being disrupted and being taken away as they have.
From our side, we will continue to patrol, provide protection. From the humanitarians, we are asking for them to increase their activities, which they are currently doing and we will hope that the people are able to go back, even if it is to towns that have been destroyed, they can hopefully go back and begin starting their lives again. But, most importantly, we can start the process by which people are able to be returned back to their homes.
On the issue of the formation of the government, I know people are impatient about the formation of the government. We signed and we swore-in, in a ceremony just over two weeks ago, the vice-presidents. From what I hear, the negotiations, as I said just now, the negotiations over cabinet positions in the new government have been tough. There have been tough negotiations, but they are being done in a cordial and good-natured way. We are hearing that they are almost there. I just want to say that, in some respects, that is good progress. I look to some European countries, when they put coalition government together, they take months to do it. I won’t mention any, but they take months and months. So, the fact that this government is being put together and, we should get an announcement in the coming days from parties that were at war together, we should probably be a little bit patient and give them some time. But the most important absence at the moment, and as I said in my introduction, is the absence of governors because they are going to make a big difference to the situation on the ground.
Radio Jonglei: Every year, there is internal violence in Jonglei State, Boma and Akobo. What is the cause of these problems that keep recurring? Why is it hard for these three tribes to solve these problems?
SRSG Shearer: It’s a difficult question.
There has been intercommunal violence. And I remember three years ago it was largely between the Dinka and Murle. That largely settled down after the good work of the governor in Bor and the governor in Akobo who managed to settle all their differences.
In addition, and I think this has a significant impact, we constructed the road between Bor and Pibor. So, you can travel now between Bor and Pibor and, in a matter of a few hours, you can be from one place to another. And, as a result of that, before this fighting, we were seeing Dinka traders being in Pibor. The price of goods in Pibor came down in the markets. And Murle cattle keepers were taking their cattle into Bor to sell in the market. That two-way process helped to bring tensions down and showed everybody that, with cooperation, everybody was a winner.
Unfortunately, this time around, the conflict was between the Murle and Nuer. There has certainly been dissatisfaction over the taking of cattle from both sides. There have been some abductions – Murle abductions of Nuer children that we heard about as well. But I think what has really exacerbated the problem this time around is the flooding. The flooding caused the death of many, many cattle and as a result of that people are hungry. People have lost cattle which, as you know, are really important for their whole social structure and, as a result, are trying to look for other cattle and replenish their herds. That has led to more raiding than perhaps we would have otherwise seen.
So, I think it is a combination of things but I hope that at the end of this there will be a realisation that actually it is in everybody’s interest that we have peace and are able to have trading relationships rather than raiding relationships.
The Dawn: There is a drop in the international oil prices and South Sudan is one of the most oil-dependent states. Don’t you think that a drop in the oil prices could impact the peace in South Sudan?
SRSG Shearer: It’s a very interesting question. Oil prices, as you know, have dropped significantly because of the slowdown in economic activity caused by the corona virus and everybody not being able to move. This has an impact right across the whole world. For a country like South Sudan which depends for its income - probably close to 90% of its income is as a result of oil – it is going to have a significant impact on the amount of money that is going to flow into the government.
While that is a problem, I also think that an issue that needs to be resolved is the issue of transparency of where oil money coming in is actually going. And money from oil comes in to, I guess, the government coffers but nobody is quite sure how much is coming in and what it is being spent on. It makes it very difficult for the government to turn around and say to the population of the country expenditure is going to go down because we have had less money, when people don’t even know how much money we started with. It is a lesson in ensuring that the new government, however it is formed, has got the right accountability. All the mechanisms are there- South Sudan doesn’t need to invent them as they have already been there – they are just not being used. The people of South Sudan need accountability about what money is coming in and what money is being spent and where it is being spent.
Equatoria Broadcasting Corporation: You stated a number of things with regards Pibor and Jonglei. What could be the response that you can do to restore the hope of those who have lost property, families and the hopeless who a number of things have happened to?
SRSG Shearer: I think there are three basic things that we need to do. The first thing, as I said before, it is very important that the children and the women that have been abducted are able to be returned to their families in their own areas and that should happen as soon as possible. That is something that needs to be done by the communal authorities – the tribal chiefs, the elders, etc. But we have said to them that we will help facilitate that if they need to be flown into a place in order to be able to get to areas, we will help with that and we will help to set up meetings for them. So, this is the first thing, that we will help support that process.
The second thing is we will help continue with our troops to provide patrolling, to give people confidence to be able to go back to their homes.
And the third thing is, with that confidence and with the calming of the situation, we and others will certainly help the humanitarian partners to move and be able to assist those populations going back to their homes again. And by that, I mean people going back to Likuangole, people going to Manyabol, even though things have been destroyed there. Providing some non-food items, plastic sheeting, whatever needs to happen in order for them to be able to go back and start their lives off again.
VoA: You have expressed concern on the issue of implementation of the security arrangements as far as the revitalised peace agreement is concerned. I would just like to understand, what is it that is missing that UNMISS wants to see put in place?
I am just wondering if you could try to highlight if at all there are figures with regards to the incidents in Jonglei or Pibor as far as the incidents there are concerned – the death toll, the abduction of women and children – I am wondering if you have figures on these.
SRSG Shearer: On the transitional security arrangements, what is missing, first of all, there is no authority heading it anymore because, with the transitional government forming, the pre-transitional mechanisms like the NPTC, like many of the other institutions that help with the organisation on the ground, are gone. So, there is a vacuum, if you like, in terms of leadership.
