Near Verbatim Transcript of SRSG/Head of UNMISS David Shearer's Press Conference – Opening Remarks and Q & A

17 Nov 2020

Near Verbatim Transcript of SRSG/Head of UNMISS David Shearer's Press Conference – Opening Remarks and Q & A


[near verbatim]

It’s good to see you in person, although I know some of you are still wary, as you should be, about these COVID times. And thank you to all of those people who are joining us on Radio Miraya. It’s good to be with you again. I’ll just start with a few opening remarks, as usual, and then I’ll take your questions after that.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a series of meetings with the President, the Vice President, some of the other Vice Presidents as well as senior Government ministers. We discussed many issues which I’ll touch on a bit later. But a priority for us, and I’m sure for everybody, is the urgent need to breathe fresh life into the peace process, which is currently stalled.

We need to see action on several fronts so that the election can take place at the end of the transitional period, as promised to the citizens of this country.

A priority is the appointment of officials at the county level to fill the vacuum of power that has existed since the transitional government was formed. Those people are critical to enable problems to be nipped in the bud before they escalate into violence, and are particularly important in relation to cattle migration as we move into the dry season.

I also recently attended the National Dialogue, which is wrapping up today. It’s given people across the country the chance to share their opinion about the future of this country with wide participation ranging from community leaders to farmers, to women, youth and faith-based leaders.

As you all know, the peace process is top-down. The National Dialogue is bottom-up. People have been speaking frankly, honestly, and without fear about the problems that they are facing personally, but particularly about their disappointment in the peace process.

In the speech that I gave to the National Dialogue, I quoted Abraham Lincoln’s famous lines: “Government of the people, by the people and for the people.” I know that’s what every citizen wants – to have a real say in how the country goes forward and for their voices to be heard by their leaders, and particularly those women who are involved.

It’s disappointing that not all parties are represented in the dialogue. I believe those people who are not there have missed an historic opportunity to come together as a people and have their voices heard.

UNMISS has also been present at the talks facilitated by Sant’Egidio in Rome. I was disappointed to see the reports of clashes between the SSPDF and the NAS forces recently, but it’s encouraging to see parties back negotiating about SSOMA possibly being included in the CTSAMVM board by the New Year, which means that they’ll have their activities monitored by CTSAMVM.

At my last press conference, I briefed you about the successful transition of two of the Protection of Civilians sites into more conventional displacement camps in Wau and Bor.

I am pleased to report that, so far, this process has gone smoothly. Displaced communities have been open to the change, despite some initial concerns, and are now working closely with local authorities and the SSNPS – who are being strongly supported by UNPOL – along with continued services provided by humanitarians.

Today, I am pleased to inform you that the Juba POCs, as of yesterday, have now been re-designated as IDP camps. It has followed a long and careful process, planning alongside humanitarians, and in consultation with national and local government, the security services, and of course the displaced community themselves.

The Government now has sovereign responsibility for the sites as it does with many other IDP camps across the country. 

Our UNPOL, our UN police, are co-located with the SSNPS at the Yei checkpoint outside the new IDP camps, and we are planning to expand the police post there to better reinforce law enforcement for all residents – not only IDPs, but all residents – in the area.

We supported the signing of an agreement for peaceful co-existence between the POC3 residents – the biggest camp there – and the four neighbouring communities in the past week.

We are also assisting with any meetings needed to build trust and confidence between the IDPs, security forces, the local Governor for Central Equatoria, and national leaders.

As you know, the POC sites were established to protect civilians in imminent physical danger during intense conflict. But that threat no longer exists today. People move freely between the camps and town to shop, to go to work, to go to schools, universities, and we have no doubt that, ultimately, these families will want to return to their homes rather than live in a camp.

Withdrawing our troops from static duties at these sites also allows us to redeploy them to places where people’s lives really are in danger around the country.

And on this note, I just wanted to point out that we are well underway with planning for UNMISS operations during the upcoming dry season.

As you know, our approach to the protection of civilians is about being proactive, about being nimble, and being robust. We have a responsibility to protect those who need protection the most. That means we need to relocate our troops and staff who facilitate reconciliation and peacebuilding into areas of tension, and hopefully address that tension before conflict erupts. 

So, over the coming weeks, in cooperation with the security services, we will begin deploying peacekeepers to places like Manyabol, Likongule, Duk Padiat, Yuai, and Waat to set up temporary bases there or to conduct extended long-duration patrols.

Another way that we can prevent conflict and support peacebuilding is through improving the ability of communities to come together. For that reason, we now have seven engineering contingents of about nearly 200 people in each, from Bangladesh, China, Korea, Thailand, India, and Pakistan, who are beginning a major road rehabilitation project during the dry season like we have in previous years with WFP. WFP will be working with us on this one as well. 

You will see on the map in front of you – and I’m sorry that people on the radio can’t see it, but the people here with me can – you will see on the map in front of you that they will be rebuilding around 3,200 kilometres of roads across the country in the next few months. I believe that this work makes a huge difference to people’s lives.

