Near Verbatim Transcript of SRSG/Head of UNMISS David Shearer's Press Conference

The proactive response by UNMISS peacekeepers to a recent upsurge in sub-national violence and updates on the transition of UN Protection Sites into camps for internally displaced people were key issues addressed by David Shearer, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in South Sudan, at a press conference held in the mission’s headquarters in Juba on 9 February 2021.

9 Feb 2021

Near Verbatim Transcript of SRSG/Head of UNMISS David Shearer's Press Conference

Good morning. Thank you for joining me here today and welcome to everyone who is tuning in live on Radio Miraya. I’m glad to see all of you are wearing masks. As much as we hoped we might be turning the corner on COVID, it is very much still with us and the threat is actually greater than ever.

As you know, countries around the world – including a number in Africa – are experiencing a second wave of cases that is causing huge harm to people and economies. We are seeing, from the World Health Organization, an increase in cases here in South Sudan, partly because the testing is higher, but certainly the prevalence is higher. I think it is also pretty likely that the more aggressive variants we are seeing in other countries are present here now.

We respect the Government’s decision last week to increase restrictions given the surge in local cases. We very much urge people to ensure that prevention measures are put in place to reduce transmission amongst communities.

As the UN, we have been adhering to these measures very closely because, the only way we are going to beat this pandemic, is if we all stick together and follow the rules. If we don’t, we know lives will continue to be lost. The prevention measures are simple – stay two meters apart from others, wear a mask, wash your hands, report any symptoms, get tested and isolate if sick or if you’ve had contact with someone who may have COVID. Let’s keep ourselves and each other safe.

Turning to politics, I know many of you were following the RJMEC meeting that was held here in Juba last week. In my statement, I spoke about the positive progress that has been made over the past year. This includes the formation of the transitional Government - we are coming up to the first anniversary of that in the next few days - formation of the presidency, Council of Ministers and particularly the recent appointment of the Upper Nile State Governor which means the full complement of state-level leaders are now in place.

But I think we all agree the pace of implementation of the peace agreement has been far too slow and we still have many issues unresolved. We are still waiting for the County Commissioners to be appointed. These are critical positions given the amount of subnational violence going on. We’ve also got issues around the constitution and the unification of forces which are important aspects of the peace process that remain unresolved.

In addition to that, we are seeing an increase in subnational violence, in places like Maban, Warrap, and still some locations across Jonglei.  We are following up on the Jonglei conference that the government hosted. We supported that process by transporting people from Jonglei to Juba for the discussions. We are also meeting with people on the ground to look at the root causes of that conflict. We are doing that by bringing local youth and church leaders together for reconciliation and also working on the return of abducted women and children to their homes.

In addition, UNMISS has also increased patrols to potential hotspots and, this week, we plan to deploy peacekeepers to seven temporary operating bases across the country. Our very strong feeling is that, if we can deploy early in the dry season, we have a better chance of success in preventing violence before it happens. However, some places have been difficult to reach. Our efforts to reach Romich in Warrap, for example, have been continually blocked on the ground.  In fact, we have a patrol on its way there now that has been blocked for the past five days.

We also strongly urge the distribution of exam papers to children in some IO areas who may miss out because of insecurity. We stand by to help out if it means that these kids will have the chance to sit their exams. Every child deserves the very best chance for the future, particularly those kids who’ve been working hard throughout the year and may now be denied the chance to sit their exam. So, we see this as a critical operation, and we have offered any support we can provide. It’s as important as any peace deal that children have the best chance in life.

We are supporting South Sudan in its efforts to move towards peace and security in many other ways.

UNMISS engineers from seven different countries are taking advantage of the dry season to build and improve 3,200 kilometers of roads across the country. This includes opening the Bor to Pibor road that will help enhance peace between Murle, Dinka and Nuer communities. Work is also starting on a road that will link the Sudan border to Bentiu then south to Rumbek, to increase trade and prosperity for people living in poor and isolated areas in Unity.

Improving roads boosts connections and communication between regions; it increases trade and jobs but, most significantly, creates opportunities to reconcile and build peace. That certainly has been our experience. So, our engineering work is doing as much to promote peace as a lot of the reconciliation efforts because they build that infrastructure and network between people.

I’m also pleased to confirm that Protection of Civilians sites in Bor, Wau and Juba have successfully transitioned to conventional IDP camps under the sovereign responsibility of the Government. The process has gone very smoothly.

For example, in Juba, the South Sudan National Police Service has taken the lead on security in the vicinity of the former POC with the support of UNPOL who are co-located with them at the Yei checkpoint. It is good to see that this type of collaborative approach is working, and that trust and confidence is growing between the displaced community and the police. 