Secondly, when you visit these places on the ground, they are lacking in the most basic things – food in some places, but shelter, water, often latrines, and then also training equipment. There is a whole range of items missing.
Although many of these training sites were under-equipped, there was good-natured enthusiasm from both sides and most often they were from both sides of the conflict who were there together. I think that enthusiasm is starting to wane and what you might see is people going back to their homes, leaving the training sites and if they do, they might be disgruntled in the way that the process has gone and I think that is a worry.
Just in terms of the numbers of Jonglei, no I don’t have any numbers and I really can’t give you any because they are just approximations.
We have been on patrol in a number of places, we have seen bodies on the side of the road so, obviously, people were killed, and there were many people injured and the numbers of people who were abducted are in, possibly, the low hundreds. But, again, it’s just a guess. When I was talking to the Murle authorities in Pibor, they said that they were not yet themselves sure of the impact and they wanted some more time to be able to find out. I think this is going to emerge over the coming few days.
Eye Radio: The South Sudan Chief of Defense Forces has appealed to the UN to put on hold the rotation of peacekeepers from Asian countries. What is your comment on the letter?
Is UNMISS aware of a 29-year-old businesswoman that accused a Bangladeshi UN peacekeeper of harassing her in her shop yesterday at Konyo-konyo market?
SRSG Shearer: On your first question, yes, we have received a letter from the Chief of the South Sudan Defense Forces, and I think a number of you have seen it. It will, in time, affect rotations of our troops. The troops, as you know, come in and they stay for a period of time, usually a year or so and then they rotate, and a new group comes in. But, at the moment, it is not having an impact. We are hoping that the situation on the corona virus settles and we will be able to get back to normal functions but at the moment it hasn’t had any impact on our ability to put people on the ground and do the job that we’re supposed to do.
On your second one, no, I don’t know. But, if the person has a complaint, we are always willing to follow it up, and we will certainly do that, and they need to get in contact with us. We take it very seriously and, if it is a peacekeeper and a serious incident, it will be investigated by an outside body that will come in and do it independently of us so that there is no bias or whatever.
I have absolutely no tolerance, I have zero tolerance for anybody who is rude or abusive or harasses South Sudanese in this country. It is not our job to do that when we come here. We are here to help, not to do that.
BBC: In your briefing, you talked about the internally displaced persons in the protection of civilians’ sites. You said that some of them are ready to get out. Somehow, I do agree with you and somehow, I don’t. I visited the PoC site myself – and I do thank the UNMISS Public Information Section for facilitating that. I talked to IDPs there and some said they cannot come out. They are not ready to come out because a unified national army is not yet formed, and they won’t be safe if they come out. And they are urging you, the UN and the international community, to see to it that the formation of the unified national army is expedited. If there is no such army, some are not ready to come out. Some also say they are ready to come out, but their homes are occupied. They need somebody, somewhere to talk to the people who are occupying their houses so that they could come out. Do you think it is really favourable that these IDPs would practically come out as you mentioned in your briefing in New York?
SRSG Shearer: That’s a good question. Whether people are willing to go home or not is very much their own personal choice. Nobody is pushing them out, nobody is telling them to go. It is very much what they want to do themselves. And that would depend on a lot of things – whether they’ve got a home to go to, that’s an important point. Some people’s homes, though a small proportion of the overall population, have had their homes occupied. They need land to settle on. A number of people have a long way to go if they want to go back home as well. Sometimes transport is a problem, in addition to that.
I guess the point that I am making is that the security situation is improved a lot. In Juba, for example, 70 percent of the people we have interviewed have said that it is safe or very safe to move out of the camp and move into town and back again. In fact, there are people moving out everyday going to school, secondary school, the universities, being involved in jobs, working in markets. The buses go up and down outside of UN House constantly taking people into town. We used to have a curfew at 7pm and last week we raised our curfew hours and it is now midnight and that was because we were getting harassed by people coming back after 7pm and the gates to the PoC were closed and they were saying why can’t they come in and we were being harassed for keeping the gates closed. Now the gates are open and, regularly, after 7pm, five, six, seven hundred people would be coming back to the PoC site.
So, times have changed. But, the decision for people to go home is very much theirs alone. We are not closing anything. We are just simply saying we don’t need our troops around them. We would rather send our troops to places where it is really necessary for them to be – hotspots where people are having real problems because of the conflict and because of the violence.
VoA: Using your words, you did say that the implementation of the security arrangements is dangerously lacking. We just want to understand what fears does UNMISS have in an event that the parties don’t expedite putting in order some of these security arrangements that by this time are supposed to be in place?
SRSG Shearer: I think there are two fears that I have. One is a political fear which is that the parties, in good faith, agreed they would form a unified armed forces. So, therefore, it is important that we see that through. It is very much a central part of the peace agreement and if we don’t do that or seem to be lagging, then one party or another might feel frustrated, angry, etc. and then that can create problems.
The second issue is more of a local one. If we don’t support those training centres where in many places there are five or six thousand young men there, then those young men will go home, or they will go somewhere else and they could cause problems if they are not in the training centres. You know, a young man with a gun who is hungry is going to look somewhere to get fed. So, instead, that would create problems as well.
I think it is an issue on two different levels.
Thank you very much everybody and for the Radio Miraya listeners tuning in and I wish you all a very pleasant rest of your day.