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Citing Escalating Violence, Challenging Landscape in Abyei Area, Peacekeeping Chief Recommends Security Council Extend United Nations Interim Force

Despite improving relations between Sudan and South Sudan, progress is unlikely in determining the final status of the Abyei Area in the short to medium term, especially considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations told the Security Council during a 28 April videoconference meeting*.

Briefing on the Secretary-General’s latest report (document S/2020/308), Jean-Pierre Lacroix said a volatile security situation, rising intercommunal tensions and an increase in the presence of armed groups are part of a challenging landscape, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.  As such, he called for the continued support of the Security Council for the Secretary-General’s recommendation for a six-month-long extension of the mandate of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), until 15 October 2020.

“While months ahead will no doubt pose new unprecedented challenges as we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, UNISFA leadership will continue to engage with the Governments of the Sudan and South Sudan to facilitate the implementation of the pending aspects of their previous agreements and the UNISFA mandate,” he said.  “UNISFA will also continue to play a stabilizing role in the Abyei Area and along the border regions.”

Outlining recent developments in implementing the mission mandate, including its support to the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism, he pointed at episodes of heightened tensions between the Ngok Dinka and the Misseriya communities, an increase in criminality and the presence of armed elements in the Interim Security Force’s area of responsibility.  UNISFA troops have also been subject to attacks by armed elements, including an incident on 24 April.

Regarding a major escalation of violence between communities near Kolom, he said the mission has established a joint investigative team to conduct a preliminary investigation.  The focus is on incidents in January resulting in the killing of three Misseriya at Nai Nai by attackers suspected to be Ngok Dinka, and 33 Ngok Dinka killed by Misseriya armed elements, in what is believed to be a retaliatory attack.

UNISFA engagement with local communities has contributed to easing tensions, he said, and meetings in March and April of the two groups at a traditional leaders’ conference resulted in steps towards peace.  “Our paramount concern is to sustain the positive dialogue restored between the two communities,” he said, adding that once the investigation is completed, he will discuss possible future steps forward with the mission Force Commander.

Citing several other positive developments, he said that UNISFA held consultations on 4 March with Sudan Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to resolve the issues of the Athony airstrip and the appointment of a Deputy Head of Mission.  The Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism made some progress towards reaching resolution 2497 (2019) benchmarks, including the deployment of national monitors.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays, he said, including the suspension of further steps in police unit deployment.  Meanwhile, UNISFA is working with authorities on providing assistance to a response plan, including community outreach.

The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, said urgent external support will be needed to help Khartoum and Juba offset such current obstacles as the COVID-19 pandemic, plummeting oil prices, a desert locust invasion and climatic vagaries.  “The pandemic will also likely have a negative effect on the peace processes in the two countries, including by significantly slowing down engagements, he said, noting that his office is working with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Secretariat on a regional strategy.

Briefing on the implementation of resolution 2046 (2012), covering outstanding bilateral issues between Khartoum and Juba and the conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, he said developments since October 2019 include undeniable and commendable progress with both countries consolidating their improved relations, notably by the constructive roles played in each other’s peace process.  In addition, cooperation in oil management between the two countries has continued to remain strong, with South Sudan steadily making payments relating to the Transitional Financial Arrangement.

At the same time, he said, the Prime Minister of Sudan continues to try defusing tensions and finding consensus between political players in Khartoum and seeks to deliver on his commitment to peace through negotiations with the armed movements with some talks held virtually, given COVID-19 restrictions.  Negotiations with Darfur armed movements delivered a major outcome, as agreement was reached with the Government on 11 February to establish a special court for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur and to seek justice through the International Criminal Court, but grave concerns remain about the absence from the talks of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM)/Abdul Wahid al-Nur.  In addition, talks with SPLM-North (al-Hilu) do not appear to have made any headway.

Despite their support to each other, he said, both countries have had minimal bilateral engagements within the framework of their cooperation agreements but continued to focus on their internal conflicts.  However, they have stopped accusing each other of supporting or hosting their respective rebels.  Instead, they are mutually reinforcing each other’s efforts to end internal conflicts.

While both countries are careful to avoid dealing with any points of conflict amid the challenges of their respective transitions and COVID-19, he said it is hoped that the rapprochement and consolidated relations will subsequently provide the incentive for them to address the outstanding issues under the cooperation agreements, including the situation in Abyei.

