On 29 September 2020, David Shearer, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and Head of UNMISS, briefed media partners on the current situation in South Sudan. The briefing was held at the mission's headquarters in Juba.
PRESS CONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT – OPENING REMARKS AND Q&A
DAVID SHEARER, Special Representative of the Secretary-General
Juba, 29 September 2020
Good afternoon everybody. It’s good to be with you again and to see you in person, albeit with your facemasks on. It’s important, as we know, to follow these COVID prevention measures to keep us all safe. A special thanks to all those people who are listening in on Radio Miraya. It’s good to be with you again.
I want to update you on a few issues and then, as usual, we’ll turn to you for questions.
I recently briefed the African Union Peace & Security Council and the UN Security Council on the situation in South Sudan. As I told both of those bodies, the crucial issue right now is continuing progress on the peace process.
On the positive side, the transitional government is functioning with activities well underway within the cluster of ministries.
State governors, as you know, have been appointed. But, as you also know, there have continued to be delays finalising the number and appointments at the county level. This is being worked on by the parties, but it needs to be resolved and agreed upon quickly so that the power vacuum at that level can be resolved.
Progress has been slow in other areas as well. The cabinet is meeting irregularly, and people tell me that they would like to see the President and Vice Presidents meeting more often and more closely together.
The Transitional National Legislative Assembly is yet to be reconstituted, so necessary new laws are not being passed, and progress on the constitution has been delayed.
Critically, there has been no movement on the area of security sector reform.
Other countries have emerged from conflict. The successful path they have followed is to bring together soldiers – from all sides – into an inclusive armed force. You only have to look at a Uganda as an example.
Then, over time, after training and reorganisation, it’s downsized and shaped into the nation’s armed forces. That requires organization, resources, and, above all else, courage to do this.
At the moment, the process is stuck. It hasn’t moved past the first stage where forces are trained and graduated. Urgent action is needed to move this process forward.
COVID-19 has slowed down the peace process, but the pandemic is not entirely to blame. The peace process – and the peace agreement – is limping along. It needs to move much faster.
My concern about the delay is that it risks pushing elections out well beyond the timeline of the agreement. This will add to the growing disillusionment amongst communities about whether the political will exists to give South Sudanese citizens the opportunity to choose their leaders.
So, we really do need to urgently breathe new life into the peace process. The international community and regional partners play an important role but the parties themselves must also step up their efforts to regain lost momentum.
In that regard, I am pleased to see the resumption of talks between the Government and the hold-out groups in Rome next week as part of a process mediated by Sant’Egidio. We urge all parties to come to that meeting with a genuine willingness to secure durable peace.
We all know that South Sudan is facing huge challenges. We see oil prices falling, revenues dropping and long delays in paying civil servants and security forces.
The street exchange rate, as I’m sure you all know, has doubled since March. Rising prices are putting enormous burdens on ordinary families.
The role of the Government in managing the country’s finances is pretty straightforward. Step one, account for the money coming into the country. Step two, account for how that money is spent.
It’s a simple process, but what it requires and depends on is transparency and accountability. Every citizen of this country – as is the case with every other country in the world – has the right to know what is being earned by the state and what is being is spent on their behalf.
That information is not available in South Sudan. There has been no public record of government expenditure since 2017.
I’d like to touch on the flooding that has devastated the centre of the country with hundreds of thousands of people affected, particularly in Lakes and Jonglei States.
Humanitarian workers are doing what they can in extremely difficult conditions to meet the needs of those affected. UN agencies are trying to raise additional emergency finances to meet those extra needs.
But it’s important also to be tolerant at this time. This situation will put pressure on already limited resources and there is the risk of tensions rising. Those displaced need support right now until the flooding goes down and then – and they should – return to their homes.
Conflict is adding to the suffering, as we have talked about before.
From January to July this year, UNMISS documented 575 incidents of subnational violence – which is three times higher than the number compared to last year.
