Unwavering international support is crucial to maintain the fragile stability achieved in Guinea-Bissau, officials told the Security Council today, warning of escalating political tensions and a looming “financial cliff” after the United Nations longstanding peace operation departs on 31 December.
Rosine Sori-Coulibaly, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS), described preparations on the ground in the West African nation as the Organization’s presence prepares to change shape. A phased drawdown is under way — as mandated by the Council — and tasks are being handed over to the United Nations country team and other partners. However, she said events following the country’s 2019 presidential election have complicated the political landscape, leading to a highly charged atmosphere that is further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Outlining the “deeply entrenched” positions of the new President, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, and opposition leaders allied with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, she said prospects for a compromise are dim. There are increasing reports of insecurity and human rights abuses — including arbitrary arrests, intimidation and detention of political figures — being committed against those perceived as being aligned with the opposition. In that context, she stressed that continued international support to Guinea-Bissau’s population, as well as the peacebuilding work of the United Nations country team and regional actors, will be crucial even beyond the exit of UNIOGBIS.
João Genésio de Almeida Filho (Brazil), speaking in his capacity as Chair of the Guinea-Bissau Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission, agreed that despite notable progress the country’s challenges have deepened in 2020 amid multiple political transitions and the arrival of COVID-19. Describing the configuration’s work with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other partners to promote economic recovery, he warned that Guinea-Bissau’s economic outlook remains fragile and uncertain. Its pre-COVID-19 projected growth of 4.5 per cent is now expected to drop to a contraction of up to 3 per cent.
During recent multi-stakeholder meetings, he said, participants expressed concern not only about negative economic trends but also about the impact of the pandemic and its resulting movement restrictions. In particular, they warned that key United Nations peacebuilding priorities — including the fight against drug trafficking and transnational organized crime — could suffer, and continued to call on the Commission to support Guinea-Bissau in implementing crucial reforms.
Ghada Fathi Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), echoed the call for urgent, coordinated action to combat drug trafficking and the trafficking in persons in Guinea-Bissau. Emphasizing that such work is critical to advancing national stability, she said organized crime networks have exploited the country’s border management challenges for trans-Atlantic cocaine trafficking. Recent gains are proving difficult to maintain amid a resurgence of criminal operations. “Political will and long-term assistance, backed by sufficient funding, are needed more than ever,” she stressed, pledging that UNODC will monitor the situation and deliver extensive technical assistance.
As Council members took the floor, most agreed that the situation in Guinea-Bissau remains fragile, while opinions diverged about the overall severity of the country’s current challenges. Several speakers sounded the alarm over recent “disturbing behaviour” by members of the military — who briefly occupied State institution buildings — and called for political neutrality, while others cited reports of harassment and intimidation against members of the media. However, others said that, despite isolated incidents, the situation is generally stable and called for international support guided by the principles of sovereignty and independence.
Niger’s representative, also speaking for Tunisia, South Africa and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) remains committed to finding a solution to the political and institutional crisis in Guinea-Bissau. Noting that COVID-19 has slowed the country’s reform efforts, he said its authorities — which are responsible for the population’s security — must reduce the threat posed by the virus. Elections alone cannot resolve Guinea-Bissau’s numerous challenges, which also require support from the international community. Voicing concern about the possible resurgence of drug trafficking, he pointed out that Guinea-Bissau is neither a producer nor a consumer of drugs, but rather a victim of transnational criminal networks.
The representative of France was among those speakers who urged all of Guinea-Bissau’s political and institutional players to work towards stability, respect for the law and human rights. The goal is for institutions to devote themselves to the country’s development, she said, recalling that resolution of the political crisis requires implementation of the 2016 Conakry Agreement, the six-point ECOWAS road map and a revision of the Constitution. As UNIOGBIS will soon end its activities, the international community must express to the new authorities clear messages about its expectations. Among other things, she underscored France’s expectation that the Government will make progress in fighting organized crime.
