The United Nations Mission in South Sudan: Reflections and Future Priorities

On 9 July 2021, South Sudan commemorated its 1o-year anniversary as an independent, sovereign state. The celebrations across the country were quiet. The exuberant scenes of 2011 gave way to pensive stocktaking as South Sudan emerges from a vicious cycle of civil war and a weakened economy brought to the brink by the COVID-19 pandemic. What has remained however is the resilience of the people of South Sudan, and their ability to look toward a future of peace, stability, and development. Their hope rests on the permanent ceasefire which has continued to hold since 2017, and the implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), signed in 2018 following the breakdown of the previous peace agreement.

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UN Photo/Gregorio Cunha
UN Photo/Gregorio Cunha

Though the 2018 Revitalized Agreement brought respite to the political violence, numerous challenges emerged along the way and substantive progress has remained slow. It was only through the sustained engagements of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU), together with support from regional partners Sudan and Uganda, that the differences between the parties to the conflict were resolved, ushering in the transitional period with the formation of the Revitalized Government of National Unity in February 2020. 

The seemingly unforeseen challenges such as the #COVID-19 pandemic may impede progress but together with the Transitional Government and the people of South Sudan these barriers will be overcome to realize the future that South Sudan deserves @unmissmedia

Since then, progress on the overall implementation of the Revitalized Agreement has remained limited, with the COVID-19 pandemic also slowing down efforts and initiatives. Yet, some notable progress has been made over the course of the last several months. 

For instance, on 10 May, the Revitalized Government established a task force to operationalize transitional justice mechanisms, carry out judicial reforms, and institute the permanent constitution-making process. On 11 May, President Salva Kiir dissolved the 400-member Transitional National Legislative Assembly, reconstituting it as an expanded 550-member parliament. Soon after, on 25 May, President Kiir launched the permanent constitution-making process in Juba with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan in attendance. And, then on 4 July, new members were appointed to the Council of States. 

These initiatives notwithstanding, the full reconstitution of the legislature remains pending, as does the graduation of the ‘necessary unified forces’ and the establishment of its command structure. Undoubtedly, the recent announcements by the President and the First Vice President lending support to the expedited implementation of the transitional security arrangements are reassuring as are reports of efforts to complete other outstanding tasks. These promises, once delivered, will go a long way to further signal the commitment of the Government to the 2018 Revitalized Agreement and to sustainable peace in South Sudan. 

The full implementation of the Revitalized Agreement however is one part of several challenges that South Sudan faces. While there has been decreasing political violence, in contrast, intercommunal violence peaked last year, with pervasive insecurity continuing to obstruct the achievement of a durable and sustainable peace. The resurgence of clashes and attacks earlier this year in Greater Jonglei and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area attest to the delicate relationship between communities. Alongside, weak or absent state institutions, economic frailty, extreme weather, failed crops, pervasive food insecurity, and the presence of spoilers have continued to exert extreme pressure. Several communities face food shortages, exacerbated by increasing criminality and the opportunistic targeting of humanitarian partners, who consequently are unable to reach those in need. In 2021 alone, 4 humanitarian workers have been killed, and millions of dollars of humanitarian supplies looted or destroyed. Since 2013, 128 humanitarians have died in the line of duty in South Sudan.

Yet, upon my arrival in Juba, I was greeted with visible hope. In my engagements with the President and senior government officials as well as with the communities I interacted with during my visits to the ten states, the message was clear. South Sudan requires support and infrastructure. It also requires assistance in stemming the proliferation of illegal firearms and addressing subnational conflicts which have torn communities apart. 

On my visit to Pibor with representatives from the AU, IGAD, the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, and the African diplomatic community based in Juba, I noted the impact of UNMISS’ collaboration with local authorities and communities. These grassroots reconciliation initiatives, which have facilitated the release and return of abducted women and children, are a critical step towards healing. Such efforts and outcomes are also a testament to the power of partnership and cooperation between international and local actors. Bearing this in mind, I recently articulated the five key tracks of UNMISS’s three-year strategic vision to the Security Council. 

First, UNMISS will support the implementation of the transitional benchmarks. These benchmarks remain a key indicator of the steps leading to a durable and sustainable peace in the form of elections, a new constitution, and the establishment of democratic institutions. UNMISS will extend the comparative advantages it may have to the Revitalized Government, and other stakeholders through technical assistance, civic engagement, and the facilitation of inclusive dialogue. 

Second, UNMISS will enhance efforts to improve general security and contribute to a safe and secure environment through efficient and effective deployment of its uniformed personnel, reinforced through a strengthened civil-military integrated approach. UNMISS will maintain its commitment to humanitarian partners to facilitate the delivery of life-saving assistance while promoting conditions for the safe and voluntary return of refugees and IDPs. 

Third, the Mission will endeavour to strengthen civil and political engagements at the grassroots level to foster peaceful co-existence and mobilize communities to support R-ARCSS implementation. Such initiatives will enable conditions and arrangements under which neighbouring communities can live together in peace and harmony.

Fourth, UNMISS will support and strengthen the existing rule of law institutions, thereby promoting accountability and access to justice.  The absence of accountability for violence and human rights violations in South Sudan continues to critically undermine peace and stability. A strong and integrated justice chain is key to breaking the cycle of violence and holding peace spoilers accountable. 

And, finally, UNMISS will further deepen strategic partnerships, particularly with IGAD and the AU as well as the broader international community to promote greater coherence between international partners to advance political dialogue between the parties and implementation of the above-mentioned four tracks. 

UNMISS, as one of the largest peacekeeping missions, brings considerable capacity and resources to the table. If it acts alone, its efforts and impact will remain limited and isolated. But if it collaborates with partners and leaders nothing is impossible to achieve. Upholding this cooperative spirit, UNMISS will continue to press on in service of the people of South Sudan as it implements its strategic vision. The seemingly unforeseen challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic may impede progress but together with the Transitional Government and the people of South Sudan these barriers will be overcome to realize the future that South Sudan deserves. 

Nicholas Haysom is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.

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