All praise for Indian peacekeepers in South Sudan, their professionalism and discipline, the head of the United Nations mission in the strife-torn country says India is setting the bar, trying to play a genuine role in world security. Speaking to SNI’s Associate Editor Amitabh P Revi and Video Journalist Prateek Suri in Juba, David Shearer said he was cautiously optimistic about the deal reached with the warring sides, underlining that there is a commitment to the peace process but it’s slower than what he wanted.
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Q: UN Secretary General’s Special Representative to South Sudan David Shearer, it’s a pleasure meeting you in Juba. (Thank you) We have just gone to the areas you have just come back from in Akobo. Can we talk about UNMISS and the Indian battalions’ role in UNMISS especially in the two areas that they are concentrated in?
A: First of all, they’re in difficult areas. Both of these areas have had a lot of violence and conflict. The Indians in the past have sacrificed, paid the ultimate sacrifice. So, we’re very, very thankful and grateful for their role. In Akobo in particular, it’s a very difficult position and place to be—very primitive conditions—and yet they’ve done a very good job and in the opposition area—the only place UNMISS is present in an opposition area—and their presence there has meant the coming back of many thousands of people to their homes and in addition to that humanitarian partners who were there have nearly tripled in number. So, just having that presence has made a very big difference to the security, safety of the region and how people feel in that area.
Q: Mr Shearer, we know you have a personal role in both, in setting up Akobo itself—the only UNMISS presence in opposition held area as well as the first presence on the western side of the Nile which is in Kodok as well (Yes). You’ve been pushing personally for both of those. How crucial are those areas you’ve mentioned in terms of the situation?
A: They’re very important for a couple of reasons. One: obviously with Akobo, it’s opposition held area. It’s meant people have come back and have felt safe about coming back. In Kodok, it’s the same. It’s the western side of the Nile, it’s a shilluk area—tribal area of the shilluk. It’s an area where tens of thousands of people left about a year and a half ago, two years nearly. But we’re seeing people starting to trickle back. By having a presence there, we feel people will come back, feel safe and at the same time attract humanitarian operations to come in and help support them. So, it has a very big impact in trying to stabilise, normalise the country. That’s the essence of what we’re trying to do in peacekeeping—trying to be ahead of the curve rather than in a sense following it.
Q: Apart from the security presence in these two areas, in specific and of course across South Sudan, the presence of—you’re mentioning humanitarian agencies are coming back because the people are coming back because of the security situation—but, the battalions are also making an outreach to the locals, whether through vet clinics, hospitals, education, orphanages. That connect is also extremely important.
A: Look, it’s important as peacekeepers that they establish themselves on the ground and they have links with the local community, the local community respect and want their presence in the area and that’s very, very important. But, the real essence of what peacekeepers do—that helps to be there and develop a relationship with the community—but the real essence of what peacekeeping is all about is creating that stability and security so that people feel safe in their homes. In South Sudan where one-third of the population of 12 million in total is displaced, bringing people back to their homes where they can start their agricultural activities, farming, animal care, cattle rearing. That will mean they can look after themselves, they won’t have to depend on the UN and other humanitarian organisations for their survival. It’s such an important role.
Q: That is the ultimate objective. But the reality on the ground when you’re talking about protection of civilians—they’re in camps in many areas—how far do you see them moving back to what the aim is, the areas which they have come from to setting up their lives again?
A: What we’re seeing at the moment, because there’s a peace process on in South Sudan, is that the peace process is progressing. As it progresses, people become more confident that it’s going to be sustainable—they’re starting to move back to their homes. Now, I predict if that continues then the peacekeeping operation we have here will be less about only protection and it will be about support and assistance for people to go back. It will mean we will be doing less static activities around the camps where people are located and more about patrolling in places where we want them to go to, so that we can see the situation on the ground, provide humanitarian support, security support so that people have a greater degree of confidence in moving back. I think that’s what the change will happen over the next few weeks and months.
Q: For that to happen—it’s happening in certain areas—your presence I’m talking about, the security presence, freedom of movement is not all that easy for various reasons. How is that moving forward in terms of the security angle and what the objective is?
