26 April 2021

Warming Sudan-South Sudan Ties Yet to Deliver ‘Change on the Ground’, Peacekeeping Chief Tells Security Council, in Briefing on Disputed Abyei Region

Khartoum, Juba Focused on Political Transition, Regional Dynamics, Says Special Envoy, as Delegates Highlight Rapprochement

The new rapprochement between Sudan and South Sudan has yet to translate into significant improvements on the ground in relation to their dispute over the Abyei region, the head of United Nations peacekeeping told the Security Council during a videoconference briefing today.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, said the two countries agreed — during a meeting of the Joint Political and Security Mechanism hosted by the Government of Sudan in October 2020 — to establish checkpoints, introduce search-and-seize operations, deploy joint military observer teams and accelerate progress on the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism, as well as border-related benchmarks.

However, the security situation and intercommunal relations in the region remain tense, he said, in presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA).  Citing the volatile security situation, he requested that the Security Council consider a six-month rollover of UNISFA’s mandate, until 15 October 2021, in order to give Sudan and South Sudan the space to discuss future arrangements and the way forward.

He said UNISFA — established by Council resolution 1990 (2011) to include an initial deployment of 4,200 Ethiopian troops to provide security and protect civilians under imminent threat of violence in the disputed border region — will continue to engage with Sudan and South Sudan to facilitate the implementation of pending aspects of their previous agreements.  Despite inconclusive consultations on UNISFA’s exit strategy between those two Governments, that of Ethiopia and the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, all continue to recognize the mission’s usefulness, relevance and instrumental role in addressing tensions between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities through dialogue and reconciliation, he emphasized.

UNISFA has remained fully engaged with Sudan and South Sudan, despite coronavirus-linked logistical constraints, he continued, outlining the acting mission head’s recent meetings and visits with stakeholders to discuss ways to advance the peace process.  Modest progress towards the seven benchmarks set out in Security Council resolution 2550 (2020) include approval by Sudan and South Sudan of all requested aerial and ground monitoring missions, he noted.

As of March, 198 COVID-19 cases were reported in the local community, with 10 confirmed deaths, he said, adding that UNISFA currently has five active positive cases.  All necessary measures were established to ensure that staff comply with the rules governing the use of personal infection preventive measures, he stressed.  In spite of pandemic-related constraints, United Nations agencies, in coordination with non-governmental organizations, continued to provide vital humanitarian and recovery assistance to vulnerable populations, he said, adding that 4 out of 10 border-crossing corridors are currently open and functioning.

Also briefing was Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, who noted that whereas most of the work of the United Nations has gone virtual, the daunting situation in Abyei affects real people.  The pandemic continues to have health, human and socioeconomic impacts in Sudan and South Sudan, exacerbating the precarious living conditions of most people in both countries, he said, while praising the vaccination campaigns in both.

Describing his visit to Sudan, from 27 February to 2 March, to discuss an exit strategy for UNISFA, he said bilateral relations between Khartoum and Juba were also under discussion.  Agreeing with the Under-Secretary-General that the two countries continue to deepen relations, he cited the visit to Juba by Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi to Juba.  The two countries agreed to form joint mechanisms and reopen trade corridors to benefit their two economies by enabling the free movement of goods, services, and people, he said.  Despite their improved relations, however, Sudan and South Sudan have held only limited bilateral engagements, he added, pointing out that instead, they are focused on their respective political transitions and on the fast-moving dynamics in the broader region.

He recalled that the Sudanese authorities emphasized to him the need for a mutually beneficial solution whereby Abyei would become “a soft border” and an example of peaceful coexistence, development and shared prosperity for the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities.  However, Sudan’s insistence on establishing joint mechanisms contrasts with South Sudan’s rejection of joint arrangements, as each side stresses its preference for the solution proposed by the African Union High-Level Panel on the final status of Abyei, he said.

