South Sudan: UN releases $15 million in urgent aid but peacekeeper surge will take longer

Civilians fleeing the fighting and seeking refuge, wait outside a compound of the UN Mission in Bor (December 2013). UN Photo/Hailemichael Gebrekrstos

While the United Nations has released $15 million from its rapid response fund for immediate humanitarian operations in war-torn South Sudan, even amid “very substantial progress”, it could take up to eight weeks before the full 5,500-strong surge in UN peacekeepers and equipment is deployed on the ground.

“But our goal is to go as quickly as possible and we are grateful to those countries who are helping us to do the transportation because that’s no small feat,” UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous told reporters after briefing the Security Council on the situation in the world’s youngest country, where well over 1,000 people have been killed and some 300,000 others driven from their home since fighting erupted between Government and opposition forces nearly a month ago.

The time-frame is longer than Mr. Ladsous outlined on 30 December when he said it was hoped all reinforcements for the UN peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) that the Council authorized to protect civilians – almost doubling the force to nearly 14,000, including utility and tactical helicopters – would be on the ground within three weeks.

But although he said today that getting the whole surge there could take between four and eight weeks, he stressed that “we are making very substantial progress,” and it was hoped to have a significant number of formed police units, some of which are already deployed and operational, on the ground over the coming days.

This will allow UNMISS peacekeepers who lack the necessary vehicles and are currently deployed on UN bases and camps to defend 60,000 people seeking shelter there, to take on “more proactive patrolling around the bases and beyond because, of course, the situation in terms of violation of human rights remains terrible critical,” he added.

Mr. Ladsous said “we know” that the death toll will “be very substantially in excess of the 1,000 figures that we know for sure,” while there are probably 250,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). At least 42,800 others are estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries.

“The priorities now for the UN are very clearly in this situation: to focus on the protection of civilians, on human rights and on helping our humanitarian colleagues to access those populations,” he stressed. “These are the three items on which UNMISS is really concentrating all its efforts right now.”

During the more than three hour briefing, the Council also heard from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative to the African Union, Haile Menkerios, by video link from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Government and opposition representatives are meeting in talks in talks mediated by the East African regional organization, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), with an immediate ceasefire and the release of political detainees held by the Government at the top of the agenda.

Mr. Ban’s Special Representative in South Sudan, and head of UNMISS, Hilde Johnson also briefed the 15-member body from Juba, South Sudan’s capital.

Asked about denial of access for UN peacekeepers, which the Government guaranteed in the accord setting up UNMISS, specifically flying into Bor in Jonglei state, site of some of the fiercest fighting and displacement of civilians, Mr. Ladsous said “this is being corrected and this has been taken up rather forcefully with the Government.”

Asked why UNMISS forces have so far remained on their bases and not gone further afield when fighting and human rights abuses have been reported, he replied: “In view of the fact that they only have limited equipment, that is a Limitation. So this is why we don’t send them on long-range patrols on the vehicles that they don’t have yet.

“This is why we are concentrating in the first place on the protection of UN bases and camps. But as the strength augments, as the equipment augments, then it will be possible to put them into full blown duties.”

He was also asked about reports that the South Sudanese Government objected to certain nationalities taking part in the UNMISS reinforcement; “The situation has improved in the sense that the messages have been more open, so there’s still work to do, but anyway we are in a position of deploying those troops that we intended to deploy to South Sudan.”

The Council briefings came as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos announced $15-million allocation from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). “Conditions for the South Sudanese fleeing hostilities in their country are getting worse by the day,” she said. With this CERF funding, UN humanitarian agencies will be better able to meet the needs of people desperately seeking shelter and safety.”

South Sudan, which only gained independence in 2011 after seceding from Sudan, erupted in fighting on 15 December when President Salva Kiir said soldiers loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar, dismissed last July, reportedly launched an attempted coup.