It provides access to services. It increases trade between areas, which brings down the cost of goods in the markets. And it all contributes to economic growth, which again creates jobs. Through roads, peoples from different communities can communicate with each other, and by communication they can build trust and deter conflict.

Looking at the map, you will see a number of important examples. In Jonglei, where, as you know, there has been significant tension between the communities, we will be working on developing a ring road connecting Bor, Waat, Akobo and Pibor. Combined with plans by Ethiopia to construct a road to Gambella, and down to Akobo, this will provide better connections and trade between the communities within Jonglei as well as across the border.

In the north, UNMISS will assist with plans to open the border between South Sudan and Sudan. That’s been something that the Minister for the Interior has approached us on, to assist with four border crossing points between Sudan and South Sudan. And we’ll improve the roads from up to Renk and Aweil, and two other crossing points.

I have briefed the President, First Vice President, and other ministers about these initiatives. Some of them they have suggested themselves, and we are happy to work with them. They will support our efforts to bring development, create employment, as I said, and contribute to the peace process through a better road network. I can’t overestimate and overstate the importance of roads to South Sudan. When South Sudan gained its independence, it received a very poor legacy in terms of roads. By improving roads, we are able to improve economic development as we move forward.

I’ll finish there and I’m very happy to take your questions. Once again, thank you very much for being here and for everyone on Radio Miraya for listening.

Media Q&A

Media: You talk of operations in January during the dry season. We would like to know if you are expecting conflict to break out during that particular season and which parties are expected to engage in these conflicts?

SRSG: I think the bottom line is – as everybody knows here – the opportunity for conflict increases during the dry season. During the rainy season, people are restricted in their movements. There’s enough water and generally feed around for cattle. When the dry season comes, people start moving toward water points, and these are often restricted. I think we can anticipate increased tensions, and I think those increased tensions are also in existence because of the flooding that we’ve had, which has reduced cattle numbers. In addition to that, the economic situation at the moment – which is pretty bad – and some of the violence we have seen. I think the areas we are watching in particular – and I hope it doesn’t happen – but in cases, obviously in Jonglei, between the communities, between Murle and Lou Nuer, in particular, but possibly also Dinka as well, and in Tonj. South, North and East Tonj, and particularly Tonj East – people there being able to get their cattle to grazing lands. So all of these areas, we need to be talking about it now rather than waiting for problems to happen. There needs to be agreements now for that cattle migration to happen. Last week, I am pleased to say I was in Aweil. And in Aweil, there’s been some very good work that’s happened between the Dinka groups and the Misseriya. It seems that the tension between those two groups has come right down. Compensation has been paid for some of the issues that have gone on there, and that has enabled, or will enable, people to be able to  move their cattle through, as they have done for many, many years, without too much tension. I think they’ve done a good job in that area.

Media: You talk about the handover of the IDP camp to the government. The displaced people in the POC there, they have been raising a concern about the handing over of the POC to the government without the full provision of the security arrangement. Why is it that UNMISS is so early to hand over the POC to the government when the agreement is not yet fully implemented?

SRSG: It’s a good question, and people often have asked this. The bottom line for us, and the reason we have been involved with the POCs, is because people in the past faced protection risks from outside. It’s got nothing to do with the peace agreement or transitional security arrangements. It’s simply about whether people face risk inside the POCs. Our assessment is that they don’t at the moment. That’s the first thing. Second thing is that we are immediately adjacent to the POCs. Our base, literally here in Juba, is – if I walk out of the base I will walk into the POC in about three steps – so we are right beside them. Three, we have a quick reaction force that’s on standby if anything should happen, and we still maintain our protection of civilians mandate. That hasn’t changed. So we added all those things up and felt that this was the right time to do this. In addition to that, as I just said, it’s important that we use our peacekeepers where they are most needed. And if they are not really needed in the POCs because the situation there is very calm, and people are moving into town and back again, and the buses are very busy going past the front gate of UN House out there, then I would rather use our peacekeepers in places like Tonj, and Jonglei and Rumbek and some in Central Equatoria and places like that where we do really have problems rather than have them doing a job that doesn’t need doing. So that’s the reason we’ve decided to move now rather than wait longer.

Media: You say you are withdrawing your troops from duties in the site. Do you think that the IDPs will live peacefully with the Government and the Government will provide all the things they need?

SRSG: First, we moved our troops out of the POCs here in Juba about over two months ago, maybe three months ago, so there haven’t been any troops around the POCs since then. Yesterday was really the last formal changeover from a POC to an IDP camp. But in reality, there haven’t been any troops there for some time. Second thing is the question you ask about people going home. That’s very much up to them. That’s not something that we have a role in. If people want to go back to their homes, that’s fantastic. I’m very pleased that they feel that the time is right to do that. Some people may need assistance to do that. That’s UNHCR that will be leading that process. We might, as UNMISS, provide some support to that but really it’s their responsibility. I think the other thing to point out is that nothing is going to change in terms of services, as far as we know. So whether it be education or food to the people who are there – that will continue. In fact, as we speak right now, food distribution is ongoing in POC3. So that will continue. Our role in terms of moving our security forces out and redesignating the POC site is independent of all of those other things happening. It’s not linked to them. We’ve obviously spoken to the humanitarians, but the humanitarians, as far as I can gather, speaking to them and what they’ve been telling me, is that they will continue to maintain the services, as they have done up to now. So there won’t be any real change on that score.

