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Former Mission Chief Assesses South Sudan Peace Process

FILE - David Shearer, then the U.N.'s head of mission in South Sudan, speaks during a news conference in Juba, South Sudan, March 9, 2020.
FILE - David Shearer, then the U.N.'s head of mission in South Sudan, speaks during a news conference in Juba, South Sudan, March 9, 2020.

The former U.N. mission chief in South Sudan, David Shearer, said he feels gratified to have been able to encourage and support the changes that have happened on his watch in South Sudan, including the formation of a transitional government. On his last day in the job last week, he acknowledged that the South Sudan peace process was moving far more slowly than it should be.

During a virtual press conference from New York, Shearer said that while he had seen positive change during his four-plus years as the top U.N. diplomat in South Sudan, he was also concerned that key parts of the 2018 peace agreement had yet to be carried out, and said those delays had come at a cost.

“One of those costs comes in the form of sub-national violence that is being seen much too frequently on the ground," he said. "It’s much more localized than the violence that’s seen between the political parties, but nevertheless it’s displaced many people and together with the flooding has resulted in some very acute material needs for the people on the ground there.”

The delayed appointments of governors, county commissioners and other local officials prevented authorities from stopping intercommunal violence, said Shearer. Given current conditions on the ground, UNMISS (the U.N. Mission in South Sudan) has focused on becoming more mobile and agile to be able to respond to events more quickly, and Shearer said those efforts have paid off.

29 bases

UNMISS operates 19 bases across the country and another 10 temporary bases. Because of improved security, four of five of the UNMISS Protection of Civilian (POC) sites are coming under the direct responsibility of South Sudan’s government, according to Shearer. Malakal, which has been the site of repeated outbreaks of violence, is the only remaining POC site under UNMISS control.

Shearer said he was leaving the job convinced that South Sudan can become a tourist destination that rivals any East African country, and that with its abundant oil resources, the government can jump-start economic progress if it can eliminate widespread corruption.

“There hasn’t been a statement of account coming from South Sudan, there has been no, apparently there’s been no formalized budget that’s been put in place, there’s no real transparency about where money is coming into the country and how it’s being spent, and all those are all important benchmarks of a modern state,” said Shearer.

Trying criminal cases

Aside from battling corruption, Shearer said, South Sudan needs to begin trying cases in the African Union hybrid court as required by the revitalized peace agreement, noting that UNMISS has provided support to local authorities to try criminal cases.

“We’re also working with the local police to improve their capabilities and increase the number of courts, prosecutions, justice systems within South Sudan, which enables people to be protected, as in any other country by rule of law,” he said.

The hybrid court is supposed to bring to justice individuals or groups who committed crimes during the country’s 5½-year conflict.

South Sudan erupted in violence in late 2013 over a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the vice president. The fighting left tens of thousands of South Sudanese dead and forced millions of the country's citizens to flee their homes. The peace agreement, signed by Kiir and Machar, calls for establishing transitional justice, accountability and reconciliation. South Sudan gained independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011.

Shearer said he remained confident that national elections could be held in South Sudan, provided all the signatories to the peace deal “are in agreement,” adding, “We should be able to do that really reasonably smoothly.”

Under the peace agreement, following a transition period, the parties agreed to hold national elections in 2023.