As a result, we are often receiving requests for support from our peacekeepers – from communities around the country to send peacekeepers in to help cool the situation and encourage reconciliation between groups.
In the last few weeks, due to a change in approach by the SSPDF, these kinds of operations have not been able to be put in place.
For a number of years, we have had an agreement to notify the South Sudan authorities when our peacekeepers move around the country. We do this because we have a respect for the sovereignty of South Sudan.
However, there is no sign of similar respect from the SSPDF for our need to have freedom of movement to protect civilians and to build peace.
As a result, we have had to report these persistent obstructions to regional and international players, including the Security Council and the African Union.
It tarnishes the reputation of the SSPDF, and it will have knock-on effects into other areas of cooperation.
Before I finish, I want to update you on the process of transitioning the Protection of Civilians sites to more conventional IDP camps.
I’m pleased to report that a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Jonglei Governor, and that’s led to the Bor POC site being re-designated.
This means that the camp is now under the sovereign control and protection of the Government, as with other IDP camps around the country.
State authorities have committed to ensuring that no-one is forced to leave and UNMISS police officers are working with their local counterparts to build capacity. Of course, the humanitarian assistance to these people will continue.
The same transition may continue for Wau and Juba POCs – depending on the cooperation we receive from the Government.
It is a gradual process, but we appreciate the willingness of the local governors, security forces and the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission to work with us.
Now let me finish there and I’m happy to take any questions that some of you might have for me. Thank you very much.
VOA: Thank you very much for this comprehensive briefing. My question goes to you about the recent attempt of UNMISS to deploy its peacekeeping troops to the Lobonok area. We would like to know how many troops were to be deployed there and what transpired afterwards? Secondly, I would like to bring to your attention to the fact that, as we speak about training of forces, we are getting reports of numbers of forces leaving these training centres because they apparently have no food to eat and they are deserting the training centres and, as you mentioned early on, it’s one of the challenges in the security arrangements. Have you seen any move this time around to provide them food? What is your situational analysis of the training centres?
SRSG Shearer: First of all, on Lobonok, we dispensed forces down there. We had an agreement with the SSPDF for those forces to go. They were stopped short of Lobonok at a checkpoint because of some hardliners intervening in the SSPDF to our movement, against the agreements we already had. So, we stopped there. We stayed there for nearly two weeks while we tried to resolve the situation, and, in the end, we ended up coming back. This is exactly what I’m reporting on in my statement about the change in the arrangements that we have with the SSPDF which I believe is detrimental to the relationship we have at the moment.
Just on the training of forces, yes, we have the same information. As a result of lack of food and logistics and other things being supplied to these training centres, people are starting to leave and move back. This is worrying on a couple of levels. First of all because people are being disillusioned by the fact that it hasn’t continued on. Disillusionment is never a good thing. It leads to frustration and anger and possibly violence. And it also means that a number of people who were there with the promise of joining the armed forces are now going back to their villages, or perhaps are en route to their villages, and this could cause further instability on the ground as well. As I said in my statement, it’s very important that these various groups that have been promised to be brought in, trained and then unified with the remaining parts of the military is allowed to happen. As I said, a number of countries have gone down this route before. South Sudan is not unique in the sense that it’s gone through a conflict. Many other countries have done this. The most successful way out of that has been where the militaries from all of the different groups have come together in a unified army and then, over time, they’ve reformed the army, and streamlined it, and perhaps brought the number of generals down, and they’ve been able to have a simplified and unified army, and we only have to look across the border in the south, to see what happened in Uganda. It’s very possible that could happen in South Sudan but, unfortunately, it’s stuck at the moment.
