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Exclusive interview with Amb. Tim Morris, UK Special Envoy for South Sudan

Following the sacking by South Sudan’s President of his former deputy Riek Machar for alleged coup attempt in December 2013, South Sudan had quickly slid down into what many fear would become a potentially protracted civil war that turned the nation’s two major ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Neur, where President Kiir and rebel leader Machar hail from respectively, against each other. A mediation effort led by the regional block Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and supported by, among others, the Troika (Norway, UK, and the US), as well as the EU, the UN and China has produced a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement that helped ease major violence but it is far from bringing peace to South Sudan and its people. Our Editor-In-Chief Tsedale Lemma interviewed Ambassador Tim Morris, the British Representative in the Troika, on the current situation in South Sudan and progresses made in the IGAD led negotiations: Excerpts:

Addis Standard Let me start by asking you the outcome of the 25th extra ordinary session of IGAD heads of state and government summit in Addis Abeba in Mid march. It agreed to deploy “protection and deterrent” force in south Sudan. This is not exactly a peace keeping force is it?

 Ambassador Tim Morris – We absolutely should talk about this proposed force. But I think it is also very important when you look at the result of the summit to see how, very importantly, it is a way of pressurizing the political process on negotiations on South Sudan. So the proposed force is one element in that. But what, as observes and supporters, we think was very important from the summit was the demonstration that the IGAD heads of state and government came together, agreed very much on the need for all parties to keep to the cessation of hostilities agreement and to work for political process and indeed to mandate again the IGAD mediation to proceed with the negotiations with the parties. So the idea of the proposed force in itself is an idea which clearly has implications for the international community, for the UN, and for how the international community is structured in south Sudan. It is a very interesting idea and there is a lot of discussion needed now between IGAD leaders, the United Nations and the international community to make sure that as the international community we are well organized in terms of the intervention in south Sudan. The force itself has a clear mandate which fits with what the UN and the international community is doing in the country. At the same time it is clearly very significant that the IGAD heads of state and government have identified a project in this area. We certainly as the United Kingdom and as a member of the UN Security Council, will look at that very carefully and consider how we can support it. I think the one very important point is that there can’t be parallel operations in the country which might cause confusion. But the progress in this discussion made by IGAD is very significant and the idea of protecting the monitoring operation as a core mandate is clearly one which needs to be taken very seriously.

From the list of countries which want to contribute to this force Uganda is missing. What do we make of that?

No Sudan or Uganda, yes. All I can say is this is a proposal and this is a project by the countries involved who have agreed on a certain  way of doing it. Ugandan forces have been operating within South Sudan and part of the cessation of hostilities agreement will involve the progressive withdrawal of those [Ugandan] troops. So this is, as we understand it, an agreement that there will be a progressive withdrawal of Ugandan troops and this force will come in particularly as we understand it to protect the cessation of hostilities agreement monitors. From the international community point of view we are strongly supporting the IGAD’s mediation effort which has a core element on the cessation of hostilities agreement and its implementation. The fact at the moment is neither party is fully complying with the cessation of hostilities agreement. That has to change. The monitoring of that which at the moment is being set up is an essential operation. But as the discussion goes along, we need to be absolutely clear as to what the mandate of this proposed force is and how that fits best with the international operation already on the ground.

The plan is to deploy this force in mid April. Do you think there is enough time?  

There is a work head. I can’t put an exact timeline on it now. There is work ahead in terms of discussion with the UN; there is work ahead certainly in terms of the deployment of the monitoring and verification mechanism set up by the cessation of hostilities agreement which is at present on the ground in Juba. So a number of actions need to take place at the same time.

Riek Machar was quick enough to denounce any such act as deployment of any sort of force and threatened to pull out of the negotiations in Addis Abeba.

well I think within the wording of that you have the answer that blanket refusal to a proposition which is still not being fully discussed is something which one hears but which we should not allow to interfere with the planning and mediation process. There have been a number of threats to withdraw from the negotiation along this road. The parties are obliged by what they have signed to take part in it. There clearly are many things to be negotiated.

Do you see it as a worrying trend that we are witnessing individual countries of the region competing for their own strategic interests with Eritrea and Egypt allegedly giving a hint of their own interest in South Sudan, not to mention Uganda which singlehandedly intervened to support President Salva Kiir.  Does it worry you that South Sudan may become a contemporary battleground for regional proxy war?

 This region clearly is a region of countries who have their own interests; they have their history together and relationship together and there are delicate aspects of those relationships. The reason that we as the Troika and the international community are supporting the mediation process is that this is precisely a process which seeks to bring together the countries of the region. I think the IGAD summit on the 13th of March was an example of that. Each of the countries of the region saw the lack of stability in South Sudan as being profoundly concerning to all of them. There are of course parts of relationships between individual countries and there are also series of allegations made without evidence. We think, or the way I see it, is that it is a great concern to the countries of the region that, left unsolved, South Sudan could become an area which will be a center of conflict and tension for the countries of the region.  We do identify or we do recognize that countries in the region see it that way.  We hear that from the individual countries with which we speak.  This is something which is the result of many years and we are working together on this issue. 

With President Kiir’s constant bashing of the international community, once bluntly accusing the UN of running, I quote, “a parallel government” and certainly an uneasy relation with various organizations representing the international community on the ground, this “protection and deterrent” force is expected to be financed by none other than the international community itself. What sort of compromise are we looking at here? How is that affecting IGAD’s mediation process which is financed by the international community?

