Humanitarian Crisis in South Sudan: International Committee of Red Cross

I am delighted to welcome Mr. Franz Rauchenstein, head of delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, in South Sudan, who is accompanied by Mr. Paul Castella, head of mission, ICRC, London, and Ms Gillian McCarthy of the Irish Red Cross. I extend a warm welcome to each of them. Their presentation will provide an opportunity for members to receive a first-hand account of the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan and the aid being provided. We are all pleased that the protracted peace talks finally culminated in the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in August and hope it will lead to a way forward in resolving the issues which were the cause of such terrible tragedies in South Sudan.

The joint committee has taken a very keen interest in what has been happening in this region. When it visited Ethiopia three years ago, it visited a refugee camp on the border with South Sudan. We spoke to refugees who had fled their homes as a result of the conflict in South Sudan. At the time we were aware that there was the potential for enormous problems in South Sudan in terms of famine and hunger, but I hope some of them have been avoided. Perhaps the delegation might update us in that regard. When I was in Uganda last year, I met the Minister for Foreign Affairs who updated me on the situation there. We are looking forward to the presentation because sometimes issues such as the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan go off the radar and our television screens as others arise such as what is happening in the Middle East and the migrant crisis. We are aware that there are real problems in South Sudan.

After the delegates have made their presentation, I will invite members to ask questions about the work of the ICRC in South Sudan. We are delighted to have the delegates present. We have not had a meeting with the ICRC for some time and look forward to further meetings to discuss its work. It has an important role to play in areas of conflict and dealing with humanitarian issues.

I remind members, delegates and those in the Visitors Gallery to switch off their mobile phones for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the recording equipment, even when left in silent mode. I also remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are further directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I invite Mr. Rauchenstein to make his presentation to the committee.

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

I thank the Chairman and other committee members.

South Sudan is the newest nation in the world, having been created in 2011. Several months after the creation of this new state, an intense power struggle between the two leaders of the country, Riek Machar on one side and President Salva Kiir Mayardit on the other, triggered a conflict that escalated rapidly along ethnic lines. Today, 20 months after the outbreak of the recent conflict, the situation is South Sudan is dire.

As members can see from the map provided, the green area in the north east of the country is called the greater upper Nile region. After the conflict broke out, many of the hostilities took place in this region, especially in newly inhabited areas of the greater upper Nile and Unity State. Today, 1.6 million people are internally displaced, mainly in the green area shown on the map. This is the priority zone for the ICRC and the place where we are most active. Much of it is inaccessible because it is mainly rural and there are very few roads. For six months of the year it is swampy; therefore, the transportation of goods and personnel into the area requires helicopters and aeroplanes, which makes humanitarian action very difficult.

Six or seven ceasefire agreements have been concluded so far, but each time hostilities have continued, especially along the front lines in the areas indicated, displacing more people and further displacing those who had already sought refuge in other areas. Four or five weeks ago a fragile peace agreement was reached, but as events of yesterday and today illustrate, it has not stopped ongoing hostilities.

As we speak, there are clashes in Unity State and more to the south of the country in the Equatorias.

The humanitarian situation is very dire. As I told the committee, 1.6 million people are displaced in those areas and the primary concern is the food need those people have. They are agri-pastoralists who base their livelihood on three pillars, namely, fish, planting and cattle, and all three pillars have been affected. The cattle have been massively depleted, the planting season has not been good as displaced people cannot plant or can only randomly plant, and some have been driven away from river beds where they are normally able to fish. It is estimated that 60% of the population of South Sudan, especially the displaced in areas that are difficult to access, are highly food insecure and are dependent on food aid as it guarantees their immediate survival.

During the conflict, health structures have been massively destroyed and it is estimated that more than 100 health structures in a country that already had one of the weakest health coverages worldwide have been either looted or destroyed. Other services are equally very weak or non-existent and the most vulnerable of the displaced are in areas difficult to access, so it is a fight for life and one of the worst humanitarian situations in the world today.

Last year, the ICRC rapidly deployed an emergency response to what happened, especially in these difficult to access areas in the north east. We established a food pipeline and regular food air drops to ensure the nutrition of many thousands of displaced people. This, combined with health services to the many wounded due to the fighting, comprises the emergency response of the ICRC and is shown on the slide. Some 1.3 million food rations have been distributed and non-food items have also been provided, such as tarpaulins for people who have been displaced. We have always tried to combine food aid with livelihood and resilience activities to create independence for the population, where possible, and we have provided seeds, tools and fishing kits, as well as vaccinating cattle to enhance the resilience of the affected population. We have worked together with the Ministry of Agriculture, especially in cattle vaccination. Cattle are very important in South Sudan. There are more cattle than inhabitants and every family has some cattle, which helps to increase the resilience of the family. The little children get the milk of the cow and the adults slaughter it when there is no other way to feed the family.

