7 July 2014

Sudan: Hilde Johnson - South Sudan "At a Crossroads"

Photo: Paul Banks/UN Photo
Southern Sudan Police Service


Hilde Johnson stepped down as the head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on Monday (07.07.2014) after completing a three year term.

During her tenure, South Sudan took its first tentative steps as an independent nation and was plunged into armed conflict. DW asked the 50-year-old former Norwegian government minister to look back over the last three years and also reflect on what the future might hold for the troubled African country.

DW: What are your feelings as you leave South Sudan?

Hilde Johnson: Well there are mixed feelings, of course. On the one hand, it would have been nice to leave the country stable and in a situation where it was moving towards becoming a success story. As we know, we are far from that at this point in time. We have six months of conflict behind us and although the parties have signed a cessation of hostilities agreement and recommitted to it on June 10, we are still not seeing the stability we wanted.

On the other hand, it has been three years which is more than normal for an SRSG (Special Representative of the UN Secretary General) and I have been through a period when it has been also challenging and you also have a sense of relief when you are able to look forward to a break.

If somebody were to have asked you last year - before the violence erupted in December 2013 - if you would have thought such an outbreak of violence could happen, what would you have said?

Well, I knew when I took over as SRSG at independence in 2011 that this would be a rocky ride. I was prepared for very challenging times. But I do not think any of us could have foreseen what happened from December 15 onwards. We did say to the Security Council that the country was at a crossroads. It could go in the right direction, but the dynamics in the SPLM (Sudan People's Liberation Movement), the ruling party, would be decisive for that and if they were not handled in the right way, it could be really, really difficult. By November, December, in particular in December, we also thought that violence could happen and that tension could break out in violence - a violent situation. But I don't think anyone could have foreseen the scale, the scope and the speed of what happened from December 15 onwards. That was beyond anyone's imagination. I have to date not met anyone in South Sudan who saw this coming. They saw something coming, they saw violence coming, but no one expected this.

The South Sudanese government has repeatedly hit out at the UN and demonstrators in Juba even hit out against you personally when the violence flared up. They accused the UN of not being a neutral force in this conflict. If you look back at these very, very trying times, do you think there is something you could have done differently?

No, I would not have done anything differently. The reason, basically, is that we decided to open the gates when thousands of civilians fled to our compounds to get protection. We gave them protection. We do think we helped to stem the cycle of violence that could have gotten totally out of control and have untold consequences. At the same time we also saved thousands and thousands of people's lives. I would never say that that wasn't the right decision. Clearly that created reaction, but it was still the right decision to make. As regards the allegations and accusations, they were so far fetched and ludicrous and baseless that there was no reason to take them seriously. And I think I put myself in the shoes of quite a number of UN officials prior to my tenure who have been faced with criticism from host governments in other conflicts around the world, particularly in the Middle East. It is very common to target the UN when things happen. And so for me when I'm criticized by both sides - and I was also criticized by the other side, by Machar and his people - then I think I probably did something right. So for me, this was much more about the government and its reactions and much less about the United Nations. We remained impartial - we remained in a situation where we did not take sides in the conflict. Our loyalty rested with the people who have suffered and the people who sought our protection and that is the right place to be.

Do you feel you got enough support from the international community?

Well, I think we struggled quite a lot when we had this incredible number of internally displaced in our compound. It has not happened before. It is the first time in peacekeeping history that so many people have been given protection, more than 100,000, it has since gone down to 95,000. It's really a huge challenge and almost all our forces have been devoted to static protection at our bases - to be able to take care of and protect these people.

At the same time we are totally overstretched on all fronts. We need many more forces to be able to handle the situation and to be able to protect civilians who are out there and are vulnerable in remote communities.

We saw the Security Council mandate increase forces, increase police for us. After five months we haven't received more than one fifth of what we had been promised. The Security Council came up with another resolution - on May 27 - and we are now getting more resources from the region, from IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) countries and I am hopeful that there will be a full deployment to the level of 12,500 peacekeepers by September at least - though I hope earlier. This will help, but we also have significant challenges on mobility, logistics - you name it - and we still need more support.

Of course, the mission is one thing. The other is the people of South Sudan. The suffering that we are seeing really warrants an increase and a scale-up in the international community's support for the humanitarian operations in this country. The fact that we are likely to face a famine that will possibly be bigger than we have ever seen in South Sudan's or the region's history shows how bad this can be. We need the donors to step up to the plate, to deliver on their pledges and also to increase assistance beyond that. It's absolutely needed to save life in South Sudan.

What are the chances of peace returning to South Sudan anytime soon?

I think the fact that the IGAD heads of state have been so firm and are now fully coordinated and are on the same wavelength is absolutely critical and very positive. The last communique on June 10 set a 60 day deadline - which means August 10 - for the establishment of a dialogue on the formation of a transitional government so this is very positive. It means that tight timelines will be needed to get agreement between the parties, who have also committed to the same timeline. Now, we are still seeing a lot of delaying tactics from both sides and it is going to be critical with international pressure to see that this timeline is indeed complied with. But I hope that will be done. And then, of course, given the difficult situation politically, it is going to be key to maintain pressure. I think that will imply that a peace process can be completed, but within which timeframe is difficult to tell at this point. It will depend on a consistent and coherent strategy and pressure particularly from the region but also from the international community at large.

Hilde Johnson has just stepped down as head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

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