UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) - Security Council Open VTC

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23-Jun-2020 01:36:14
COVID-19 potentially greatest threat to South Sudan’s already fragile health system, Special Representative warns Security Council.

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Despite some recent positive developments on the political front, South Sudan is facing the twin threat of COVID-19 and escalating violence that can no longer be described as intercommunal, David Shearer, Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Mission in that country, told the Security Council during a 23 June video conference meeting.

Presenting the Secretary-General’s latest report on the situation in South Sudan (document S/2020/536), he said that the novel coronavirus outbreak is going to hit the country hard, “but not necessarily in the way that we think”. The real threat lies in the collapse of an already fragile health system, leading to a devastating increase in deaths — “likely greater than the loss of life from COVID itself” — due to disruptions to vaccinations, maternal health services and routine treatment for diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia.

The number of recorded COVID-19 cases in South Sudan, which stands at around 1,900, might seem low, but limited testing and social stigma obscure the true magnitude of the pandemic, he said. Guided by the World Health Organization (WHO) and supported by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Transitional Government of National Unity is trying to raise awareness nationwide, but observance is patchy. “Few will submit to isolation at home,” he explained. “The need to earn a living means that people’s behaviour remains unchanged, as not working today means not eating tomorrow.”

With experts predicting the pandemic in South Sudan to peak in July or August, there is little in the way of critical care facilities, he said. Juba’s infectious diseases hospital has been expanded, UNMISS has renovated and equipped hospitals in 10 states, and non-governmental organizations are providing extra staff, but equipment and expertise are badly lacking. For peacekeepers and humanitarian workers, the challenge is to balance critical work while keeping staff safe from COVID-19. Just two weeks ago, dozens of UNMISS police officers from Rwanda exposed themselves to the virus when they physically intervened to break up a fight in the Juba protection of civilians site — with no help from their partner contingent, which was in quarantine because some of its personnel had tested positive. Nevertheless, UNMISS stands strong with South Sudan’s people and transitional Government as they pass through the pandemic, he said.

Turning to the peace process, he reported some encouraging developments since his last briefing to the Council on 4 March (see Press Release SC/14135), including — after a four-month standoff — an agreement last week on the distribution of state governorships between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Government (SPLM-IG), led by President Salva Kiir, and the SPLM in Opposition, led by First Vice‑President Riek Machar. Individual governors have yet to be named, but women should take at least 3 of the 10 positions.

“These appointments are critical to fill a power vacuum,” he said, as the political impasse and the COVID-19 lockdown have prompted an upsurge in violence that can no longer be pigeonholed as “intercommunal”. In Jonglei, Unity, Lakes, Warrap and West Equatoria States, hundreds of civilians have been killed, women and children abducted, property destroyed or stolen, and more than 60,000 people displaced. The sight of fighters in uniform suggests that organized forces may be joining the conflict, putting South Sudan’s ceasefire at risk. “A truly unified national leadership would have acted promptly and stepped in to curb this conflict,” he said. “Instead, the violence has been allowed to play out and is being used to sort out power arrangements at the national and subnational levels.”

Tragically, the escalation of violence is hitting the most desperate even harder, he said, warning that about 7.4 million people will need humanitarian assistance, including many urban poor who previously did not require help. Last week, the humanitarian country team appealed to donors for an extra $390 million to respond to additional needs. Meanwhile, a cycle of impunity is fuelling human rights violations, while riots inside UNMISS protection-of-civilian sites mean that residents face greater intimidation from each other than they did externally, he said.

Looking ahead, he said that the Transitional Government must act in the best interests of all South Sudanese, regardless of ethnic identity, and do so collectively and swiftly to curtail violence. Important decisions should remain true to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan signed in 2018. The peace agreement’s guarantors and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) must remain actively engaged to keep the peace process on track, even as their countries struggle with COVID-19 themselves. Maintaining the ceasefire between the National Salvation Front and Government forces in Central Equatoria is another priority, he stated.

Edmund Yakani, Executive Director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, presented recommendations for civilian protection, drawn up with its partner, CEASEFIRE Centre for Civilian Rights. Explaining that his organization belongs to the South Sudan Civil Society Forum, a coalition of more than 200 groups, he acknowledged recent progress and persistent challenges, including a deficit in political will to implement the Revitalized Agreement. “Our peace is fragile,” he said, calling on the Council to address the political impasse, especially in light of continuous fighting between the Government forces and the National Salvation Front in Yei, Laniya and Morobo, which has led to displacement, rape and the looting of civilian properties. Ceasefire and peace agreements and the recent Rome Declaration have been violated multiple times, with no one held accountable, including for killing, abduction, torture, rape and forced displacement, with human rights violations rarely resulting in criminal prosecution. Convinced a reliable deterrent exists, he urged the Council to insist on immediately establishing the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and the Compensation and Reparations Authority, while supporting efforts to strengthen the national criminal justice system.

In addition, he said, the Council must call on IGAD to support continued outreach to, and engagement with, armed groups so that they respect the agreements they signed. For sustainable peace and stability, there must be ongoing efforts to build trust and confidence between armed actors. Much intercommunal violence is politically motivated, escalating recently as a result of increased cattle raiding and competition over natural resources. Noting that his organization supports community engagement in dialogue, he urged the Council to call for increased support to local peacebuilding initiatives, and for the timely establishment of the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing. Further urging the Council to help to ensure that “our peace doesn’t fall apart again”, he said: “Peace requires that we South Sudanese be honest with ourselves. We must be free to openly deliberate and debate the governance challenges we face, including corruption and impunity.”

The peace agreement sets out specific roles for civil society, women and youth representatives in many of the bodies it forms for planning security sector reforms, monitoring the ceasefire, ensuring reconstruction in conflict-affected States and paying reparations. But, in a context where critical voices are stifled, no one will be free to contribute to these bodies or speak up when peace agreement provisions are not implemented, he said, asking the Council to continue its call for respect for freedom of expression and for the release of the arbitrarily detained. He urged Council members to pressure parties to complete the formation of the Transitional Government, ensure the ceasefire is respected, and support the establishment of transitional justice institutions. He also asked the Council to ensure that the international community prioritizes humanitarian access and safety of aid workers, support the official launch of the Secretary‑General and his Special Representative’s implementation plan on preventing conflict-related sexual violence, and take effective measures to support protecting civic space. Calling on the Council to ensure that United Nations peacekeeping forces work to promote accountability and the rule of law by increasing engagement with communities and enhancing protection measures, he also asked it to lobby the international community to facilitate the proposed African Union Peace and Security Council decision on the situation of South Sudan to conduct a peace assessment. Urging the Council to keep engaging with civil society, he added: “We have only come this far because of the international community’s support, and we need your help to make further progress.”

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