Indonesia’s delegate, Council President for August, said in his national capacity that all parties in Guinea-Bissau must pursue dialogue and national reconciliation to resolve their differences. He agreed with other speakers that progress on Constitutional reform and electoral laws is particularly important. Describing the current situation as stable, he nonetheless pointed to the challenges wrought by COVID-19, drug trafficking and organized crime and urged national authorities to ensure the functioning of State institutions. Meanwhile, regional and international partners must offer support, especially with the drawdown of UNIOGBIS on the horizon.
The representative of China echoed some of those points, agreeing that the parties in Guinea-Bissau have, by and large, been able to resolve their differences through dialogue. The country’s political process is gradually getting back on track. Emphasizing that COVID-19 makes it all the more urgent to unite behind crucial socioeconomic reforms, he also underlined the need to combat drug trafficking and transnational organized crime and called for increased international investment in Guinea-Bissau’s sustainable development. China supports “African solutions to African issues” with international support that is provided in full respect for Guinea-Bissau’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, he said.
To that point, the representative of Guinea-Bissau said his country is gradually overcoming huge difficulties. Members of Parliament were democratically elected and the body is functioning normally, with good standards of conduct. Society has a new attitude towards national reconciliation, he said, stressing that hate statements and political and social divisions are “now in the past” and social and political tensions are easing. Responding to claims of rising human rights violations, he said some isolated cases are a far cry from a true human rights crisis. As for drug trafficking, he said Guinea-Bissau’s borders remain vulnerable and welcomed international assistance, while rejecting attempts to politicize that issue.
Also speaking were the representatives of the Russian Federation, Germany, Estonia, United States, Dominican Republic, Belgium, United Kingdom and Viet Nam.
The meeting began at 10:11 a.m. and ended at 11:55 a.m.
JOÃO GENÉSIO DE ALMEIDA FILHO (Brazil), Chair of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission’s Guinea-Bissau configuration, said that since its inception in 2007 the instrument’s primary focus has been supporting the Government in implementing the 2016 Conakry Agreement — including critical reforms and support for long-term stability and development. Despite notable progress, the country’s challenges have deepened recently with the arrival of COVID-19 in a year of multiple political transitions. Those include Guinea-Bissau’s transition to a new political leadership; the drawdown of the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS), slated for completion in less than five months; and the planned closure of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mission in the country.
Describing the configuration’s recent engagement with national leaders on the way forward, he spotlighted discussions with the World Bank’s Guinea-Bissau country director on efforts to combat the pandemic as well as on the country’s economic outlook. Among other things, the Bank plans to support expansions in Guinea-Bissau’s economic activities, the provision of basic services and a direct medical response, as well as enhanced support for livelihoods post-COVID-19. However, he warned that the country’s economic outlook remains fragile and uncertain, with its pre-COVID-19 projected growth of 4.5 per cent now expected to drop to a contraction of up to 3 per cent.
In that context, he said the configuration will continue to work with partners including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Guinea-Bissau’s economic recovery. It convened a meeting on 24 June with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, the Permanent Representative of Guinea-Bissau, a representative of ECOWAS and the Assistant Secretary-General for peacebuilding support. The latter provided an update on political developments and the pandemic and how both are impacting the Mission’s withdrawal. Participants expressed concern that the virus and its resulting movement restrictions might hamper United Nations peacebuilding priorities, including the fight against transnational organized crime, and could further weaken social cohesion or worsen gender equality. In that context, he stressed that the Commission should continue to mobilize international support for Guinea-Bissau, with a focus on economic recovery, institution-building and other crucial areas.
ROSINE SORI-COULIBALY, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNIOGBIS, briefed the Council via teleconference from Bissau, agreeing that the situation in the country is now especially fragile amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A coordination framework was established to respond to the crisis, with resources being channelled in support of national efforts and United Nations staff largely telecommuting. However, recent political developments have led to an increasingly charged atmosphere, with escalating hostility making it more difficult for parties to achieve a compromise solution. New authorities are consolidating power following Guinea-Bissau’s recent election, and President Umaro Sissoco Embaló has expressed the wish to form a broad-based Government with Nuno Nabiam as Prime Minister. However, the prospects of a breakthrough are low given the strong opposition of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, known as the PAIGC, under the current circumstances. “Both sides remain deeply entrenched in their positions,” she said.
