COVID-19 Potentially Greatest Threat to South Sudan’s Already Fragile Health System, Special Representative Warns Security Council

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 videoconference 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.”

In the ensuing discussion, speakers agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic only accentuates South Sudan’s many challenges.  They welcomed recent positive developments, but called for greater efforts to implement the Revitalized Agreement in full.  They also reiterated support for UNMISS and its mandate, which runs until 15 March 2021 (see Press Release SC/14141), and insisted that the Mission be given full and unfettered access to all parts of the country.  Several delegates said it was time to reconsider sanctions on South Sudan, including an arms embargo that the Council imposed in July 2018.

Viet Nam’s representative, noting the increasing challenges to the peace process posed by COVID-19, said that the international community should recognize the important achievements of the South Sudanese parties in recent months, even while taking note of the complexity of the situation.  Reiterating the importance of the full implementation of the Revitalized Agreement, he called on stakeholders to resolve outstanding issues and on the South Sudanese parties to spare no efforts in advancing joint security arrangements.  The ceasefire must be respected, he said, adding that further measures are needed to address intercommunal violence and its root causes.  In that regard, the role of UNMISS in protecting civilians will remain significant.  Commending Mission members during this challenging period amid the pandemic, especially female troops, he said that Vietnamese women represent 16 per cent of his delegation’s peacekeepers.  Noting the increasing adverse impact of climate change and natural hazards, he called on the Transitional Government and others to continue to assert their best efforts in promoting sustainable livelihoods.  Sanctions should only be applied by the Council in a temporary and case-by-case manner and should not adversely affect people’s livelihoods, the essential functioning of the Government or the legitimate development of the country.  They should also be lifted when conditions are met, he added.

Indonesia’s representative said that several developments on the ground, if left unchecked, could endanger the peace process.  The Transitional Government must enhance its cooperation with UNMISS in navigating the pandemic, especially for the provision of humanitarian and medical assistance.  Strict travel restrictions are necessary, but Indonesia is concerned by their impact on the Mission’s operations and freedom of movement.  The sharp increase in intercommunal violence, particularly in Jonglei State, is alarming, he added.  It requires an effective and immediate response, lest it potentially roll back progress achieved in the peace process.  “We need to ensure that there will be no relapse into violence anywhere in South Sudan.”  Commending the agreement on the allocation of states, he encouraged all parties to maintain dialogue and speed up the political process.  For its part, the Council should ensure that challenges on the ground do not derail the overall peace process, he said.

Estonia’s delegate, welcoming recent political progress, also expressed alarm at escalating violence, saying Juba should open an investigation and prosecute those responsible.  Such vile actions reiterate the need for sanctions.  Equally important is the need to appoint Governors with no record of human rights violations, sending a positive message to the population to demonstrate that attacks against civilians are not rewarded.  Disturbed by the dire humanitarian situation, worsened by COVID-19, he called on the Transitional Government to do its utmost to help its citizens.  Doing so requires keeping the humanitarian assistance and protection flowing, as the impact of the pandemic is growing.  Meanwhile, the pandemic should not be used as a pretext to impede the implementation of the UNMISS mandate or the peace agreement.  Regretting to note rising numbers of violations and restrictions on medical evacuation flights, he said UNMISS peacekeepers are risking their lives to help others and thanked Mission personnel and the Special Representative for their efforts.

The Dominican Republic’s representative said that inconsistent implementation of the peace agreement is having serious consequences for the population, including the absence of state governors who can lead the COVID-19 response at the local level.  The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is also deepening, with more than 9 million people in need of food assistance and a sharp spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases.  “This situation is highly concerning when 56 per cent of the population has no access to basic health-care services.”  Sexual violence is another concern, he said, encouraging the Transitional Government to ensure accountability for serious violations.  Given the pandemic, the political stalemate and intercommunal violence, the United Nations must continue to support the people of South Sudan in cooperation with the Government, with UNMISS getting unhindered access for its peacekeeping operations and humanitarian activities.

South Africa’s representative said that the pandemic is clearly a difficult dynamic, but all parties should work together to fulfil the terms of the Revitalized Agreement.  That text is the only mechanism for creating a conducive environment for dialogue, democracy and sustainable peace and development.  Only inclusive political dialogue, incorporating women, can move South Sudan forward.  South Africa also encourages the parties to break the impasse over the allocation of state governorships.  For its part, the international community should continue to support South Sudan in a unified manner, especially given the economic impact of COVID-19.  His country will continue to support the peace process through the mediation efforts of South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chair of the African Union’s High-Level Ad Hoc Committee on South Sudan, and Deputy President David Mabuza, Pretoria’s Special Envoy to South Sudan.  Both men’s efforts seek to complement the African Union and IGAD processes.  On the humanitarian situation, he said that, with the pandemic, “the need is now far greater than it was before”.  International stakeholders should continue to contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and development, while also supporting the repatriation and resettlement of internally displaced persons and returning refugees.  For its part, the Transitional Government must provide United Nations humanitarian agencies unfettered access to vulnerable areas.  He went on to encourage the Government to work closely with UNMISS as it navigates the COVID-19 crisis, as the Mission remains a strong pillar of support in achieving peace and stability.