Council members commended progress and steps taken by Sudan and South Sudan to enhance cooperation.  They also shared concerns about recent attacks, gender-based violence and a fragile security situation, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many underlined the need to fully implement the peace agreements, with delegates suggesting ways of tailoring the UNISFA mandate to best help all stakeholders in Abyei as the Council considers the mission’s renewal for another six months.

In that vein, Tunisia’s delegate echoed the Secretary-General’s recommendation, saying that extending UNISFA and its support for the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism remains vital for stabilizing Abyei and surrounding areas.  Indeed, the mission mandate must be calibrated and contextualized to align with priority shifts and pace of the parties to bolster peace, security and development initiatives and effectively counter the COVID-19 pandemic.  Khartoum, Juba and the Security Council must capitalize on recent positive developments, he said, urging the parties to re-energize efforts, including with the African Union High-level Implementation Panel to resolve outstanding issues, as outlined in the 2012 Cooperation Agreement.

The United Kingdom’s representative said the Security Council must ensure that UNISFA remains adequately resourced to deliver on its mandated activities, including assisting in the achievement of a final settlement on Abyei’s status.  Urging Khartoum and Juba not to lose sight of their respective peace processes and of the importance of finding that final settlement amid the COVID-19 crisis, he remained concerned about Abyei’s fragile security situation.  The Council has long highlighted the need to boost the mission’s civilian and police component, he said, welcoming Mr. Lacroix’s update on deployments.  However, his delegation is disappointed by the delay in issuing visas for police, and he urged Khartoum to expedite this process.

Similarly, France’s delegate called on Khartoum to ensure police unit deployment, which will help the security situation.  She called on Sudan and South Sudan to coordinate an investigation into recent attacks and reports of sexual violence, emphasizing that perpetrators must be brought to justice.  These terrible events confirm that the situation in Abyei is still fragile, and that the deployment of UNISFA is still highly needed, she said.  However, only a true political process to address the issue of Abyei and of the border demarcation can really stabilize the security, she said, calling on parties to strengthen efforts in this regard.  “We should all do our best to avoid the situation in Abyei from becoming a new frozen conflict and UNISFA an open-ended mission,” she said, reiterating the Secretary-General’s message that the international community cannot accept nor afford it.

The representative of the Russian Federation said the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism is integral to preventing incidents between the parties, with support from UNISFA strengthening efforts to stabilize Abyei.  Long-term settlement between Sudan and South Sudan requires joint efforts and he drew attention in that context to Council and African Union resolutions, as well as the package of bilateral accords reached in September 2012 in Addis Ababa.  The African Union High-level Implementation Panel must also continue its work with the parties.  While noting the steady normalization of relations, he acknowledged that there are “objective factors” preventing Khartoum and Juba from settling Abyei’s final status.  As such, he supported the extension of UNISFA’s mandate, including its support to the Verification and Monitoring Mission, for six months.

Indonesia’s delegate, also supporting the mandate extension, said the mission’s reconfiguration must be geared to enable its effective response to the challenges on the ground, and match them with appropriate personnel and capability support, especially in its readiness to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  Commending UNISFA’s efforts regarding intercommunal tensions, he said its work on capacity-building for the Community Protection Committees and its support to traditional justice mechanisms must continue.  In addition, the deployment of remaining authorized additional police units is also of critical importance.  Calling on both countries to seize the positive momentum in their bilateral relations to propel negotiations on Abyei, he said the situation’s peaceful resolution is one of the test cases of political transition in Sudan and South Sudan, requiring further effective engagement from the regional countries, the African Union and the United Nations.

China’s representative said the Security Council should continue to fully respect the leading role of Khartoum and Juba on the Abyei issue, listen carefully to the views of both sides, and support the efforts of regional and subregional organizations, such as the African Union and IGAD.  Hopeful that the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan will continue to seek a political solution to this issue, including the establishment of administrative, judicial and public security institutions, he said the international community should provide assistance to both sides especially on fighting COVID-19.  China welcomes the efforts of Ethiopia, as one of the main troop-contributing countries, notes the Secretary-General’s recommendations and supports the extension of UNISFA’s mandate.  In this regard, the Council should listen carefully to the views of Khartoum, Juba, the African Union and troop-contributing countries.  He expressed appreciation for the Secretariat’s efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraging the improvement of safety and security of UNISFA peacekeepers.