Turning to recent allegations of insecurity and human rights abuses, she cited a 26 July raid on the headquarters of Radio Capital FM, which is considered allied to the opposition. There are also reports of arbitrary arrests, intimidation and detention of political figures perceived as opposing the current Administration. The drawdown of UNIOGBIS continues, in line with the modalities set out in Council resolutions 2458 (2019) and 2512 (2020). However, the recent political developments have prevented the Mission from carrying out some of its tasks, and its mandate is unlikely to be fully implemented before its departure. In addition, a Technical Commission for Constitutional Review established by President Embaló is being criticized by several national stakeholders, including the President of the National Assembly, the PAIGC alliance and others. It remains unclear how the review will reconcile with a parallel one being carried out by a UNIOGBIS-supported ad hoc commission, she said, warning that the two processes have the potential to further exacerbate tensions.
Regarding the drawdown of UNIOGBIS — slated for completion by 31 December — she said transitional coordination continues with the United Nations country team and other key partners identified for the continuation of key peacebuilding priorities. The Mission, alongside ECOWAS and the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), is currently forming a comprehensive action plan aimed at extending technical support to specialized commissions on a range of critical items. Progress also continues on the plan to establish a high-level platform to discuss and sustain momentum beyond the Mission’s drawdown. “Funding will be essential for averting a financial cliff,” she said, appealing to international partners to support the cooperation framework. Meanwhile, all political actors must commit to dialogue and consensus-building around Guinea-Bissau’s peacebuilding priorities and the military and security forces must be reminded not to engage in politics, she said.
GHADA FATHI WALY, Executive Director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said urgently coordinated action in Guinea-Bissau is very much needed. Fighting drug trafficking and trafficking in persons is critical to advancing national stability. Organized crime networks have exploited border management challenges for trans-Atlantic cocaine trafficking. Guinea-Bissau can be proud of recent successes. In 2019, two operations — “CARAPAO” and “NAVARA” — led to the seizure of roughly 3 tons of cocaine, hard-won achievements enabled by the integration of police into international drug trafficking platforms.
However, these gains are proving difficult to advance amid a resurgence of drug trafficking and criminal operations, she said. Noting that security sector reform is essential to resolving the chronic problem of instability, she said UNODC assistance will focus on strengthening institutions to fight corruption and enhance criminal justice. These efforts will be carried out under the national strategic plan on drug trafficking, which provides an integrated approach to reforming the entire security system. Describing two UNODC-related projects carried out this summer, she said the Office provided technical support to the Ministry of Women and Children, and through another project, contributed to the Trafficking in Persons Contingency Plan, which will serve as the basis for a 2021-2026 national action plan. UNODC also helped to establish a national crime unit.
Going forward, she said Guinea-Bissau needs renewed international commitment, stressing that “political will and long-term assistance, backed by sufficient funding, are needed more than ever.” UNODC will continue to closely monitor the drug trafficking and organized crime situation, delivering technical assistance supported by an extensive team on the ground and maintaining its readiness to offer more formal advisory services. The UNODC office in Dakar will also provide technical support that acknowledges the regional dynamics affecting drug and organized crime challenges, notably through its cooperation with UNOWAS.
ABDOU ABARRY (Niger), speaking also for Tunisia, South Africa and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, recalled that since the end of the electoral process in December 2019, ECOWAS has committed to finding a solution to the political and institutional crisis in Guinea-Bissau. Thanking the Group of Five and the tripartite integrated mechanism for their support in this regard, he said Guinea-Bissau is at a crossroads and needs collective support. Citing the 22 April ECOWAS communiqué requesting the President to appoint a Prime Minister by 22 May and inviting him to launch a reform process to create a new constitution — which would be subjected to a referendum within six months — he welcomed the formation of the Constitutional Revision Commission.