A: Look, we have our challenges. Obviously, if there is fighting going on one side or the other has an operation underway, they don’t want us around. Our feeling is that we very much need to be around and that’s the very time we need to be around more than any other. So, overwhelmingly, we are allowed access around the country. But, we’re constantly challenged in different situations on different days—clearances to go whether it be goods or people and perhaps into those areas where there is active conflict going on. Our feeling is if we can get—and we know, because we have done this—in front of the conflict, be proactive and be on the ground where we know something is going to happen, it diminishes the level of conflict and as a result of that obviously less people get killed and less people are displaced. So, it’s important that we try and think ahead and position ourselves but sometimes it runs contrary to what the warring parties on the ground are choosing to do.
Q: If you’re thinking ahead, where exactly are you in terms of extending the mandate in March? In other areas, where the UN has been responsible, present, it’s moved to stages where it’s a stabilisation force instead of a peacekeeping force, that’s not the stage currently here. Where are you and what are you looking for in the renewal of the mandate?
A: The mandate will stay largely unchanged. They might be a few tweaks. I’ll be talking to some of the member states in New York next week (first week of February 2019) But I think, you’re absolutely right, with the development of the peace process and if it holds and if it continues the way it is, we will start looking at a change in the nature of the way we’re doing peacekeeping. Right now, when there has been open conflict, political conflict as well as communal conflict—ethnic conflict that has been going on as well—and that has been continuing. If they can go down, we will be a position where we can do a lot more support to livelihoods, to help communities get back on their feet, bringing back communities together, reconciliation-that sort of thing- that I think is much more interesting but also you know much more productive in terms of the long-term future of the country. That’s where I think we’ll be going if the peace process holds. If it collapses, and I really hope it doesn’t obviously, then we’ll have to go back to what we’re doing now—which is about protection. But let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope we go forward.
Q: Going forward again and if you look at how it’s developed in terms of resources you need, the troika (U.S., UK, Norway) would have provided much of the resources in the past but that’s not really happening now. I know you’ve been moving around the area looking for other sources of resources. In fact, when we came in, we were taken to the signals at the airport and saw your flight had gone to Nairobi. We had fingers crossed that you’re coming back. But, on a more serious note, you are looking for other avenues of resource mobilization?
A: With peacekeeping, our budget is what they call an assist budget. What we do is we propose, the Security Council agrees and then we’re funded. The funding has gone down over the last couple of years. It wasn’t dramatic last year but we’re hoping to maintain the levels. If the peace comes, I would think that we could look at diminishing our presence over time. That’s going to take a bit of time but that’s what I think we can forecast further out. In addition to that obviously the humanitarian agencies and the UN are always looking around for funding. Last year they were funded to the tune of about $1 billon for humanitarian activities. They’re looking for $1.5 billion this year. That’s a pretty sizeable sum of money to push into this place. So, they’re very keen on bringing in that money and we’re doing what we can to support their requests for funding their activities.
Q: Are you looking at neighbours of South Sudan? Are you looking beyond? Are you looking at China, Russia for resource mobilisation?
A: We’re looking right across the board, we always look right across the board. It’s generally the usual donor countries that provide the bulk. But China has been a donor both on the peacekeeping and donor fronts. We’re starting to see different donors emerging and coming forward, which is good because China has a battalion here and it has an embassy obviously here as well. So, moving forward in a broad partnership of both donors and supporters—whether they are peacekeepers or they’re doing something else—is really important. Having India as part of that coalition of countries is extremely important to us. The thing about the UN is we have 120-something countries working here in UNMISS, 58 different nationalities within the mission—the uniformed part of the mission. It provides some challenges—language, culture, everything else—but it also provides us an enormous amount of strength because as the UN we represent the world and India makes a very large chunk of the world in terms of your population. So, ensuring we have countries like India and others with us as we go forward is very, very powerful. It epitomises what the UN is really about.
Q: What about moves that were talked about on regionalising peacekeeping forces that are present here in terms of the African Union? Then what would happen? How would that work in terms of the UN and the AU?
