Salva Kiir’s recent verbal attack on the United Nations was not merely anger at the incident at the gates of the UNMISS camp in Bor. While strains in relations with the UN have been building over the course of the crisis, the fury of information minister Michael Makuei, the official denied access in Bor (VOA; Radio Bakhita; Sudan Tribune) helped bring relations to breaking point. Makuei’s influence has risen during the crisis. He has been louder, more aggressive and more uncompromising compared to his predecessor, current minister of foreign affairs Barnaba Marial Benjamin.
But the government of South Sudan has been unhappy with UNMISS for some time. When the UNMISS mandate was renewed in July 2012, the government opposed (Gurtong; CRN 1; CRN 2) Chapter VII powers for the mission, without which the UN’s ability to operate would have been more limited. In October 2012 senior UNMISS human rights official Sandra Beidas was expelled from South Sudan for unsubstantiated ‘unethical‘ behaviour. Instead, Beidas’ expulsion appears to be related to the human rights unit’s work on reporting extra-judicial killings and torture by the SPLA. The mission attempted to persuade the government to rescind the order, but failed, after which it went public, with Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and UNMISS chief Hilde Johnson, denouncing the expulsion order as a ‘breach of the legal obligations of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan under the Charter of the United Nations.’
Then, in December 2012, the SPLA shot down a UN helicopter, killing four crew on board. Since then, there have been repeated reports of UNMISS staff being harassed by the security forces, and, in violation of the status of forces agreement, denied access (see comments by South Sudan’s permanent representative to the UN in this 2013 statement; also reports by Refugees International and Clingendael) to areas of South Sudan deemed too sensitive for independent scrutiny.
And then came the crisis of December 2013, the death of two Indian peacekeepers in Akobo, UN bases across the country turning into IDP camps, and a UN-run medical facility (the hospital in Malakal) coming under attack. On January 21, Kiir said in a nationally televised address:
We did not know that when the UNMISS was brought to South Sudan, it was brought as a parallel government with the Government in South Sudan. But they showed it very clearly in this conflict that UNMISS were either brought here to be the government of the South and they fell short of naming the chief of the UNMISS as a co-president of the Republic of South Sudan. And if that is the position of Ban Ki-Moon he should make it clear that he wants the UN to take over South Sudan so that nobody bothers around any other person. So the international community, yes, should be told really that they did not understand the situation and if they were the ones who instigated Riek Machar to take this action they really misadvised him.
When given the chance, the president did not step back from his earlier remarks, and in an interview with Al Jazeera, added further accusations:
Kiir: There can be no way that we can be enemies to the United Nations. It is the individuals within the system of the UN who are actually creating problems. If we talk about what is the role of the United Nations, yes, they have the mandate which they are here for. Whether they are doing it effectively or not, that is their mandate. They allowed the rebels, either they took them by force or they gave them their vehicles and then they came and mounted these vehicles with machine guns to fight our forces with.
AJ: So you are accusing the United Nations of one, double standards when it comes to this kind of conflict, and two, of tacit support to the rebels by either handing over vehicles or turning a blind eye to their vehicles being used to mount machine guns, is that your accusation?
Kiir: Not the whole United Nations, it is this group that are here with us.
AJ: So United Nations staff, in Juba…
Kiir: In South Sudan.
AJ: In South Sudan, have given tacit support to the rebels?
Kiir: Of course.
Other officials were even blunter:
‘We are not just at war against Riek Machar’s rebels but also the UN.’
‘The president has not given the green light to attack UNMISS, but UNMISS has to rethink their strategies.’
And Michael Makuei:
It is not strange; and for that matter, what we have seen in that compound is a clear demonstration of the ill-intentions of the UNMISS as UN entity here in Bor town. It is clear that now if I can be prevented from entering UNMISS compound while the rebels are allowed to enter, then ultimately this is a clear demonstration of the ill intentions of the UNMISS.
Meanwhile, some at the UN are engaged in wishful thinking. Said the UNMISS spokesperson: ‘Like in every love story there are ups and downs – we may be a bit down these days but we are very confident that things will come back to normal.’
But for UNMISS, it is time to accept the new normal: UNMISS, and its leadership, is mistrusted, its influence at an all time low, while the government fears UN human rights investigations and possible prosecutions. While the visit of assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Šimonovic, was a positive move for justice and accountability, it was viewed with suspicion by the authorities. It is all a long cry from the optimistic words Hilde Johnson spoke to start her term in July 2011:
On a personal note, I am really pleased to be here. I have been working on issues related to Sudan and the peace process and also with south Sudanese ever since the 1990s. For me it is a unique opportunity to be able, from a personal perspective, to support the new Government of the Republic of South Sudan and be able to be in a position to assist. This is a critical moment for all south Sudanese and we are in a situation where the success of the new and independent country in terms of peace, stability and development will be critical going forward and I think the first two to three years would be fundamental. So to be here at this very critical juncture is, for me, both an honour but it is also something I personally take a lot of appreciation in doing.
Johnson was right: the first three years of South Sudan’s independence were critical, but not for the reasons she could fully envisage. Every SRSG’s days are numbered. Tenure is uncertain: whether by the Secretary-General’s prerogative, Security Council mandate, the offer of a new job or the exhaustion of the old, the job is inherently temporary. A crisis in relations with the host state, as much personal as professional, is the last and least desirable possibility. But it has happened, even to a great friend of South Sudan.