Additionally, South Sudan continues to seek accountability for the killing of the Ngok Dinka Paramount Chief of Abyei and reiterates its call for the release of the African Union’s investigation report, he said.  Undeniably, the current regional dynamics in the Horn of Africa over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could directly impact UNISFA, he cautioned, urging both Governments to reach a peaceful resolution in light of the wider potential implications for the region.

Turning to conflict in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, he reported significant progress with the signing of the Declaration of Principles by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, Chairman of the country’s Sovereignty Council, and Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu, leader of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement-North.  Those guiding principles will pave the way for comprehensive formal negotiations between the transitional Government and the Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu faction in Juba on 25 May, progress achieved through the mediation of South Sudan, he noted.

However, efforts to persuade Abdel Wahid Al-Nur, leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement-Abdul Wahid faction, to join the peace process were unsuccessful, he said, explaining that Al-Nur is resisting until security is established, while advocating for an intra-Sudanese dialogue to address the root causes of conflict.  Progress towards resolving those conflicts and improving bilateral relations should be shielded from risks arising from the potential deterioration of the regional environment, he stressed.

During the ensuing debate, Council members encouraged Sudan and South Sudan to build on their current warming relations.  Some delegates said the two national leaders must seize the present opportunity to determine Abyei’s final status and meet the aspirations of its communities.  Several speakers called for renewing UNISFA’s mandate for six months to ensure that a clear, effective exit strategy is finalized.

The representative of the United States welcomed recent progress, but said he remains deeply concerned about the volatile security situation.  Expressing regret that tensions prevented the joint meeting to discuss UNISFA, he cautioned that until Sudan and South Sudan agree on the final status of Abyei, both must abide by the Juba Agreement’s provisions on protecting civilians and should continue to take steps to that end, such as establishing a joint police service.  Voicing further concern about obstacles to fulfilling UNIFSA’s civilian-protection mandate, he emphasized that those issues must be addressed immediately.  He went on to commend UNIFSA’s efforts to promote the role of women in community dialogue and decision-making while protecting them against violence.  He called upon the international community to provide humanitarian assistance for both communities in Abyei, and asked the local authorities to do their part, saying he also looks forward to leadership and engagement on the part of the African Union.  Noting that warming relations between Sudan and South Sudan resulted in the recent relative calm, he stressed that now is the time to draft a sustainable long-term solution to outstanding issues.

The representative of Kenya, speaking also on behalf of Niger, Tunisia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — known informally as the “A3+1” — commended continued efforts by the African Union, neighbouring States and leaders, UNISFA and the Special Envoy, in advancing the quest for peace and security in Abyei.  Indeed, UNISFA and the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism constitute an anchor of stability along the border between South Sudan and Sudan, he said.  Despite gains, more progress clearly must be made towards determining Abyei’s final status and advancing the political process, he emphasized.  The establishment of temporary administration institutions remains a work in progress, leaving UNISFA with the bulk of the responsibility for the functional administration of Abyei, including the maintenance of law and order, he noted.

He urged Sudan and South Sudan to leverage their relations to take concrete steps towards full and urgent implementation of the remaining political processes in determining Abyei’s final status.  Further, both countries should avoid taking any unilateral actions that could undermine security and political stability and prioritize the safety and security of the area’s people.  Commending local leaders who have demonstrated commitment to promoting women’s participation in local peace processes, including in the civic space, he stressed the imperative of enhancing their role in decision-making.  He went on to underline that the Security Council and international partners must continue to offer meaningful and sustainable support to Sudan and South Sudan with a view to resolving the Abyei issue.  In that regard, he urged the African Union and the United Nations to continue to extend the required diplomatic and political support, as well as the technical assistance that will help implementation of the framework agreement.

The representative of the Russian Federation expressed concern over the assessment in the Secretary-General’s report that the situation remains tense and unpredictable.  She cited continued intercommunal tensions, high crime levels and incidents along the main supply route as evidence that the presence of United Nations “blue helmets” remains necessary.  Emphasizing that joint efforts are required to resolve Abyei’s problems, she said her delegation is encouraged by the improved bilateral between Khartoum and Juba, evidence that “the African solutions to African problems formula is working”.  Meetings between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities generate optimism, she added.  Describing the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism as an integral element in preventing incidents, she also noted that UNISFA’s support contributes to the security architecture.  Still, the Secretary-General reported relatively modest results on benchmarks, somewhat due to COVID-19 restrictions, she pointed out, emphasizing that the only logical step is to extend UNISFA’s mandate, including the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism.