A: We have 3 battalions from Ethiopia, 3 battalions from Rwanda, a battalion that’s 6 (7) battalions from the African region. But, at the end of the day, while there is a lot of advantage having them there, we are the UN and the United Nations is worldwide and having a worldwide presence is important because a country like India brings in skills that other countries don’t have. I mean you mentioned the signals before. We have Indian signalers in every one of our locations. They’re our connection between our bases. We have 17 bases right across the country, in a country that we can’t travel by road for at least six months in a year. So, it’s important that we maintain that breadth within the UN so that we maximise the skills and expertise we can get from right across the world.
Q: Mr Shearer, you said fingers crossed about the peace process. Where do you really see it at the moment not only in terms of the two factions, there are others as well who are involved? Are you confident that it will move forward because in the past most peace deals have not really fructified, to put it diplomatically?
A: No. I’m what you would say cautiously optimistic. I think we’re seeing a dedication and a commitment by the parties this time that hasn’t been there in the past. That’s gratifying and that’s good. I think, if I look back four months ago I would have probably said we wouldn’t be here today in this position. So, that’s excellent. The process itself and the mechanics of discussions in various committees that have been formed around the peace process is slower than we wanted. But what’s encouraging is that we have opposition figures here in Juba which six months ago was unthinkable. They’re moving around and talking to what was their enemy. They’re starting to put things together. So, I like to think they’re doing that on behalf of their country and they’ve got a real desire to see peace here. Certainly, when you talk to the South Sudanese themselves, the person on the street, they’re so longing for peace, so, so desperate for it. So I keep my fingers crossed and we will be doing everything that we possibly can as the UN—with all the components of the UN—to try and make sure it succeeds as best as it can.
Q: You have to be very nimble footed with the situation here. Two sides—accusations that the UN is not being neutral or portraying one side, helping one side not the other. How does that work?
A: It’s tricky. It’s never very easy. Look, this is a very new country, the newest country in the world, in fact. The newest country in the world has a sizeable peacekeeping force here. Now, for many of the South Sudanese who fought for their Independence they thought that there is an outside force here is something of an irritant to them. So, on one hand they will recognise why we have to be here, on the other hand for them it’s a loss of pride. And we have to be cognisant of that, be very, very aware and make sure we balance it off. So, in doing everything in the interest of the South Sudanese people, we do whatever we can in a way that maintains our impartiality and neutrality and that can sometimes be a tricky thing exactly as you say. You say something and you’re accused, you say something else and you’re accused by the other side. As long as the criticism is about equal on both sides, sometimes I think I’ve probably got it about right. But, it’s an everyday struggle.
Q: One of the issues people who analyse South Sudan say is the issue of national identity. It hasn’t really built in South Sudan. You were talking about pride, the tribes have their pride. One is that, do you build that while you continue on your mission or is that something that comes later? Should it be started at this very moment? The second is about holding people accountable. Here we’re not talking about soldiers like in Bentiu—we saw the response there to your mobile law, legal cells there. (Yes) When it’s groups, people in power or even if they’re not in power—powerful people—apart from groups. Does the accountability question start to come on the table now or come in later?
A: Two good questions. In terms of the feeling of nationhood, they are people who feel they are South Sudanese but their ethnic affiliation, tribal affiliation will be much, much stronger. I’ve on a number of times used the example of India—which is this enormous melting pot of different cultures, languages together in a democracy where people think of themselves as Indian. That’s how they see themselves. Using that as an example, it’s taken a while to form together but, it’s where I’d like to think South Sudan will be in another generation. In terms of accountability, I don’t think you can hold accountability off, that’s my feeling. There are a lot of people who think you should put accountability aside while you search for peace. But, if people are continuing to commit atrocities, continuing to fight, continuing to mobilise, I think you have to hold them accountable as you go. Because, it’s very clear within the peace process in particular, that if you’re mobilising, if you’re launching attacks, committing gender based violence, you should be held accountable. We all know that. It’s important that we don’t let that slip. We keep those standards up because when you do get peace and you move to a credible government and state, those standards are a thing that will keep you going for a long period of time.
Q: How do you do that when the people are people in power or powerful people who are part of the whole peace process. It’s all sides involved, how do you keep them accountable yet keep the peace process moving?