He likewise welcomed the Special Representative of the Secretary-General’s proposal to establish a high-level platform to accompany the reforms, as the coordination of national and regional efforts is crucial. As COVID-19 has slowed these reforms, he encouraged authorities — which are responsible for the security of the population — to reduce this threat. He welcomed the African Health Organisation’s decision to send health kits as part of its COVID-19 response. Noting that the conduct of elections cannot alone resolve the numerous challenges, he urged the international community to support national initiatives for peacebuilding and sustainable development, including food security. Substantial support should also be provided to strengthen democratic institutions and reform the judiciary. Expressing concern about the possible resurgence of drug trafficking, he said Guinea-Bissau is neither a producer nor a consumer of drugs. Rather, it is a victim, given its weakness in controlling and monitoring its many islands, he said, calling for more support to Guinea-Bissau to address this menace. He welcomed UNODC’s work to enhance the country’s ability to fight drugs, terrorism and organized crime, such as corruption and money laundering, stressing that defence and security forces should remain strictly neutral to the political process, as they have done until now.
ANNA M. EVSTIGNEEVA (Russian Federation) said that while Guinea-Bissau went through a very complex post-electoral period, the situation is gradually returning to normal. Calling on all parties to behave responsibly and work towards easing tensions, he joined other speakers in urging the country’s military to “stay out of politics”. Meanwhile, the authorities should begin tackling the socioeconomic problems which have become more acute amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Restructuring the United Nations presence must be done gradually, and the Organization’s country team must be given all necessary instruments to take over the work of UNIOGBIS by its drawdown in December — including the resources needed to combat drug trafficking. Spotlighting UNODC’s crucial work in that arena, he added that the time has also come to consider lifting the Council’s sanctions on Guinea-Bissau, which have become a “relic” of the past. Indeed, the situation on the ground today has nothing to do with the 2012 coup d’état, when sanctions were first imposed, he said.
GUENTER SAUTTER (Germany) declared: “The drawdown [of UNIOGBIS] does not imply that we can be satisfied with the situation in Guinea-Bissau.” Citing political tensions that erupted after the recent election, he expressed deep concern about reports of violence and threats against political actors, adding that respect for human rights is not negotiable. All stakeholders must act responsibly. He also voiced concern about the lack of neutrality recently displayed by the military, which occupied State institutions. Underlining the need for the full, meaningful participation of women in all parts of the peace process, he said much remains to be done on that front, including ending impunity for gender-based crimes. Noting the additional challenges posed by COVID-19, he said the United Nations, in partnership with regional actors, must play a continued, coordinated role, and called for continued support for the Peacebuilding Fund. Turning to efforts to combat transnational organized crime and drug trafficking, he called for a full investigation into signals that military and other national authorities are involved in those illegal activities. Such matters should also factor into the Council’s discussion of the sanctions regime, he said.
GERT AUVÄÄRT (Estonia) said the crisis in Guinea-Bissau has placed a burden on the Mission and he welcomed its drawdown. Describing developments as “less than encouraging”, characterized by the political impasse and military interference in politics, he called on ECOWAS to continue its engagement to address the country’s institutional crisis. Bissau-Guineans must take steps as well to find a peaceful way out of the political crisis, which is especially important in the context of COVID—19. He expressed extreme concern about human rights violations, including excessive use of force among State security forces and reports that women have been beaten, which are appalling. Perpetrators must be held accountable. Going forward, he advocated a holistic, gender-sensitive approach to peacebuilding, which will be particularly important after the Mission’s closure. The Peacebuilding Commission’s role will be essential in this regard.