Radio Community: I will ask two questions. One is on the peace implementation. You have been at the UN Security Council. What have you heard about the concerns about the slow implementation of the peace deal? The state government has yet to be formed. The unified forces are yet to be graduated, including the unified police. What is really the big message that you have brought back to these communities? And secondly, on the protection of civilians that you have mentioned that in Bor you have handed over the responsibility to the Government of South Sudan. What trust have you built from that government when some of the elements in the peace agreement have not yet been implemented, including the graduation of the unified police, which is supposed to be deployed in major towns according to the peace agreement. And lastly, the residents of Juba POC are living in fear that you are going to give the responsibility to the Government like what you did in Bor. What message of hope would you give them to make them continue to live in the POC?
SRSG Shearer: There’s a lot of interesting questions there. First of all, on the peace deal and the message to the Security Council, and actually the message that came back to me because obviously I briefed the council – both the African Union Peace & Security Council and the UN Security Council. And then the member states choose to make a statement after that, and those statements are public. But I think everybody feels exactly the same way, that they want to see the momentum continue. Momentum is quite an important element in a peace deal. It’s not written down anywhere but it’s about confidence and faith that people have that everybody is on the same message and everybody wants to see this peace agreement come to pass. And so, I think everybody was – and has been – pushing very hard for momentum to continue, the issues to be put on the table, resolved, and things to be able to move forward. That was the message I got back more than anything else.
On the POC sites, this is an important area. But, basically, what we have done is looked at the five POCs and why they were formed. They were formed because people were worried about their security from elements outside of the POCs. We don’t believe that those threats exist anymore. That’s not to say that there are no issues in the country, and obviously we just talked about it – the problems in Tonj or in Jonglei or whatever. But inside the POCs, there’s no real threat to people there, as there was, say, seven or eight years ago. As a result of that, we want to move our forces out of the POCs and move them to places where they can be better used. And we’ve just talked about some of the subnational violence, the intercommunal violence – perhaps move them into places where we can do more work to help those areas and those communities, where there’s a real need, because at the moment in the POCs there’s not a real need. Our movement out of the POCs is not linked to the peace process. It’s linked to the need for security at the POCs – and as I said we don’t believe there’s that need there anymore. It’s very important to note – as the people in Bor have already experienced – that we’re not closing anything. We’re simply withdrawing our forces and saying this is no longer an extension of our base, this is South Sudanese land as every other IDP camp across the country is. So, there’s no distinction that we’re making. We’re still there. We’re still literally… 50 meters from my bedroom window is POC3. We’re still going to be there as UNMISS. We will have a Quick Reaction Force, should there be any need for it, but what we’d hope is that, over time, the South Sudanese National Police that we are working with very closely will be able to take over the security of these areas in the same way as every other IDP camp around the country. So, we don’t see this being a particularly big problem, but we’ll sign an agreement with each of the Governors so each knows the responsibility of each other, and then we’ll move forward.
Dawn Newspaper: On the delay of key aspects like training, is it the lack of political will or economic constraints? Some officials have been arguing in the past that they were promised by international donors prior to signing the 2018 peace deal that they would be supported once they inked the deal, and now some of them are saying the promises have not arrived, as expected. So, do you think it is a serious argument on the side of the government why we are seeing delays here? Lack of food. They need support. And then also there are people who have been arguing in some quarters that international pressure actually has not yielded enough results, preferring a soft approach, maybe cajoling the protagonist to conclude the peace process. What is your take?
SRSG Shearer: Thanks. Look, I think the delays… It’s a combination of different things. I think it was certainly quite a lot of money the Government put aside. Remember at the end of last year, we were talking about how many millions of dollars that were going to go into the training centres. We shipped, as UNMISS, we transported a lot of those goods. So, I think it is an issue of resources, but I also think that, where there is a will, there is a way, and if we don’t have the will, then you don’t find the way. And so, it’s important that that political will – most important that that political will is there. On the international pressure, I can’t speak on behalf of other countries. I think that there has been a significant amount of pressure, but I think also both the region and beyond the region are looking to the parties themselves to step up the progress. There are only a certain amount of things the international community can do. They can apply pressure negatively or positively. But it’s really up to the parties to steer that way forward.