The representative of France said that only settlement of Abyei’s final status can lead to an evolution of UNISFA’s mandate.  Welcoming the rapprochement between Sudan and South Sudan, she expressed regret, however, at the lack of progress in the political process.  Despite a meeting of the Joint Political and Security Mechanism in October 2020, the same topics remain unresolved, she said, adding that the absence of a local governance body impedes the resolution of disputes, while the work of UNISFA is itself hampered by the lack of cooperation from Sudan and South Sudan.  She stressed that dialogue at the local level and the establishment of joint administrations for Abyei are essential.  Citing the deteriorating humanitarian situation in South Sudan and Ethiopia, she warned that food insecurity is reaching dangerous levels, underlining that it is essential to ensure safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to all in need, including the internally displaced and refugees.  She called upon both sides to respect international humanitarian law.

The representative of India, recalling his delegation’s involvement in the effort to create UNISFA in 2011, expressed concern that Abyei’s status remains unsettled.  Peaceful resolution, in conformity with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, remains fundamental to durable peace between Sudan and South Sudan, he emphasized, pointing out that, despite their tense relations, the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities have responded to UNISFA’s efforts to resume the peace process, even amid pandemic-related challenges.  The Council must encourage both sides to continue their efforts in the coming months, he said.  As for the security situation, he said the attacks against UNISFA troops and the WFP convoy, as well as increasing violent incidents involving the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities are a matter of concern and the mission must take adequate measures to ensure the safety of peacekeepers.  The humanitarian situation also remains challenging, particularly in the context of COVID-19, he said.  Regarding UNISFA’s operational issues, he called upon both Sudan and South Sudan to facilitate the issuance of visas for police personnel, agree on a civilian deputy head of mission, and make the Anthony airstrip operational.  Noting the lack of consensus reflected in the Secretary-General’s “drawdown of UNISFA” report after intensive regional consultations with Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia, he said a final decision should be deferred for the time being.

The representative of Mexico, emphasizing that dialogue remains the only path forward, said recent gains should translate into a political solution on Abyei’s status.  Unfortunately, no progress has been made on intercommunal dialogue to resolve several issues, he noted.  Expressing concern about the blocking of a WFP food convoy, he urged Sudan and South Sudan to guarantee access, which is critical to more than 220,000 people amid pandemic-related shortages.  Local authorities must tackle the main humanitarian challenges, including mine action and the protection of women and children, he said.  Applauding the decision by the Ngok Dinka elders to include women in dialogue, he said their participation should extend to the political and peace processes.  The ultimate goal is agreement on Abyei’s final status, he said, underscoring the important work of the Special Envoy, UNISFA and the African Union in that regard.

The representative of the United Kingdom welcomed the continued improvements in bilateral relations between Sudan and South Sudan, evidenced by the first official visit to Juba by the former’s Foreign Minister.  Also commending South Sudan’s facilitation of upcoming negotiations, she expressed disappointment, however, that high-level engagement between the two Governments on Abyei’s final status and border demarcation has yet to be realized in any meaningful way on the ground, where the security situation remains unpredictable and affects the daily lives of ordinary people.  While applauding UNISFA’s efforts in removing explosive hazards, facilitating intercommunal dialogue and promoting women’s empowerment, she expressed regret that the mission continues to face operational challenges in fulfilling its mandate.  There is limited progress made on the Council’s repeated requests to make the Anthony airstrip operational and appoint a civilian deputy head of mission, she noted, calling upon both Governments to facilitate the removal of operational obstacles.  She went on to caution that wider regional tensions could have an impact on Abyei, while citing the positive participation of Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia in today’s meeting and expressing hope that regional tensions can be resolved through dialogue.

