Interview with Hilde Johnson, UN Special Representative for South Sudan

“All the energy, virtually, in South Sudan, has been sucked into the South Sudan-Sudan relationship, and very limited energy resources have been focused on core statebuilding and nation-building priorities,” said Hilde Johnson, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS).

Though Ms. Johnson said, “We have seen progress, despite all the tensions, all the troubles, and all the energy going elsewhere.”

Ms. Johnson had just spoken at the International Peace Institute about the work of UNMISS in South Sudan, and she explained why she focused her talk on protection of civilians. “The assumption of many South Sudanese was that the mission was here to protect the territories or the sovereignty of South Sudan; we’re supposed to protect them against any aggression across the border,” she said. “However, that is not the mandate of the mission.”

She said the challenge has been overcoming that perception and the disappointment people feel when they learn that UNMISS is not a border-monitoring mission or buffer-zone mission between Sudan and South Sudan. “We’re actually here to protect civilians within the country’s borders,” she said.

 Ms. Johnson said that despite conflict in some hotspot areas, some engagements have led to the prevention of conflict. 

“The challenge, of course, is that these successes are invisible, because when nothing happens, people don’t know that the engagement has succeeded. And so, that’s maybe the paradox in peacekeeping—that if your political work succeeds, then you are not really being recognized for the efforts that had been made.”

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Warren Hoge: Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Hilde F. Johnson, Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) and Head of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, known as UNMISS. South Sudan is the newest of the 193 Member States of the UN, having been created only 18 months ago. Hilde Johnson is uniquely qualified to take on this job, since she was deeply involved in the negotiations behind the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that ended a 22-year-old war that had cost 2 million lives, and ultimately led six years later to the founding of South Sudan. Hilde, you had described the many problems South Sudan has encountered in its early months, as South Sudan getting a divorce from Sudan before the divorce papers were ready. What has happened to make this birth of a nation so difficult and why has it happened?

Hilde Johnson: Well clearly, South Sudan is a little above one and a half years old, so still a toddler by every measure, and even more challenging, when we are in a situation where a number of the issues that should’ve been sorted out before independence, were delayed. And hence, we’ve seen to some extent an escalation of tension between Sudan and South Sudan in the absence resolving those issues. We saw the disputes on the oil with the shut down, we’ve seen hostilities on the border in March-April last year. And all the energy, virtually, in South Sudan has been sucked into the South Sudan-Sudan relationship, and very limited energy and resources have been focused on core state-building and nation-building priorities. And that of course has a significant impact on the country and on its ability to move forward, so in a way, it’s been hostage to this situation.

WH: Well let me ask you about those things. Things like a national constitutional process, elections, establishment of political parties, police reform, DDR; these are the normal stages of building a national identity in developing a state. Is South Sudan able to pursue these, at a time, when as you put it, so much energy has been sucked out by the tensions with Sudan?

HJ: Well interestingly, in those areas specifically, we have seen progress, despite all the tensions, all the trouble, and all the energy going elsewhere. So, if I can take the three issues you mentioned. On the political side, the democratic foundations, all the new and independent country have been established through legislation, multiparty political parties act, electoral act, the institutions related to that, all of it through extensive consultations with the different political parties. We’ve seen the national constitutional review process be established a little delayed, but now being extended to December 2014. We have also seen progress in the area of transformation and reforms in the police sector, where the commitment has been strong, changes have happened in the leadership, we’ve seen registration of the police, it’s been a significant movement in the right direction. And finally, in DDR, while the first year saw a lot of delays in that area, things have picked up lately, with the establishment of the DDR Council headed by the Vice President and with key security ministries now developing a nationally owned DDR program, the way they wanted. So in these areas, they have managed to make progress, despite all these tensions and problems in their Sudan-South Sudan relationship.

WH: When we asked you to come speak here in IPI about the work of UNMISS in South Sudan, you said you wanted to focus on protection of civilians. Why is that the priority, and since the main responsibility for protection of civilians rest with the government, what can the UN do?

HJ: The reason why I wanted to talk about this is that the protection of civilians is seen as the core mandate of the mission. If you look at the Security Council Resolution 1996, but also the subsequent one, 2057, it is really highlighted, and it is highlighted by Security Council Members as maybe the biggest and most significant priorities for the mission. What I wanted to do was to present to the audience here at IPI what the challenges are for the mission in implementing its mandate in this area, but also provide some of the successes we’ve had in doing so, so both the challenges as well as some of the achievements. We’re seeing in the context of South Sudan, significant challenges in implementation, primarily for reasons related to logistics and numbers. So just by example, 65% of the country is basically cut off during the eight-month long rainy season, and the only way at this point in time can access these areas is through helicopter. We are asking for riverine capacity to be provided, meaning boats, but we also need to see our military helicopters be completed with six, we have three at this point in time. And we have also limited numbers of infantry troops, and I gave examples today, of how limited that is in the face of some of the challenges we are encountering in South Sudan, where we can see thousands of attackers, actually, threatening the lives of civilians. So in all these aspects, we are faced with challenges, but I think I also managed to communicate that we have really achieved a lot. We have managed to protect civilians against the threat of 8000, as the SPLA also was engaging, and we’ve also had thousands of civilians in our camps, multiple times, being protected from insurgence and from attackers.

