Today (11 October), the Security Council renewed until 15 April 2019 the support of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) to the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM), established in 2011 to conduct monitoring and verification activities along the Sudan-South Sudan border. The US, as penholder on the issue, circulated an initial draft on Monday (8 October) and negotiations were held on Wednesday (10 October). A slightly revised draft passed silence today, and following a brief period in blue, was unanimously adopted as resolution 2438 this afternoon.
On 23 April, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 2412, extending UNISFA’s support for the JBVMM until 15 October. The resolution stated that this would be the final such extension, unless the parties demonstrated measurable progress on border demarcation in line with six specific measures, including maintaining clearance for all UNISFA air and ground patrols; finalising agreement on four JBVMM team sites; convening at least two meetings of the Joint Political and Security Mechanism (JPSM); withdrawing from the Safe Demilitarized Border Zone (SDBZ); making progress in establishing specific border crossing corridors (and opening two new ones) between Sudan and South Sudan; and resuming border demarcation discussions.
On 14 September, Council members received a confidential note from the Secretary-General setting out progress made on these six measures. The note reportedly said that standing clearance for UNISFA air and ground patrols has been maintained by Sudan and South Sudan, but that little progress has been made with regard to the other measures, and that the parties had postponed JPSM meetings in recent months. In this regard, the resolution adopted today notes that the measures “have not been completely achieved” and calls on the parties “to fulfil these measures without delay”. The initial draft expressed disappointment that the measures have not been completely achieved . At Ethiopia’s request, the final draft was softened to merely note that these measures have not been completely achieved.
Despite the limited progress made with regard to the measures outlined in resolution 2412 and the fact that the JBVMM remains at initial operating capability, with only two of the four sector headquarters in operation and only one team site established within the SDBZ, the Secretary-General stated in a 20 August letter (S/2018/778) on the reconfiguration of UNISFA that the JBVMM “remains a vital part of the framework that regulates the relationship of the two countries” and that its full deployment is of “paramount importance”. The letter recommended changes to the mission’s military component, including transferring troops to the JBVMM to make it fully operational based on the reduced need for a large UNISFA military presence within the Abyei Area. This position was reiterated by Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix during his briefing to the Council on the issue on 20 September (S/PV.8357). The resolution adopted today takes note of the Secretary-General’s 20 August letter.
Resolution 2438 decides to maintain UNISFA’s troop ceiling of 4,500 until 15 November, which is when UNISFA’s mandate is set to expire. It further decides that as of 15 April 2019, the authorised troop ceiling will decrease by 541 troops (the number of troops required for the mission’s support to the JBVMM), unless the Council decides to extend such support. As in previous resolutions, resolution 2348 decides that this will be the final extension of support to the JBVMM unless both parties demonstrate measurable progress on border demarcation measures set out in the resolution, which maintain, update or in some instances expand those set out in resolution 2412. As an example of an expanded measure, resolution 2438 requires the government of South Sudan “to establish a high-level team to undertake community sensitisation to enable ground movement by UNISFA into the SDBZ and the establishment of the JBVMM team sites”, a measure not in resolution 2412. It also requires the parties to “develop and begin to implement a timeline for verifying, together with UNISFA, the functioning of the 10 border crossings and free movement across the border”, also not in resolution 2412. The resolution further requests the Secretary-General to inform the Council of progress in implementing these measures by 15 March 2019.
Unlike in negotiations on previous resolutions, the US did not initially seek to reduce the authorised troop ceiling (as it did in April) or suspend the mission’s support to the JBVMM (as it did in November 2017), both of which Ethiopia and some other members successfully resisted. However, at the 20 September Council briefing, US Deputy Permanent Representative Jonathan Cohen questioned whether all of UNISFA’s tasks “remain appropriate and necessary.” Regarding the JBVMM, he said that the US would not “support indefinitely a mechanism that remains underutilized and is not making progress in resolving the political issues that are at the root of UNISFA’s JBVMM support mandate.” In contrast, Ethiopia and several other Council members are of the view that suspending support for the JBVMM would undermine its effectiveness, and that the parties have taken sufficient steps towards establishing the JBVMM to merit retaining support. These differences did not appear to make negotiations particularly difficult on the current draft, as in the past, but it is possible that negotiations around UNISFA’s mandate renewal in November may not proceed as smoothly.
Looking ahead, Council members expect to receive the Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of UNISFA’s mandate by 15 October, as requested in resolution 2416. The Council is further scheduled to receive a briefing in consultations on UNISFA and Sudan/South Sudan issues on 29 October.