A: This is not an easy issue. We have a ceasefire monitoring group called CTSAMM (Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring Mechanism) and they publish their reports of ceasefire violations and we support them and their movements and accommodation to make sure that works. That’s a very important means of accountability. If there are human rights abuses, we’re there reporting on those human rights abuses, trying to attribute where the blame lies—not just the soldier on the ground but how did that soldier come to be here, why was that countenanced (chain of command) was there a chain of command. We try and do that. In addition to that it’s important we work with the groups and the government. You mentioned the mobile courts. They get the legal system set up so that there is no impunity. Impunity drives excess. If you can squash impunity through the justice system, if people can be caught, they can be tried and jailed and people can see that, it makes an enormous difference to the way gender-based violence will be perpetrated elsewhere. What was really encouraging with the work we are doing in the north where there have been incidents of gender-based violence, we pushed out the courts—mobile courts, brought in prosecutors, brought in judges. We had 45 women in a line waiting to give testimony and give evidence against perpetrators. Now, 45 women standing in the hot sun waiting to be heard is a really good indicator to me that there are people out there saying enough. We want justice to be served here. There are positive things coming out here as well.
Q: Is the South African model for accountability and reconciliation something that could be looked at? Is being looked at?
A: There was a truth and reconciliation committee that was originally formed here. But, because of the conflict has gone into abeyance largely. But, there is a national dialogue that is being promoted. It was launched by the government, we’ve supported it. They’ve been going around the country and collecting peoples’ testimony. That’s what has been happening and that’s what they want to try and do. We’ve supported that because we believe if we can get down to the grassroots level, people can air their feelings, their frustrations, their anger. That can be captured and we can move forward. What will come out eventually, I’m not sure, but I would hope this national dialogue is able to continue and it’s able to give a voice to people who otherwise wouldn’t be heard.
Q: Coming back to the Indian position, across history, the UN peacekeeping battalions—the largest ever presence, the largest ever casualties—the most number of missions. On a larger strategic level, India’s desire to be on the high table, if I can put it that way, whether it’s there in the UN, the Security Council, because of its contribution, do you think that desire is moving in any manner? Or is it just a tactical decision on the ground?
A: Well, you’ll have to ask your leaders about this. My impression from where I sit and certainly in South Sudan, the way I see India’s role here is of a willing and wanting to play an active part in the international security environment. It’s leading from the front by providing its peacekeepers on the ground. I congratulate India on that because I think, from our point of view, they are of the highest standard, the discipline is excellent, I mean toured with your troops in Akobo. They’re living in tough conditions, still maintaining that professionalism, tidy camp, discipline. It’s really important to have that level. I’ve been treated by your hospital—the Indian hospital here—on a number of occasions. I’ve always had confidence in them as well of their medical skills. It’s always important to have countries like India set the bar. My feeling is that India is looking to play a real genuine role in the world security environment.
Q: You talk about the Indian security presence, their dedication, discipline. There’s also that layer that we’ve seen on the ground of India battalions, whether it’s in Bor, Akobo, Malakal, Kodok. The local connect—though as you’re saying their primary function is security and to make sure that people feel secure to come back—individuals- the doctors, the vets. In both cases we’ve seen situations where the locals have surrounded the vets there, saying you’re not going anywhere, we’ll give you three plots of land, you can have three wives as well. When he says no, I have a wife and home, they say get her as well (A tempting proposition, isn’t it really?) That angle is so heart-warming to see, the impact on the ground.
A: South Sudan is cattle, cow-focused. I know the cow is sacred in India, there’s sort of a connection there. It’s what you can provide, but it’s more about the way you interact. I’ve never been to a country in the world where people don’t appreciate being treated as an equal person, with respect, tolerance, somebody trying to understand their culture and trying to do the right thing. If you approach it from that point of view, people take you into their hearts. I think what you’re describing is exactly that. It’s really about being taken into their hearts, being respected, and being valued for what they are and what they can do for their country.
Q: Mr Shearer, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you.
A: Thank you very much; thank you. When you’re putting this on, please convey my acknowledgement for India’s contribution, the sacrifices they’ve made, and the work they continue to do. We are very, very thankful. Thank you very much. (Thank you)