NADIA FANTON (France) said the political situation in Guinea-Bissau is fragile, acknowledging the election of President Embaló but expressing regret that the political transition did not respect the law and that the ECOWAS recommendation to form a new Government still has not been implemented by the President. She also pointed to the military’s involvement in the National Assembly and the Supreme Court of Justice, citing other reports of intimidation of journalists. She called on all political and institutional players to work towards stability, respect for the law and human rights. The goal is for institutions to devote themselves to the country’s development, she said, recalling that resolution of the political crisis requires implementation of the Conakry reforms, the six-point ECOWAS road map and revision of the Constitution. As the UNIOGBIS will soon end its activities, the international community must express to the new authorities clear messages about its expectations. She welcomed efforts by the Group of Five, ECOWAS, the African Union, the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries, the European Union and the United Nations, as well as the Peacebuilding Commission and the Peacebuilding Fund, underscoring France’s expectation that national authorities will make progress over time in fighting organized crime, as current remain insufficient.
BING DAI (China) said the parties in Guinea-Bissau have, by and large, been able to resolve their differences through dialogue. The country’s political process is gradually getting back on track. He urged the parties to seize the opportunity presented by the formation of the new Government, encouraging them to promote economic development and improve the population’s living standards. Emphasizing that COVID-19 makes it all the more urgent to unite behind such reforms, he also underlined the need to combat drug trafficking and transnational organized crime and called for increased international investment in Guinea-Bissau’s sustainable development. China will provide assistance where possible to those areas, he said, spotlighting the important mediation role being played by ECOWAS. China supports such “African solutions to African issues”, alongside international support that is provided in full respect for the country’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
RODNEY M. HUNTER (United States) agreed that Guinea-Bissau continues to face several serious challenges, which have now been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As UNIOGBIS continues its phased drawdown, it is of paramount importance that the Government take measures to prevent the further spread of the virus. The United States will continue to support the people of Guinea-Bissau and desires a constructive and respectful relationship with the country’s new Government. As such, the United States will continue to provide humanitarian and development assistance, as well as support a free press. In that vein, he joined other speakers in strongly condemning harassment of members of the media in Guinea-Bissau, including the recent vandalization of the headquarters of Capital Radio FM.
WELLINGTON DARIO BENCOSME CASTAÑOS (Dominican Republic) called for greater political dialogue, underscoring the need to revise the Constitution and fight drug trafficking, in particular as these activities worsen gender and health inequalities. Indeed, 2020 is a critical year, given the four transitions under way: the drawdown of UNIOGBIS, the transition of tasks to the United Nations country team, the political transition and the closure of the ECOWAS Mission in Guinea-Bissau. As international involvement in the country decreases, national authorities must assume more responsibility, in order to be accountable to their citizens. He expressed regret over the military’s participation in events following the presidential election, as the army has not demonstrated impartiality in the internal conflict. He condemned vandalism against Capital Radio FM by unidentified armed men wearing national guard uniforms, calling it a direct attack against a cornerstone of a democratic State. He likewise expressed particular concern about the beatings of women by police officers and other inhumane treatment, as well as about confinement measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis.
KAREN VAN VLIERBERGE (Belgium) said the climate of mistrust is still the hallmark of Guinea-Bissau’s political arena. Welcoming efforts by the Group of Five, he called on all actors to enter into an inclusive dialogue, including with civil society, to arrive at consensus. Cooperation also is needed to begin a programme of reforms, notably a review of the Constitution, he said, adding such efforts must respect the Conakry Agreement and the ECOWAS road map. The authorities’ measures to address the threat of COVID-19 must consider the needs of the poorest, who are threatened by a lack of access to health care. Drug traffickers must be prevented from exploiting the situation. In addition, the Guinea-Bissau Government and all State institutions must respect the rule of law, free expression and human rights, he said, urging the Government to likewise investigate threats made against parliamentarians and any attacks against the media. Success of the Mission’s transition will depend on national authorities assuming their responsibilities. Following the Office’s departure, the role of the Peacebuilding Commission, the Peacebuilding Fund and UNODC will be crucial.