The UN’s presence is based on the will of the international community and therefore it is completely unacceptable for certain voices in South Sudan to be criticizing and attacking that presence. Of course there could be occasional disagreements but the UN is there for the sake of the country; the development and security of the country. In terms of discussions with IGAD, that is something which needs to be preceded with, it is a posi tive development. IGAD is already working with the monitoring mission which we are all supporting including practically and financially in Juba. That is working in coordination with the UN. There is further discussion on what needs to be done on the way the mandate of any future force is expressed; in the way it is technically and financially funded by the international   community. The idea, of course, of the international community’s presence in south Sudan is something of considerable significance to the South Sudanese government and to the opposition. It is inevitable that on occasions that will create tension and criticism from the various parties but it is an expression of the international community’s will for the protection of the South Sudanese people that there should be a presence there.

That brings the discussion to the level of coordination on the ground. There is the UN, the IGAD Partners Forum (IPF), China, the EU, and the Troika, among others. How are all these forces working together?  

Well I think there are probably two parts to this. One is the way that those groups work together in support of the mediators in Addis Abeba during the talks and the other is in South Sudan.  The first thing to say is this is very harmonious. There is a unanimous support by the international community for the efforts of IGAD expressed by the UNSC and expressed by the various international organizations that you have mentioned. We support IGAD’s role for bringing the parties together in the negotiation. In terms of mechanisms in Addis Abeba that is done by briefing, and by meetings.  This is not done in a mechanical way or by a bu reaucratic way; it is done by our presence as representatives. We do not do the detail negotiations ourselves. We leave that to the parties involved.

Perhaps more controversial is the presence of China in the picture. Many believe it has created some tension with the Western courtiers involved in the negotiations such as your country.

There is no single example of that. We work closely with our colleague the Chinese ambassador here.  We have regular talks and regular meetings together. It is immensely significant that China is participating in a very active way. On the humanitarian support, China is doing a major contribution in the construction of the camp for Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) in Juba. So there is a great degree of shared approaches and discussions.

Last February the two rival parties have signed the Implementation Modalities of the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities. But they haven’t come far enough in implementing that and the situation on ground remains dire. How is that affecting the entire peace negotiation?

You are absolutely right that the cessation of hostilities agreement itself has not stopped the fighting. One can argue that some of the bigger military moves have perhaps been restrained but that is hypothesis. We are very concerned the parties involved are not showing the real willingness and a real sincerity about stopping fighting. We are absolutely insistent that they comply and cooperate with the monitoring mechanism being set up which has been somewhat held up by non-cooperation on both sides. We are concerned that a number of elements wish to continue fighting. This thing came up very clearly at the IGAD heads of state and government summit in mid March and some very strong comments were made by governments, which we fully endorse. The principle of the mediation is that a political process has started at the same time as the cessation of hostilities agreement is enforced. It is a very important point that IGAD, with our strong support, should not accept a scenario where there are first a series of military negotiations and then somehow national reconciliation and political discussions are left until later. We would see that as a recipe for continued delay, and we insist that the parties proceed along the line that is suggested by IGAD.

One of the most controversial issues is Uganda’s military involvement, which individual countries of the region complain about it separately, but something that IGAD failed to call the shots. On top of that the communiqué at the 25th extraordinary summit “commends” Uganda’s military involvement. What am I missing here? 

I am not sure I quite agree with that analysis. Clearly it is a question of facts that after the events of December Ugandan military strengthened their presence in the south of South Sudan and provided a level of security and support for the South Sudanese Government but what subsequently became controversial was Ugandan action further north. I think it is very important to look at the situation as it is now where IGAD heads of state and government are sitting together after all. And to look at the agreement which talks about the progressive withdrawal of the Ugandan forces from the theater of operations in line with the cessation of hostilities agreement. I think it is also very important, and this is a comment from the international and the UK perspective, to recognize the point that each of the countries of the region is potential player in the solution to this crisis. The cooperation between those countries, difficult as it may be, is an extraordinarily important thing to aim at.

Let’s look at President Salva kiir’s personality as a partner in peace talks. Since July last year, he sacked Riek Machar, suspended and jailed his party’s Secretary General Pagan Amum, removed the governor of Unity state Taban Deng, suspended cabinet Affairs minister Deng Alor, and finance minister Kosti Manibe. How can you consider him as a partner for peace talks when he kept on eliminating the key figures around himself, and kept on aggravating the situation? 

What I would like to say is that we and the Troika and the international community are very clear that there has been a failure of political leadership in South Sudan and that has resulted in a divided country and a country which is not fully functional as a political entity. That needs a fundamental review.  The political process being suggested by the mediators with our full support in a sense answers that question. It addresses directly the point that this country should not revert to the status quo ante; there should be a wider discussion of what type of politics the country needs to move forward. I wouldn’t want to single out one individual; it is to say that our view very strongly is that there is a failure of political leadership which needs rectifying by a careful process of constructing  a new type of politics in South Sudan.

There are growing voices as of late that suggest perhaps dismantling the SPLM as a political party and SPLM/A as its military wing is not a bad ideas after all in terms of creating a fresh start for the people of South Sudan. Do you see that as a viable idea?

I think I would simply say that those decisions are for South Sudan people to take, both political leaders but also groups representing public opinion, representing the wider interest of South Sudanese society.  On viability I think it clearly is very important that this process should be undertaken with care and support from outside. The country is a country of traumatized people, of displaced people, of suffering people; we have to be very realistic in expecting political solutions to be devised overnight. What would clearly be wrong would be for outsiders to design a political solution for South Sudanese people without their wider involvement

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