UN Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA)
On June 27, 2011, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to establish the UN Interim Security Force in Abyei (UNISFA), a peacekeeping mission for the Abyei region on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. Resolution 1990, drafted and championed by the United States, provides for the deployment of up to 4,200 Ethiopian troops to provide security and protect civilians under imminent threat of violence in the disputed border region. On December 14, 2011, the Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 2024, extending the UN presence and expanding UNISFA’s mandate to include monitoring along the entire border between North and South Sudan, in line with initial withdrawal agreement.
UNISFA’s mandate includes:
- Monitoring the withdrawal of Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fighters from the Abyei region;
- Protecting civilians under imminent threat of physical violence;
- Facilitating the return of refugees and displaced persons;
- Monitoring the state of human rights in Abyei;
- Providing security to the region’s oil infrastructure;
- Facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance and freedom of movement for aid workers;
- Providing technical support to de-mining efforts in the region;
- Strengthening the capacity of the Abyei Police Service;
- Ensuring parties observe the Safe Demilitarized Border Zone;
- Supporting the operational activities of the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM);
- Assisting and advising the JBVMM in its overall coordination of planning and monitoring and verification of the implementation of the Joint Position Paper on Border Security;
- Assisting the JBVMM to maintain the necessary chart, geographical, and mapping references;
- Facilitating the liaison between the parties;
- Supporting the parties, when requested, in developing effective bilateral management mechanisms along the border; and
- Assisting in building mutual trust.
The Abyei region, which lies along the border between Sudan and South Sudan, remains contested by both countries. Due to the presence of oil in the region, Abyei is of significant economic value to both countries. Additionally, rival ethnic groups from each nation--the Dinka Ngok from the South and Misseriya from the north--claim ownership of the land and have been the driving force behind violence in the region for the past several years. As part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), both northern and southern Sudanese authorities agreed to hold a referendum to decide the future status of Abyei in January 2011. However, violence and southern concerns over voter eligibility prevented the referendum from occurring at that time, and the vote has effectively been postponed indefinitely.
Beginning in late May 2011, Abyei was the scene of intense clashes and looting after the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) launched a major assault on Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces in the area. The fighting left hundreds dead and displaced over 110,000 residents. In response, the SPLA increased its troop presence in the area, creating a standoff between North and South. In response, the UN Security Council voted to deploy UNISFA, and UN peacekeepers have been interposed between the two sides ever since in an effort to prevent renewed violence over the disputed territory.
In early May 2012, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2046, which called for Sudan and South Sudan to withdraw their forces from Abyei. Both parties complied, with South Sudan removing its troops from the area by May 15, and Sudan following suit on May 30. Nevertheless, 100 Sudanese policemen remain posted in the contested region in violation of the Security Council resolution.
In early June 2012, the two nations returned to the negotiating table to hash out a number of outstanding issues from the 2005 CPA, including border demarcation, sharing oil revenues, and the citizenship status of South Sudanese living in Sudan. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in these talks, and until these issues are tackled, the specter of violence is likely to continue to haunt relations between Sudan and South Sudan.
The African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) and the Security Council endorsed a proposal to hold a referendum in Abyei in October 2013. Currently only the Dinka Ngok and Misseriya tribesmen residing in the area are eligible to vote. Sudan insists that the Misseriya tribesmen who live outside Abyei should be able to vote; if this group does not vote, Abyei will most likely accede to South Sudan. The AUPSC initially gave the two countries six weeks to consider the proposal, but it has removed this stipulation to the anger of Sudan, who feels as though they have been neglected in the negotiation process. South Sudan has, however, agreed to Sudan’s nominations, including Misseriya tribesmen, for a joint interim administration with Sudan in Abyei. The interim administration is meant to help facilitate the referendum.
How This Affects American Interests
- Promotes stability in the region. Since the deployment of UNISFA in June 2011, UN peacekeepers formed an effective barrier between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces and have been instrumental in preventing the return of violence to Abyei. In addition to monitoring the region and preventing the entry of unauthorized armed forces, UNISFA oversaw the complete withdrawal of Sudanese and South Sudanese troops from Abyei in May 2012, although a force of about 150 Sudanese police continue to reside in the Diffra oil complex in Abyei. Their presence is technically a violation of the Security Council resolutions.. This withdrawal represented a major step towards stabilizing the region, and had been a major concern of the U.S. and the UN Security Council since hostilities started . For these reasons, UNISFA has been praised by U.S. officials and NGOs for its work. Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, stated that, “The Ethiopian peacekeepers have brought Abyei much needed stability, and if current diplomatic efforts bear fruit, our partners are poised and ready to lay the groundwork for the resumption of basic services, livelihoods, conflict mitigation and community peace-building activities in Abyei.” A report by the Enough Campaign also lauded the missions efforts, arguing that, “A key achievement in international efforts to bring Abyei back from the brink is the deployment of nearly 4,000-strong UNISFA peacekeeping mission which has kept the Abyei area stable during the traditionally volatile migration season and in spite of larger North-South tensions that threatened to spill into the area.”
- Protects Peaceful Migration. Given the recent history of conflict between the Misseriya and Dinka Ngok ethnic groups, the U.S. and UN leaders have both expressed a need to ensure the peaceful migration of the Misseriya. To facilitate this, UNISFA opened lines of communication between various local groups and helped designate a mutually acceptable passageway for peaceful migration and reverse migration for the Misseriya people. Additionally, the mission works to identify potential cattle raiders. The mission has already begun to prepare for the reverse migration of the Misseriya tribesmen after the rainy season, including extensive patrols. Based on these efforts, a number of offenders have been held accountable through a process of arrest and disarmament.
- Locates and clears unexploded ordinance (UXO) landmines. The identification and clearance of UXOis an urgent humanitarian need in Abyei. UNISFA and the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) are working to remove landmines and other dangerous explosives from civilian areas, particularly health facilities, schools, and water points. Demining efforts have allowed thousands of people who fled the violence in Abyei last year to return to their homes.
- Humanitarian crisis. With the outbreak of violence last year, more than 110,000 people were displaced from Abyei. Gradually, people have begun to reenter the area, with slightly more than 12,000 having returned thus far. However, most have been unable or unwilling to do so, due to poor humanitarian conditions and continued instability in the larger region. Providing aid to civilians who remain displaced from Abyei has been difficult though due to the inability of humanitarian personnel to reach certain areas. When the rainy season begins, food will have to be flown in and delivering aid will become even more costly and challenging.
- Worsening relations between Sudan and South Sudan. Violence subsided in Abyei in early June, but relations between the two nations remain tense and fragile due to the situation in Abyei and other unresolved border disputes. An agreement between Sudan and South Sudan in October settled a host of issues including the price of oil exports, but progress has been slow between two nations on resolving the status of Abyei.
*Last Updated November 2012