SONIA FARREY (United Kingdom) expressed concern that Guinea-Bissau’s military has recently adopted an “unwelcome role in politics”, including having briefly occupied Government buildings. Meanwhile, there are reports of intimidation and harassment, including of members of the press, and the country is increasingly turning a blind eye to drug trafficking. Warning that such destabilizing behaviour by the Government will only harm its people, she called on the parties to unite behind the Conakry Agreement — including its crucial institutional reforms. Welcoming the mediation role being played by ECOWAS, she called on the Group of Five and other members of the international community to continue to provide support to Guinea-Bissau. She also echoed calls for the establishment of a high-level platform to accompany the country’s current transitions, as well as a national human rights instrument.
DANG DINH QUY (Viet Nam) joined other speakers in expressing concern about escalating tensions in Guinea-Bissau and commending the mediation efforts being carried out by various regional actors. “Without these, the people of Guinea-Bissau would have suffered even more insecurity and unrest,” he said. The COVID‑19 pandemic now adds several serious challenges. Welcoming efforts by United Nations agencies and other international actors to help Guinea-Bissau combat the pandemic, he urged all parties to work together to consolidate the Government, ease tensions and address socioeconomic challenges. Implementing the Conakry Agreement, the Pact for National Political Stability and the ECOWAS road map — along with their reform agendas — must be prioritized. He also underlined the importance of addressing the challenges posed by drug trafficking and transnational organized crime, calling on the United Nations country team and other actors on the ground to take up new responsibilities as the UNIOGBIS mandate expires.
DIAN TRIANSYAH DJANI (Indonesia), President of the Council, speaking in his national capacity, urged all parties to pursue dialogue and national reconciliation to resolve their differences, working together to implement the reform agenda outlined in the Conakry Agreement and the ECOWAS road map. It is especially important to complete reforms to the Constitution, electoral law and the law on electoral parties. Welcoming that the situation is currently stable, he nonetheless pointed to challenges brought on by COVID-19, drug trafficking and organized crime. He commended UNIOGBIS and UNODC for their efforts to assist law enforcement, calling for continued work to build national capacity and prevent criminals from exploiting the situation. National authorities must work to ensure the functioning of State institutions, while regional and international partners must offer support, especially with the drawdown of UNIOGBIS on the horizon. The transition of tasks to the United Nations country team must be seamless, he said, stressing that international engagement will be crucial for enacting subsequent peacebuilding reforms.
FERNANDO DELFIM DA SILVA (Guinea-Bissau) said his country is progressively overcoming huge difficulties. Members of Parliament were democratically elected and it is functioning normally, based on its rules of procedure, which are aligned with good standards of conduct. “Guinea-Bissau has a legitimate Government with a programme that was adopted by a majority of Parliament, the National Assembly,” he said. He said society has a new attitude towards national reconciliation, stressing that hate statements and political and social divisions are “now in the past”. Today, social and political tensions are easing.
Turning to claims in the Secretary-General’s report that human rights violations are on the rise, he said that while there may have been isolated cases, “this is very far from being a true human rights crisis” and he reiterated the Government’s attachment to human rights and the rule of law. Regarding the military’s supposed intervention into politics, he said that in the six years since the 2014 general elections, Guinea-Bissau has not seen any military intervention in its political life. The President was democratically elected and proclaimed the winner several times. He has been unanimously recognized by the international community. “He does not need to resort to a military coup to assume his constitutional authority,” he clarified.
As for drug trafficking, he said the borders remain vulnerable. He welcomed international assistance and objected to attempts to politicize the fight against drug trafficking by national political actors. Recalling that UNIOGBIS has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Guinea-Bissau in building the rule of law and providing electoral assistance, he expressed gratitude for its support through “all these long years” and for diplomatic efforts by ECOWAS, which have helped end the political crisis. He also stressed the importance of the Peacebuilding Fund, which has been especially useful in the fight against COVID-19. Going forward, the Government will monitor the reconfiguration of the United Nations presence in order to draw lessons from the past and prevent any dysfunction. It expected a great deal of technical assistance in implementing structural reforms, noting that the technical commission established by the President has set the reform process in motion.