WH: I believe your mandate is the first, with an explicit demand for creating an early warning system. How are you doing that?

HJ: So we have created an early warning system, through first, establishing a strategy on early warning. Secondly, establishing a mechanism which implies that all the relevant units of the mission, but also the UN country team are engaged in both getting information but also assessing it, analyzing it, and using it through a regular weekly assessment. That weekly assessment gets to us in mission leadership, and it proposes actionable interventions that we need to take to address the early warning challenges. So, this is a system that we have put in place, but we also need to make sure we strengthen the government’s own early warning systems, both at the local level as well as the state and national level, and we’re already working on that. At the moment, the most functional one is a state-level one, but we also need to see it work and be up and going at the local level, at the county level, as well as nationally.

WH: I want to ask you about the image of the UN in South Sudan, whether it is trusted, is it suspect? And in particular, something you mentioned, which is its mandate to protect civilians is, I think you said, sometimes misconstrued as protecting the sovereignty of Sudan, not protecting the people that live within. 

HJ: Well the challenges we’ve had in the first 16 months, 18 months, of the mission’s life, is that when the hostilities took off between Sudan and South Sudan, the assumption of many South Sudanese was that the mission was here to protect the territories or the sovereignty of South Sudan. We were supposed to protect them against any aggression across the border. However, that is not the mandate of the mission. The mandate of the mission is to protect civilians, wherever they might be, within capabilities. And so, the challenge of course has been that this perception of the mission leads to some disappointment when people discover that, actually, we’re not here as a border monitoring mission or as a buffer zone mission between Sudan and South Sudan. We’re actually here to protect civilians within the country’s borders.

And so, I think we’ve overcome some of the most significant misperceptions, but whenever there is an aerial bombardment incident or an incident of incursions that is alleged, we are very often questioned, as why you’re not there to protect us from this. And so, this is a recurrent challenge. 

Now, that the Joint Border Monitoring and Verification Mission was being established from the agreement that happened on March 8 in Addis Ababa, we are expecting those misunderstandings to diminish, and we will then be able to say this is the task of the Joint Border of Monitoring and Verification Mission, it is not the task of UNMISS. And so, hopefully, through that verification process and through the withdrawal from the borders of both countries, we’ll see those misperceptions being overcome.

WH: You had talked about a key moment being moved from prevention to protection. Is that already happening in some of the less conflicted parts of South Sudan, and do you see that happening one day in places like Jonglei State?

HJ: Well the key, of course, is if we can just do prevention and succeed, protection would not be necessary. And so, that’s of course our goal, if we are in a position through political engagement, through community engagement, if we’re able to prevent conflicts or tensions from exploding, from ending in violence, we will then not need to use our protective forces, our physical protection, that’s our main goal.

And now are we succeeding in Jonglei? I think we’ve succeeded for a while, following the major attack December-January 2011-12, we saw a rather successful peace process that we supported throughout January, February, all the way up to May, when the peace agreement was sign and where we are going to move to the implementation phase. And so, in that phase, things really went well, and things moved in the right direction. Jonglei was stabilized, people started cultivating, people started seeing abducted children and women being returned, things are really moving in the right direction. However, we’ve now seen a lapsed back in two situations. One, a major attack that happened on the 8th of February by the Murle against the Lau Nuer. We’ve also seen now a buildup of David Yau Yau’s insurgency and militia elements that seem to now be able to create instability, in particular, in people, in one very important area of Jonglei. So now, we are again in a situation where the risk to the stability and the state is significant. Nevertheless, we have other examples where our engagement in hotspot areas have really led to prevention of conflict, and the challenge, of course, is that these successes are invisible, because when nothing happens, people don’t know that the engagement has succeeded. And so, that’s maybe the paradox in peacekeeping, that if your political work succeeds, then you are not really being recognized for the efforts that had been made. But we can live with that as long as we’re not seeing conflict erupts, we have been able to implement our mandate.

WH: I don’t know if any SRSG, at least in my experience, who is as fully versed in the country to which she is going as you are. You were a player in the negotiations leading up to the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2005 that ultimately led to the creation of South Sudan. And though you are a certified Norwegian, having been a member of your parliament, and a member of your government, you also are African. And I just wanted to ask you, finally, just reflect on what it is like to be back on the continent where you were born and raised. 

HJ: Well it’s rewarding to be back, and I really feel strongly and passionately about assisting the newest nation in the world, trying to help stabilize the nation in their first few years, after independence. It’s of course a significant challenge and the challenge certainly isn’t less than I expected. Still it’s a rewarding experience for me and I hope I’ll be able to make a difference to this new nation we all want to succeed. 

WH: Hilde Johnson, Thank you very much for speaking today, to the Global Observatory. 

HJ: You’re welcome.