The United Nations' top envoy in South Sudan offered a mixed picture of progress Friday as that country tries to move toward peace after more than five years of civil war.
David Shearer told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council that overall levels of political-related violence are down, opposition politicians are moving around the capital freely, and for the first time in three years, displaced civilians are expressing a willingness to return home.
"That's the positive side," Shearer said. "The significant challenge now is to maintain the momentum of the peace process."
The U.N. envoy said the timetable set out in the Sept. 12, 2018, Revitalized Peace Agreement is "well behind where it should be" and fundamental issues still have to be resolved, such as providing security for returning opposition leaders, including Riek Machar, who is currently in neighboring Khartoum.
Time is running out for this phase of the peace process, which will end on May 12, when the pre-transitional government is scheduled to take over and Machar is due to return to Juba to assume his role as first vice president.
Shearer said there is "no Plan B" to fully implementing the September agreement and warned that if peace falters now, the country could return to the intense levels of violence seen in 2013 and 2016.
"We cannot allow that to happen," Shearer said. "There are some who believe that a return to violence is inevitable; we don't concur."
Among those raising concerns are the nation's Catholic bishops.
"There is no will or commitment for peace among many of our leaders. Hate speech and propaganda abound, and there is a thirst for revenge among our communities,'' the bishops said in a statement on Feb. 28.
They cautioned that many of the committees and commissions mandated by the peace agreement have not been set up or are late in getting started.
At the council meeting, South Sudan's ambassador, Akuei Bona Malwal, said that since the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement, the overall situation in terms of security, peace, and economy has improved noticeably.
"Peace implementation is progressing slowly but surely," Malwal said. He blamed the slow pace of implementation on inadequate funding and encouraged international donors to support the process.