In Bentiu, transition discussions are well advanced. We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Governor and are working closely with local security forces from all sides, including a joint police force – the first in the country – and the displaced community.

We hope that this site will be re-designated in the next couple of weeks. The remaining POC site at Malakal is being considered but is likely to take longer because of the dynamics happening there and very recent appointment of the Governor.  

 On that note, thank you for being here again and let’s move to your questions.


Q: The Dawn Newspaper: I would like to get your view on the slow implementation of the peace agreement and the situation of the people in the parts of the country affected by intercommunal conflict. In addition, I would like to get your comments on the delay of the graduation of unified forces.

A: SRSG: On subnational violence, we are seeing that happen in a number of places across the country. Partly, it is due to ongoing intercommunal issues that have existed for a long time, and everyone here in South Sudan knows that the kind of revenge cycle is alive and well in some places. There are also a couple of other issues that have contributed to that violence. One is the slow appointments of Governors, Deputy Governors and County Commissioners, because, in the past, it’s been that group of people who have stepped in and often stopped violence before it happened or reconciled people if tensions were rising and that level of political leadership was gone. So, the delay in the peace process has contributed to the degree of intercommunal violence. In addition to that, there is some prodding and poking by national-level politicians and leaders into areas and has provoked a violent response on the ground as well. When leaders do that, its very difficult to bring groups together. It was a particular feature of the violence that happened in Jonglei. It was actually mentioned at the end of the President’s speech where he told youth not to listen to their elders but to listen to their consciences and not to fight. It’s also happening in Warrap and some other places. So, what we are trying to do right now, is to work on the ground bring about peace but we need cooperation from people at the highest level too.

With regard to your question about the graduation of forces, we have heard this over and over and over, but it hasn’t happened yet. The announcement made about 10 days ago is very, very welcome but we need to see action rather than words. There are, at the moment, a number of training and cantonment sites where people have been there for well over a year. They lack food, medical supplies, shelter, and training. What we would like to see is the movement of those people to be graduated and brought into the security forces. If you look around the world, particularly on the African continent, and you look at civil strife that has occurred in other places, the way it has been resolved is that security forces from all sides of the conflict have been brought together into one armed force and then, over a period of time, people have been let go. That’s what happened in Uganda, in South Africa, and other places. That’s what we want to see here in South Sudan. That’s the plan. We just want to see that plan implemented.

Q: The Radio Community: You say that there are key provisions in the peace agreement that are not yet being implemented by the parties, including the graduation of forces. The peace guarantors, like the UN, Intergovernmental Authority on Development, Reconstituted Joint Monitoring Evaluation Commission, the Troika, are always saying they are concerned. They use the phrase “we are very concerned”. But these words do not sound good to the public, if the parties to the agreement say they are implementing the revitalized agreement and there is fighting going on in some parts of the country. What difference can you make rather than just using the term “concerned” which does not make sense? The second question relating to road construction is: will this boost the economy and assist the movement of people around the country? When did you begin construction and when will it finish? Thirdly, in terms of the transition of POCs to the government, since you handed over the camps to the government, what are some of the challenges that you have noted and what are the major challenges that may emerge, in the time to come, in those IDP camps? You talk about the Bentiu POC which is due to be transitioned but still the Internally Displaced Persons don’t trust the Government. What do you make of that?

A: SRSG: Okay, there is quite a lot there. I’m not sure I agree with you. I think it’s important that all of those organizations, IGAD, the Troika, the UN, do voice their concerns. I think it’s important that we stay focused on what has not been done, and that we put whatever pressure that we can on the government and the parties to make sure that the graduation of forces occurs. But, at the end of the day, the graduation of forces is the job of the government and the parties. I mean, the UN can’t graduate the forces - we don’t control the armed forces, it’s the government that controls the armed forces. So, we need two things: one, political will, two, the actual resources, the financial resources, and, at the moment anyway, it doesn’t appear that either is there, otherwise we would have seen the graduation of forces already. I think that, in the short term, this means that this situation goes on and on and on, but, long term, it means missing the opportunity of bringing the forces together into one military that will be loyal to the state and to the people of South Sudan – and that’s what we want to try to build, that’s what armed forces should be.

On the road construction, it began in November last year. There were some places where it was delayed because there was so much flooding in the area, but the rest has been going ahead. The Bor to Pibor road is underway. The road from Juba right up to Wau is underway, from Wau to Kuajok, and through to Bentiu is underway, and then north of Malakal is also going to happen. It’s a huge undertaking, but, because it’s invisible, I bring it up.