Radio Miraya: There was recently a statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution expressing concern about the death of freelance journalist Christopher Allen. The statement made comments about UNMISS. Can you clarify whether UNMISS conducted any autopsy or procedure at the time of his death?
SRSG Shearer: We’re a bit, unfortunately, concerned about this. At the time it was a rather tragic occurrence. The death of Christopher Allen. We, for a period of time – about two days – kept his body here in our morgue. But we did not undertake any autopsy or any embalming. We don’t have the facilities to be able to do that. We don’t do that here in South Sudan. Unfortunately, the Special Rapporteur made mention of this, and said that we had done this. This is wrong. I had written to her to correct her on this, but she put it in her report all the same. So, for the record, I want to make it quite clear with this event that we did not in any way perform any embalming or do any autopsy to the remains of Christopher Allen. And we would really like that to be clarified for the sake of his family as well.
Eye Radio: Have you heard of recent clashes between SSPDF and SPLM-IO in the areas of Yei River State yesterday? Also, UNMISS, the Human Rights Commission launched investigations into the alleged reports of 19 women that were raped between April in Yei River State. What is the fact of this investigation? It has been five months now. My last question is that we have all seen is that it has been push and pull between the peace parties, the formation of state governments especially. These delays, or the absence of state government, is it affecting UNMISS or UN-related organizations’ work at the grassroots?
SRSG Shearer: On the first one, yes, we have, like you, have heard of and know of the clashes down near Kajo-Keji. There’s been a purported defection from the SPLA-IO across to the SSPDF. There are some question about what motivated that defection – maybe trying to move away from some responsibilities from alleged killings that had occurred earlier on in the year – I don’t have enough information to go any further than that. We’re hearing it I’m sure like you are at the moment. Once we do hear more, we might be able to give you more information after that.
On the issue of the rape cases, we have done follow-up on this, and I want to acknowledge that, in the past few weeks, there’s been a trial that has taken place where a number of SSPDF soldiers have been taken to court – I can’t remember the number but it’s a fairly large number; it’s in the teens, anyway – who were convicted and sentenced to significant terms in prison. I’m not sure if that covers all of the cases that were involved in that area. But what I will say is that it is a step in the right direction in terms of accountability and making sure that people are brought to justice for crimes that have been committed. So, we have acknowledged that with the government and recognized their actions in bringing these soldiers to account. I’m hoping that will help deter further cases like this. But there are many other cases that obviously are not being brought in front of the courts and that needs to happen as well.
On the state governments, we’ve got one governor that is yet to be appointed in Upper Nile. That’s an important one. Malakal, as I think I’ve said when we last met, is a very volatile area and we need to make sure that that appointment is made. When it comes to the cases of the county commissioners, this important because the county commissioners, although they are a level down from the governors, have a lot of responsibility at the local level. And they are one of our primary sources of engagement – as the UN, NGOs, and other partners on the ground. They do an enormous amount of work. They’re in touch with communities where they’re able to. They bring the communities together and resolve conflicts early on. They often will be in touch to us to say, “we’ve got a problem looming; can you help us out?” and we stay in touch with them. So, having these county commissioners resolved, appointed, and put in position is extremely important, extremely important. I can’t overemphasize how important it is. And then obviously we’ve got the administrators at the payam level as well underneath them. But the county commissioners, in some ways, are extremely important, to make sure that comes into effect.
BBC World Service: There was a report from the UN Human Rights Commission on South Sudan saying US$36 million was embezzled by senior government officials in 2016, or from 2016 with the head of international institutions. The assumption is that this panel – they are not here in Juba – it is UNMISS feeding them with all the information? If I am right or wrong, you will correct me, but that is the assumption. So, which international institutions is the report talking about? Secondly, you say there are no public records of government expenditure since 2017. In your assessment, why is this happening? Is it part of the trend of this money missing? These US$36 million dollars the UN panel is talking about – what is the impact of that money, which is missing, on the economy of South Sudan?