The representative of Estonia urged Sudan and South Sudan to use their newly strengthened relations to facilitate progress towards resolving the question of Abyei, emphasizing the particular importance of that task given the heightened tensions in the wider Horn of Africa.  He called upon both to agree on the appointment of a civilian deputy head of mission, saying that would significantly help the political process.  Expressing concern over violence and criminality, including the recent trend of attacks against United Nations troops and contractors, he called for decisive action, including expediting the deployment of UNISFA’s police component, and joint investigations into the deadly incidents of violence.  Human rights expertise, including enhanced child-protection capacities, must also be deployed to UNISFA, he emphasized.  While its mandate should be extended for the next six months, a discussion is needed on how the United Nations can be most helpful given the current realities of the Abyei question, he said, declaring:  “The Abyei people deserve better than the current status quo.”

The representative of Norway pointed out that Abyei is a contested area with a very troubled past, and UNISFA, with its strong and clear mandate, is needed until the two countries agree on all pending issues.  A sustainable solution must also consider the views of the local populations, she added.  Abyei could potentially showcase the recent building of relations between Sudan and South Sudan, marked by increased trade, development, peaceful coexistence and, most notably, the Juba Peace Agreement, she noted.  Unfortunately, those positive developments are not reflected in the situation on the ground, she said, cautioning that tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan may have adverse effects on UNISFA and the security situation.  The combination of potential conflict in Abyei and a possible security vacuum due to a sudden exit by Ethiopian troops is cause for serious concern, she emphasized, encouraging the Council to reconfirm its commitment to UNISFA at the present critical time.  UNISFA plays an invaluable role in providing security and stability in Abyei and in building intercommunal dialogue and trust while including women in those efforts, she said.  For the mission to deliver effectively on its mandate, she added, it is critical that outstanding visas are issued for its formed police units, the Anthony airstrip is operationalized, and the deployment of a civilian deputy head of mission is approved.  She also urged Sudan and South Sudan to permit the deployment of human rights expertise and convene the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee without delay, urging the latter to nominate personnel to the joint police service.  A long-term and sustainable solution to the status of Abyei cannot be found without the political will and courage of both countries, she said, encouraging their leaders to seize the opportunity of their close and friendly relations to craft an agreement on Abyei’s final status.

The representative of China said the stable situation and the progress on the political process must advance.  Both sides must engage in talks and establish joint institutions with all speed, he emphasized.  In addition, positive intercommunal relations are imperative to safeguarding the rights of both Abyei communities.  At the same time, humanitarian aid holds the key to resolving the current crisis, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19, he noted, adding that the international community must provide assistance to help the Abyei communities fight the pandemic and address their humanitarian needs.  He went on to encourage the provision of adequate resources to enable UNISFA to discharge its mandate.

The representative of Ireland said it is time to ensure the protection and security of Abyei’s people and their access to basic public services, and for political engagement in establishing joint interim institutions such as the Abyei Police.  Positive signs at the local level, with both the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities taking part in the February 2021 Peace Conference, “show that on the ground, progress is possible”, she noted.  Welcoming the participation of women from both sides in that forum, she declared:  “It was powerful to see that they crossed community lines in order to stand together to denounce violence and call for peace.”  While applauding Ethiopia’s contribution to UNISFA, she noted that relations between Ethiopia and Sudan are at a sensitive moment, urging calm and restraint.  She echoed calls for the appointment of a civilian deputy head of mission, and for Sudan to grant outstanding visa requests for United Nations police personnel, pointing out that they currently operate with less than 8 per cent of its authorized strength.  Similarly, the Anthony airstrip, which is crucial for medical evacuations, must be operationalized, she emphasized.