The United Kingdom’s representative, noting that COVID-19 has claimed the life of a civilian UNMISS staff member, said that the virus is a particular risk for those who have been forcibly displaced, including those living in protection‑of‑civilian sites.  The South Sudanese authorities should make every effort to work with partners to prevent the spread of the disease, protect health‑care workers and enable humanitarian access.  Meanwhile, the Secretariat should take all necessary steps to assure medical and casualty evacuation arrangements for UNMISS personnel, thus ensuring that the Mission can keep delivering its mandate.  Given recent increases in violent conflict, including in Jonglei and the Equatorias, the Transitional Government must speed up implementation of the peace agreement, even if that means taking difficult decisions.  Greater efforts must be made on transitional security arrangements, combating hate speech, misinformation and incitement to violence, and tackling impunity through enhanced accountability for sexual and gender-based crimes.  “The longer the parties delay, the harder it will become,” he said.

The Russian Federation’s representative said that the recent agreement on state governors opens a window of opportunity to remove obstacles to the peace process and create the necessary prerequisites for reducing intercommunal tensions.  The protagonist parties must continue to comply with the ceasefire, he said, encouraging non-signatories to the peace agreement to join the State-building process.  He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has not spared even South Sudan’s leadership.  Outbreaks of violence in different parts of the country happen for different reasons, but they do not threaten destabilization on a large scale.  Therefore, the focus should not be on putting more pressure on Juba, but to support the South Sudanese during a difficult time.  Hopefully, regional partners will continue to play the leading role in the peace process, in line with the principle of African solutions to African problems.  Progress in the peace process was not due to increased sanctions pressure or unilateral restrictions, but the contribution of regional mediators.  Going forward, the Council, in line with resolution 2521 (2020) extending the mandate of the Panel of Experts overseeing the arms embargo on South Sudan, will soon launch a comprehensive review of the sanctions regime with a view to adapting it to realities on the ground.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, noting that 22 June marked five months since South Sudan leaders committed to form the Transitional Government, said that significant residual challenges need to be addressed, particularly transitional security arrangements, the resolution of governorships and the establishment of a Transitional National Legislative Assembly and a permanent Constitution.  She stressed that at least 35 per cent of state governors must be women, as anticipated in the Revitalized Agreement.  Maintaining the ceasefire is critical for creating a climate of security, but the reported uptick in violence is disconcerting, she said, emphasizing that intercommunal conflicts can only be resolved if root causes are addressed.  She also associated herself with the African Union Peace and Security Council’s call for the finalization of all necessary instruments for the Hybrid Court of South Sudan.  On the humanitarian situation, she called for the lifting or easing of unilateral coercive measures considering the COVID-19 pandemic, including those imposed on South Sudan.  “Let us do all we can to propel South Sudan towards sustainable peace and development.  Unilateral sanctions should be lifted in order for the Government to meet the people’s needs.”  She went on to underscore the importance of facilitating humanitarian access to assist in alleviating the impact of the pandemic.

The representative of the United States said that South Sudan’s people are facing monumental challenges as they confront both escalating violence and the coronavirus.  Violence that so far in 2020 has claimed at least 600 lives in Jonglei — and the abduction of 150 women and girls — risks eroding gains in the peace process that the Council had sought to support.  Continued delays in the peace process are unacceptable, he said, adding that existing humanitarian programmes must go on even in the face of the pandemic.  “The United States supports South Sudan’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, but we cannot accept the Government’s using the virus as a pretext to curtail freedom of movement for UNMISS.”  Even more egregious is South Sudan’s denial of internal medical evacuation flights for UNMISS staff.  That must stop now.  Moving forward, he urged IGAD to appoint a permanent and empowered Chair of the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission.  For their part, South Sudan’s leaders must govern together as one Transitional Government, working in the best interests of citizens, he said, adding that the pandemic is an opportunity for all parties and stakeholders to strengthen cooperation.

The representative of France, Council President for June, spoke in her national capacity, saying that the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for South Sudan are very concerning.  However, measures to combat the virus must not limit humanitarian access or the Mission’s mobility.  Recent violations of the Status of Forces Agreement, as well as attacks on humanitarian workers, cannot be tolerated.  The protection of civilians is an obligation that applies to all, she said, calling also on the authorities to combat hate speech and violence against United Nations personnel.  She emphasized that intercommunal conflict aggravates the humanitarian crisis and that the envisioned Hybrid Court should help fight impunity and lower the scale of violence.  She commended UNMISS for deploying in conflict zones as best it can and reiterated that the sanctions regime remains essential to fight violence, to limit the proliferation of weapons and to deter perpetrators of human rights violations.  She went on to call on the Transitional Government to spare no effort to implement the Revitalized Agreement, despite the severe restraints brought on by the pandemic.  The peace process must progress with respect for fundamental freedoms, in particular for journalists and civil society, and it must fully involve women and young people.

The representatives of Belgium, China, Germany, Niger and Tunisia also participated in the meeting.

 

 

Source: United Nations