The representative of Germany said extending the UNISFA mandate must ensure it best serves needs on the ground, including response to rising crime and support for community-level peace processes, mediation and dialogue.  Particular support is needed in initiatives for the full and effective participation of women at all stages of the peace process.  There is a need to make tangible progress and to have a finite timeline, he said, calling on the parties to hold regular meetings of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee and the Joint Political and Security Mechanism and to consult on Abyei at the ministerial level.

The representative of the United States said that recent violence in Abyei demonstrates the lack of progress by Sudan and South Sudan in resolving outstanding border issues.  It should serve as a call to action for the two countries, whose leaders should capitalize on their improving relationship and agree on the implementation of security and administration arrangements for Abyei.  She called on the parties to remove obstacles that prevent UNISFA from realizing its mandate.  She also encouraged senior United Nations officials to redouble their efforts with the parties and the African Union to allow full implementation of the mission’s mandate.

Estonia’s representative, urging Khartoum and Juba to capitalize on their improving relationship to push for progress in Abyei, called on them to revive a viable political process, leading to the implementation of the 2011 Agreement — efforts that could be aided by the appointment of the Civilian Deputy Head of the Mission.  It is crucial to expedite the deployment of remaining authorized UNISFA personnel, especially police.  He urged authorities to launch joint investigations into the deadly incidents in Kolom in January and recommended deploying human rights expertise to UNISFA as support to local authorities in addressing abuses.

Viet Nam’s delegate, emphasizing that the Council must consider both Sudan and South Sudan’s sides of the Abyei issue, encouraged UNISFA to continue to support both countries in conducting dialogue via remote means, given the COVID-19 situation.  While the final solution to Abyei is still pending, it is important to ensure security and sustainable livelihoods for the people in the Area, with both countries supporting UNISFA in discharging its mandate.  Further cooperation between the United Nations and regional actors will provide synergy in helping Khartoum and Juba resolve their outstanding issues.  Viet Nam supports extending the mission’s mandate, he said, noting that the current female ratio of staff is 10.9 per cent, much higher than the average in other missions.

The representative of South Africa emphasized the need for unity in Sudan’s ruling political coalition, urging Khartoum and Juba to use the renewed rapprochement to finalize the outstanding issues regarding Abyei, as recent tensions highlight the region’s potential to unravel progress.  He encouraged both countries to continue an inclusive political dialogue to implement their border agreements and meet benchmarks set by the Council.  He welcomed the stabilizing role played by UNISFA and the Verification and Monitoring Mechanism, similarly encouraging continued work by the Joint Political and Security Mechanism and the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee.

Belgium’s representative said the transitions in Sudan and South Sudan, along with the coronavirus, require the full attention of both Governments and he urged them to keep the issue of Abyei on their agendas.  Their full commitment is required to reach sustainable peace in the Area.  Calling on parties to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice, he welcomed UNISFA’s efforts to foster peace, dialogue and conflict resolution.  However, the mission cannot be an “open-ended substitute” for normal administrative and public services.  “A solution through political dialogue is needed,” he said, stressing that, pending settlement on the status of Abyei, a responsible exit by UNISFA is difficult to envisage.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines condemned the 19 and 22 January Nai Nai-Kolom attacks, and lamented tensions between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities.  He urged Abyei communities to exercise utmost restraint, pressing Khartoum and Juba to cooperate with UNISFA.  “The difficulties in Abyei will not be resolved unless the key drivers of intercommunal conflicts are robustly tackled,” he said, calling on parties to implement the 2011 Agreement and the 2012 Cooperation Agreement.  He likewise called for unhindered humanitarian service delivery, the inclusion of women in decisions and respect for the outcomes of the Joint Political and Security Mechanism ordinary sessions, on 13 October 2019 and 19 February 2020.