Media: You talked about the delay in this peace process, especially the security arrangements. Many times, we have talked to the signatories to this agreement of 2018. They are saying one of the major constraints facing them in the unified forces is the issue of arms embargo or sanctions. If you talk to both sides, their concern is the same. Last month, we understand the Government got involved with the African Union trying to push the agenda so the sanctions or the arms embargo can be lifted so that weapons, uniforms, are brought for these necessary unified forces. What role do you think UNMISS can play here to support this unification of the forces in the face of this arms embargo? And if you could clarify on the issue of the road rehabilitation in the country?

SRSG: On the arms embargo and sanctions, that’s something that the Security Council deals with. We don’t have a role in that at all, as UNMISS or as the UN here. It’s done by the Security Council. I will say, though, that it’s possible to ask for exemptions to the arms embargo to the Sanctions Committee, and they will consider those. So while I can’t comment on the lifting of the arms embargo because it’s not my role, I do know there are avenues – if you wanted to get uniforms and things like that, particularly non-lethal stuff, into the country – as far as I’m aware you can ask for exemptions. And I know some states, when they are bringing in material, have done that – other states, not South Sudan, but other states bringing things in here, can do that. Just on the transitional security arrangements, though, I think this is one of the critical areas and we’re not really seeing the development and the graduation of forces from the training sites. We really do need to see that. People who are in the training sites need to know that there is a place where they are going to get to, where they will be graduated, and they’ll be incorporated and unified into the other forces. It’s important that happens otherwise people will get frustrated and disillusioned that they don’t believe that anything is going to happen, so it’s important that that moves forward. So from UNMISS’ point of view, we have offered assistance with security sector reform. At a number of occasions, we have lifted large amounts of supplies to these various places. But we leave it very much in the Government hands because it’s their armed forces at the end of the day.

Media: How devastating has some of the intercommunal violence been this year? We know there have been conflicts among the communities in Jonglei, Lakes and then Warrap. May you explain how devastating they have been to the people’s lives and their property? And do you have concern that the South Sudanese parties are dragging their feet in the implementation of the revitalized peace deal? If so, what does UNMISS have on the table to remedy this situation? 

SRSG: To answer your first question, they’ve had a hugely devastating effect on local communities in the conflict. In Jonglei, we are still collecting information. It’s been very difficult to get around because of the rainy season and the flooding. Talking to people about the number of deaths – it’s hundreds, hundreds of people have died in the conflict between February and July. And more than 400 people were abducted. So those abducted people, still in the hands of opposing communities, sow the seeds for conflict in the future. If you have lost your wife and your children and they are being held by another community, you are not going to feel very much like peace until you get your wife and your children back again. I can’t imagine how that feels. So the potential for conflict in Jonglei as a result of that not being resolved is very, very high. Likewise, in Warrap, the ongoing revenge cycle is also very worrying. More than a thousand people died in Warrap in the first six months of this year. So those thousand people who died – there is a lot of people who want to go on and carry out revenge attacks for those that have died. So, again, we’ve got the potential for more conflict in those areas. So it’s really important, really important, that we’re able to start having a dialogue between different communities rather than have it unresolved and careering into war again.

It’s really difficult for anybody to accelerate the peace agreement. I have to say that every single opportunity I have to meet with the major players and the stakeholders in this peace agreement I use to say it’s going too slow. And I don’t quite understand why it needs to go so slow. As I said before, there’s been an agreement on the number of county commissioners. We know which parties are going to take which counties. So we need to announce those names and get those people working. It’s really important that we do that. In addition to that, the issue of Johnson Olony still needs to be resolved as well. My understanding is that he’s been approved by the president. We are waiting for him to come to Juba to receive his accreditation, if you like, and then being able to go back up to Malakal and begin his work. All of that needs to move forward because at the moment there is a vacuum, and when you have a vacuum you have people who take advantage and exploit it and conflict happens.

Media: Yesterday, according to the SPLM-IO, they said they are withholding their list of nominees for the state government if Olony is not put as the governor because that’s also part of the government. What would be your take as UNMISS regarding the peace implementation in the country?

SRSG Shearer: My understanding is – and this is what people are telling me, and I think you know as well – is that Johnson Olony has been approved. It’s been agreed to. I think the government is saying that he should come to Juba, as you would expect any governor of any country, you would expect him to do that. So as soon as that happens, my feeling is that he can take up his position. So I would very much encourage everybody to start moving on that and not hold one thing dependent on another, and dependent on another, which creates a backlog, and therefore it stops progress.

Okay folks, well thank you very much. All the very best.