SRSG Shearer: I want to be pretty clear on this because the Human Rights Commission is a body that reports to the Human Rights Council. It’s completely separate from us here. So, they come in, they do their own research, they produce their own report, and that report is published. I get to see it exactly the same time you see it. So, I got the human rights report the same day as you heard it. So, we don’t have any relationship with the Human Rights Commission. We don’t give them any information. In fact, that news was also news to me as well. I mean, unless somebody else in the Mission knows about it. But I don’t think so. I think we would have heard about it otherwise. So, where they got it from, I can’t tell you. It might be worth writing to them, or getting in contact with them, or phoning them, and asking them. I think it’s a very good follow-up question is to understand where that is, and also with regard to that which other institutions are involved. Because, again, I don’t know which other institutions. I know it’s not the UN agencies. We don’t have any capacity to be able to do that anyway, because it would come up on our books like a red light flashing. So, I can’t help you very much on that. I mean, obviously, with regard to your other question, if you have transparency and financial accountability then you are able to show exactly what’s coming in and what’s going out – and that’s the reason for that. So, these reports come out, they could be discredited, or whatever happens you can deny it. But without that transparency and that accountability then it’s very difficult to be able to do that. So, I can’t help you with the details of it, but it does come back to the point I made before. It’s very important we know how much money is coming into the country and how it’s being spent. I think it’s the right of every South Sudanese to know that, as it is in every other country in the world.
Question: There is no record of the government expenditure being made public. I am asking why do you think so? And still part of the question, you are saying you don’t have information but what is the impact of this money missing on the economy of the country?
SRSG Shearer: In terms of what impact it has, I can’t speak for what went missing and what didn’t go missing. But obviously US$36 million is a lot of money. It can pay for a lot of healthcare. It can pay for a lot of COVID PPE equipment or whatever you want to talk about. We can talk about the transitional security arrangements, etcetera. I mean whatever. But again, I don’t know exactly about the amount of money and why it’s not being put out in an annual expenditure report. I can’t tell you. You’ll have to ask the Ministry of Finance.
The Dawn Newspaper: I would like you to give us some details on the upcoming Rome talks between the government and the holdout groups. Having known that the previous agreement, the initial agreement, failed to hold with the groups like NAS still in the bushes. What do you think could be the right thing to do to guarantee that this time the agreement holds?
SRSG Shearer: Look, we’ve been in contact with Sant’Egidio. We will have a representative there in Rome. The last thing I heard was that it’s being put together right now. It’s going to be delayed a couple of days, as I understand. But it’ll still go ahead. We hold out some hope that there will be an agreement, but the agreement is only as good as it’s undertaken on the ground and it holds on the ground. I think what’s happened in the past… I mean, certainly as you know there have been attacks by NAS. And then follow-up by Government forces that tends to be often very heavy-handed. So, what ends up happening is that civilians get caught in the middle of all of that. What I would hope is that they come to some agreement where they can at least have a process to move forward from where they are now, have a ceasefire, and then move towards an agreement whereby NAS becomes involved in the peace process. That’s what I would hope. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Question: It has been a while where we have not heard about the RPF, the Regional Protection Force. What is happening? Is the regional protection force in the country and doing what they are supposed to be doing, what they were brought in to do?
SRSG Shearer: Thank you. It’s back to our old days of RPF. There was 4,000 people thought about – 2,300 arrived in the country, mainly in the form of two battalions, a Rwandan and an Ethiopian battalion. They’ve been incorporated within UNMISS, so, although they are not called the RPF, they are there, and they are doing patrolling. Some of them, because of the situation and some of the insecurity in Yei and Yambio and places, have gone down to those places. Because there’s no point in keeping them in Juba if there’s no need to have them in Juba. You should probably send them to places where there was more need. So, they are here in person but maybe not in name.
Thanks everybody. Very nice to see you. And thank you for Radio Miraya listeners listening in today. Thank you.