The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, saying that the people of Abyei expect solutions to their priority needs including health, nutrition, food and water alongside the protection of their human rights.  To attain sustainable peace, Khartoum and Juba must take concrete action to fulfil their commitments, with the Council using the upcoming discussions on the UNISFA mandate as a perfect opportunity to refocus its attention on the issue.  Since the conflict began, both countries have paid limited attention to their responsibilities regarding Abyei, as they face other pressing issues, and more must be done to allow for the consolidation of peace and security by fostering a viable political process.  As for the mission’s efforts, UNISFA must be equipped with an appropriate mandate, capabilities and assets, including the operationalization of Athony airstrip and the appointment of a civilian Deputy Head of Mission and other key staff.

Sudan’s representative reassured the Council of Khartoum’s support for UNISFA and reaffirmed its commitment to all agreements signed with South Sudan.  He recalled that following a meeting in January between the President of South Sudan and the Deputy Chairman of the Sovereign Council in Sudan, the two countries agreed to establish a joint mechanism to protect civilians in Abyei.  Two weeks later, the Joint Security and Political Committee, comprising high-level representatives from the two countries, met in Juba and briefed UNISFA’s Force Commander.  It reached a set of arrangements aimed at avoiding any relapse or escalation between the communities.  It also agreed to refer to the leadership of the two countries’ three issues:  the increase of the number of joint police forces, the appointment of a civilian Deputy Head of Mission, and the usage and utilization of Athony airport.  A follow-up meeting in Khartoum on 13 April was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  He emphasized that Sudan’s new political dispensation “offers a major positive paradigm shift in the relations between the two brotherly countries”.  Building on that, as well as on the constructive outcome of the Juba meeting, Khartoum and Juba will be able to prevent escalations, resolve any communal clashes in the Area and reach a lasting and amicable solution to the final status of Abyei, according to the agreed terms, he stated.

The representative of Ethiopia, as the major troop-contributing country to UNISFA, said the new political dynamics in Sudan and South Sudan have created an encouraging atmosphere, but challenges remain.  UNISFA faced serious difficulties over the past year, including two helicopter accidents that constrained air capabilities in a remote operating area.  During the dry season, increasing foot and mobile patrols alone cannot prevent threats or secure every inch of the area, especially given that armed groups and individuals continue to be present in the weapons-free zone.  While encouraged by the two countries’ leadership on these issues, he said more must be done to ensure the success of the mission and a final agreement on Abyei.

Indeed, he said, one month after the adoption of the current mission mandate, the Interim Security Force faced clashes in Kolom, after which Ethiopia encouraged UNISFA to rigorously conduct wider discussions and engagement with the Dinka and Misseriya communities with the objective of curbing the escalation of violence.  In April, UNISFA forces were engaged in ambush attacks and armed assault incidents in Nai-Nai and Alal, and, in another incident, three Misseriya men opened fire at the Alal UNISFA Team Operation Base.  In response to these seemingly connected incidents, UNISFA has intensified ground patrols, he said, expressing concern about the recovery of 27 assault rifles, 48 magazines, 1,220 rounds of ammunition and seven war-like equipment kits, in addition to similarly worrying figures since November 2019.

UNISFA troops remain on high alert in anticipation of additional attacks, he said.  The mandated protection of the Abyei Area from aggressive armed attacks and different forms of criminality is becoming a daunting task, requiring an organized response by the mission, host countries and the United Nations.  Ethiopia supports the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism’s role in tracking grave violations against women and children in the context of UNISFA’s mandate.  At the same time, authorities must intensify their outreach to the communities in Abyei and assist UNISFA in ensuring that the “box” remains a weapons-free zone.

Highlighting critical measures that are instrumental to deliver on the UNISFA mandate, he said easing current tensions requires that mission-facilitated meetings between the Ngok-Dinka and Misseriya leaders in Diffra are complemented by maintaining momentum on reaching an agreement on Abyei’s final status and resolving the stalled southern-ward movement of herders.  Troop cuts in favour of planned police unit deployment are impacting already overstretched UNISFA forces, and the withdrawal of 295 soldiers scheduled for 15 May should be suspended until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the planned police unit replacements are on the ground.

UNISFA must be also adequately resourced, he said, including for preventive measures and preparedness against COVID-19 and with funding for quick-impact projects.  All relevant authorities must be continuously consulted regarding the Council’s decision on appointing a Deputy Head of Mission and the operationalization of the Athony airstrip.  The tragic incidents at Kolom must be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice, which would represent a confidence-building measure among the two communities.

Also participating in the meeting was a representative of Niger.


* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.

For information media. Not an official record.