Will A New Pledge To Facilitate Humanitarian Access Ease The Dire Situation In South Sudan?

Two weeks after a meeting in Juba with US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, South Sudan’s President Kiir has decreed an end to the obstruction of humanitarian access by government forces. The written declaration, publicised on November 9, ordered the dismantling of physical roadblocks restricting the movement of aid vehicles across the country and communicated that all government officials should actively assist humanitarian agencies in their efforts – going so far to state that “anybody who intentionally obstructs the delivery of Humanitarian Aid and services or imposes taxes on Humanitarian Convoys shall be held accountable.”

Speaking to the Washington Post on November 14, Haley noted that whilst the move by Kiir was a step in the right direction, action was paramount. “The true test will be whether humanitarian assistance is actually allowed to get to the South Sudanese people in a consistent way. We will be watching, and we will continue to encourage President Kiir to do the right thing.” In a statement issued by the UN on Monday, Alain Noudéhou, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan, remarked that “South Sudan’s humanitarian partners appreciate the step that President Kiir has taken to ensure the free movement of supplies and personnel, particularly at a time when food insecurity continues to deteriorate…” and that the UN “look[s] forward to seeing the order implemented on the ground swiftly.”

The current conflict between government and opposition forces developed following a split between President Kiir and his then-deputy Riek Machar in December 2013. When accused by Kiir of attempting a coup, Machar responded by leading a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement known as the SPLM-IO (“In Opposition”). Violence between the two groups resulted in the deployment of both Ugandan military and UN peacekeeping forces and, following several ceasefire attempts, a peace agreement was eventually signed in August 2015. Despite a rapprochement in 2016 (during which Machar was appointed Vice-President) rebel in-fighting led to the disintegration of relations between Kiir and Machar. This breakdown culminated in Machar making a declaration of war against the ‘regime’ in Juba in September 2016.

Faithful adherence to this decree by government forces is an essential step toward easing the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Over the coming weeks it will become apparent whether or not Kiir’s rhetoric will transform into concrete action, with consequences for those reluctant to follow the rules. Unfortunately, this is not the first time the president has sought to improve humanitarian access by targeting illegal checkpoints across the country. Following a visit by UN representatives in September last year, Kiir attempted to facilitate greater cooperation between his government and aid agencies by establishing an oversight committee to ensure ease of access. Despite this, a total of 91 incidents relating to humanitarian access were recorded in November 2016—64 of which comprised violence directed towards humanitarian personnel or assets. Perhaps more alarming, Reuters recently reported that UN sanctions monitors have criticised the government in Juba for indiscriminately targeting civilians by using food as a weapon in the conflict, noting that armed groups and militias affiliated with the president routinely seek to obstruct peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts. With 50 percent of South Sudan confronted with conditions of severe food insecurity, such tactics undermine the legitimacy of the government and further destabilise the tenuous situation in South Sudan. If the country is to eventually emerge from the current conflict, it would be prudent for Kiir to demonstrate that he is ready to represent the interests of the entire population and take real action to assist humanitarian actors across the country.