I just want to emphasize the importance of roads. Every country in the world has railways, roads, and other ways of linking places together. South Sudan, when it gained its independence, was poorly served in terms of infrastructure. We see this as a real priority, linking areas up, linking trade routes up. When you have trade and trucks going through an area, inevitably you have more prosperity: there is more chances of business, there is more chances of jobs, and where you have businesses, jobs and opportunities there is less likelihood of fighting.

I’ll give you one example: two and a half years ago, we fixed the road from Bor to Pibor for the first time in a long, long time. I was in Pibor a few months before the road went through there, and I went to the market in Pibor and there was nothing there. Literally nothing there. But when the road went through, suddenly there were blankets and pots and pans and everything you can see everywhere else was there, and the prices had come down dramatically, so suddenly people in Pibor had the opportunity to buy these basic goods that they weren’t able to get before. At the same time, the Murle in Pibor saw that they were getting better prices for their cattle when they sold them in Bor, and so they used the road to sell their cattle there. In so many ways, it has had a beneficial impact on communities by creating and connecting them by road.

On the POCs and the challenges, it is a good question. So far, to be honest with you, we haven’t encountered any real problems; I think trust is slowly developing between, particularly the police, and the inhabitants of the IDP camps, and UNPOL is working very hard with the South Sudan National Police Service to build their capacity. In fact, as we go forward in the coming year and next month, we will have a new mandate for UNMISS. What are pushing for, quite strongly, in the new mandate is an increase in the amount of resources we are able to spend on policing and justice in the courts so that we are able to have a more professional, more capable police force as well as judges and courts able to consider crimes and to make sure that people who have committed a crime are punished. We believe that is very important. It is important because there has to be accountability; so, if you commit a crime, you are likely to go to court and be punished. That is really important. We are asking the Security Council to include reference to this in the new mandate so that we are able to develop that area more as we go forward in the next year.

Q: Radio Miraya: My question is in regard to the distribution of exams in IO areas. You have strongly made the call for this and you have said UNMISS will offer support. What is this specific support that you want to offer, and have you got any request for this from the government?

A: SRSG: Thanks. I am not a 100% aware of the security issues that exist in these areas, but I have been told that there are some issues. Obviously, if you are sending examiners into an area that is insecure, that is problematic, but I feel very strongly that the 900 or so students need to have a chance to sit their exams because it is their future. If they don’t have their exams, they’ve worked hard and we are taking that possibility of that future away from them, and I think this is something we need to work really hard on. I mean it is bad enough, at the moment, with a various conflicts that young people often bear the brunt, so we should do our best, our very best, to ensure that they have the opportunity to get ahead and have a bright future. What we have said is: look, we have air resources, we’ve got people on the ground, we’ve got soldiers, police, if any of that is useful to get these exam papers to these children, we are willing to work with the Ministry of Education or whoever to be able to move these exams forward and have them occur. I know UNICEF is doing a lot of work on this with the Ministry of Education, with Minister Awut. I know that some of the donor countries have also been in contact with her. What we are saying is, look you might be having some problems, but, if there is anything that we, as UNMISS, can do to help alleviate and remove those problems, please be in touch and we will do what we can.

Q: The Radio Community: Can’t you pressure the peace parties to speed up the implementation of the peace agreement rather than all the time urging them to do “ABCD” which they are not doing?

A: SRSG: I will be honest with you. I don’t think a day goes by where I’m not talking to somebody or saying things need to be sped up. I think, at the moment, we’ve just come out of the Christmas period and we had the African Union summit just finish, and I think people’s attention, particularly around the region, has been focused on different things. If you look at Uganda, they have just had an election and, obviously, different things are happening in Sudan and in Ethiopia as well. I think the region, in some respects, has got a lot on. But I would really hope that the region, given that at the end of the day South Sudan is going to be their neighbor for long time, will also be able to move to push the South Sudanese parties along the road. My real concern, I don’t want to use that word, but my real worry is that, if we are not carefully putting together and constructing a peace process which has the agreement of all sides - you know, you were there, I was there, at the signing of the peace agreement in 2018 which was a really big and important day - some of that positivity and optimism is going to diminish and people are going to get frustrated. If people believe that nothing is there, then the chance of them coming back and taking action themselves in the form of violence is very real. So, it is something that I mention to everybody that I meet or, if you read my addresses to the Security Council, I have also mentioned that, and I pushed it very hard. But it seems at the end of the day, it is the parties that need to move; you know it is their country, not my country, it is your country and you are leading the country and it needs to be moving forward.

Okay, Thanks for the questions today. I wish everybody who is listening on Radio Miraya my warm greetings and best of luck for the coming weeks. Have a good day.

Thank you very much.