The representative of Viet Nam, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, saying that continued rapprochement has created a window of opportunity for Sudan and South Sudan.  He called upon both to engage actively in resolving the Abyei question by peaceful means.  Further concrete progress must also be made on benchmarks for the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism, he said.  Although Abyei has been relatively calm in the past months, continued intercommunal violence, crime and the activities of unidentified armed groups are cause for concern, he noted.  Emphasizing that UNISFA’s presence will continue to be essential in maintaining stability, he said that enhancing its ability to fulfil its mandate remains “one of our top priorities, including the need to ensure the safety and security of its personnel”.  Addressing the humanitarian impact of COVID-19, he called upon the two Governments to continue to ensure unhindered access to assistance.  He went on to commend the efforts of UNISFA, the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and partners in facilitating mine clearance during the past months, noting that 331,783 square metres of land and 674 kilometres of roads are now marked as safe.

The representative of South Sudan welcomed the Secretary-General’s latest report, while clarifying several issues.  Citing a reference in paragraph 10 to a January incident in which a South Sudan People’s Defence Forces team entered the Abyei area heading towards Anthony village, he explained that the driver had simply made a mistake with directions.  Referring to paragraph 14 — which states that chiefs had agreed to reconvene a restructured joint community peace committee and to engage in localized migration meetings in the three transhumance corridors — he said positive signs between Sudan and South Sudan are evident, even though problems persist regarding peaceful community coexistence.  Whereas new and improved relations are not yet reflected positively in Abyei, discussions between the two countries have already taken place since the Government in Khartoum changed, he continued, expressing hope that they would continue to narrow disagreements over how to resolve the Abyei question.  Turning to the Special Envoy’s recent consultations with many parties on an exit strategy, he said that South Sudan responded by reporting the continuing insecurity in Abyei and that UNISFA’s Ethiopian troops were still very much needed.  Any premature discussions of exit strategies may be counterproductive, he cautioned, emphasizing that the UNISFA mandate should be renewed for a longer period.  The current situation in Abyei may not be ideal, but there is some stability, tense as it may be, he concluded, adding:  “Let us build on that and on the improved relations between Sudan and South Sudan in the hope that finally we may be able to give the people of Abyei a lasting and peaceful resolution.”

The representative of Sudan noted the last few months have been marked by continued rapprochement between his country and South Sudan, illustrated by the regular exchange of visits by officials, and agreement on opening border crossings for easy movement of people, goods and services.  Sudan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs chose Juba as the destination for her first visit, he recalled, describing the occasion as a symbol of the deep historical ties between the two countries and of Sudan’s commitment to facilitate relations.  Citing the “positive climate” around the Abyei negotiations, he emphasized the commitment of his country’s Government to promoting peaceful coexistence with the goal of reaching an agreement on the region’s final status.  He pointed out, however, that UNISFA’s Ethiopian contingent was initially accepted in that role as neutrals, but occurrences on the border between the two countries mean the Ethiopian contingent has lost that status, he said, adding that the mission must, therefore, consider replacing them with personnel from another troop-contributing country.  He went on to state that issues including the deployment of police and the Anthony airstrip were all discussed during the meeting of the Joint Political and Security Mechanism, stressing that agreement between Sudan and South Sudan must be established before further discussion.

The representative of Ethiopia, describing UNISFA as “unique”, said it is one of the most challenging United Nations missions given its location and difficult supply chains.  Ethiopian contingents have paid huge sacrifices in discharging their mandates, including securing border areas, but the Government remains committed to the mission’s success, he said, warning that any reduction of forces would jeopardize their safety and endanger regional security.  Any drawdowns must be based on the security situation on the ground and on the status of Abyei, he emphasized.  Encouraged by the rapprochement between Sudan and South Sudan, he said good bilateral relations not only benefit the two “sisterly countries”, but the entire region, offering hope for the final status of Abyei.  However, the security situation “in the box” remains tense and unpredictable, he noted, pointing to recent conflict at the Amiet Common Market.  It is crucial to resume the stalled peace dialogue between the Ngok Dinka and Misseriya communities, which can curb criminality in the area, he said, adding that the challenges facing Abyei should not impact the stabilizing force of UNSIFA.  He went on to stress Ethiopia’s readiness to address any issue with its neighbour, Sudan.  All gains made through sacrifice must be consolidated because positive solutions are reachable, he said.

For information media. Not an official record.