Beside the emergency response, in terms of livelihood and nutrition the medical aspect is very important. There are numerous war wounded of the conflict and, in the past 20 months, we have mobilised five mobile surgical teams to operate on war wounds on both civilians and weapon bearers in some 14 makeshift clinics in the bush. In total, 6,500 life-saving surgeries have been carried out in that period, which is a big logistical effort because often the wounded have to be collected by helicopter or aeroplane close to the front line and brought to areas where life-saving surgeries can be carried out. More comprehensive health care was given in hospitals and in primary health care centres. The ICRC supported this because health services in those areas are almost non-existent and many people die of common pathologies such as malaria and cholera if not treated immediately.

The third pillar of the ICRC is training and many of the weapon bearers, be they soldiers or fighting for the opposition army, have been trained to better respect international humanitarian law, such as the Geneva Convention. We established a confidential dialogue with the commanders of each party and accompanied this dialogue with recommendations on how to ensure better respect of civilians.

The outlook for South Sudan is not very positive. A fragile peace agreement has been concluded but very recent developments show that even if this peace agreement holds, the process will be very long and rocky. Regardless of that, the humanitarian needs in South Sudan will last for many years to come. Civilians will not go back to their homes, often to their destroyed villages, and invest in rebuilding if there is not a more solid peace and if there are no positive signs that they can trust in the future. The role of the international community is very important in the sense that parties to the conflict have to be reminded to respect the civilian population and basic rules of humanitarian law, but financial support is highly necessary. I thank the Irish Government for its continued support to the ICRC and to humanitarian action on the whole. I also thank the Irish Red Cross which very recently collected funds for the ICRC. I express my thanks to the Irish people for their help in alleviating the suffering of the population in one of the worst crises of the world.

I thank Mr. Rauchenstein for the update. The situation there is dire, the economic situation is very difficult and the terrain is very difficult, given that it is a mountainous region in which getting around is very difficult. The peace process was signed last August but what stage is the process at now? How does Mr. Rauchenstein see it moving forward?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

The peace agreement has been signed with very tight deadlines for the withdrawal of troops and the confinement of troops, but these deadlines have not been met. There have been recent signs that both parties might extend the reservations made with regard to this paper, which is a framework and does not deal with the details. There has been a working group comprising the high commanders of each party, but two weeks ago in Addis Ababa, they could not gather behind one strategy on how to start the implementation of this peace agreement.

Is there still violence?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

There is ongoing violence. The peace agreement led to a pacification of the situation for three or four weeks and observers were very hopeful. In recent days, hostilities have increased again, especially in Unity State but now also in Equatoria. It is now a very sensitive moment and if those hostilities cannot be contained a widening of hostilities can be expected.

I will hand over now to Deputy Brendan Smith. We will have questions from everybody rather than statements and there will be interaction between the witness and the members.

I thank the Chairman and welcome the presentation. The witness mentioned the phrase "very dire" twice in his introductory remarks on the humanitarian situation and, indeed, the political situation that exists in South Sudan. The Chairman, in his remarks, mentioned that because there are so many crises throughout the world, the South Sudan crisis may not be in the public awareness as much as it needs to be, as the refugee problems in the Middle East and north Africa are at the moment and the conflict in Israel and Palestine and the growth of ISIS was in August 2014. South Sudan probably does not have the public awareness that it needs to have of the contributions and assistance of organisations such as the ICRC that are working there in most difficult circumstances. Following on from the Chairman's question, the establishment of the world's newest independent state was followed two years after by a devastating civil war. Has the international community - the United Nations, the United States or the European Union - been active in trying to assist in brokering peace? I fully understand that it is not straightforward or easy. On the violation-----

Will Mr. Rauchenstein address that question first and then I will hand back to Deputy Smith?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

Indeed, some members of the international community have been very active. For example, what is called the troika - the US, the UK, and Norway - has been part of the negotiating team. China, the African Union and the EU have been accompanying the mediators from the IGAD, which is the sub-regional organisation, to broker and try to motivate the parties to adhere to this peace agreement. These efforts have been made and the visit of President Obama to Addis Ababa very recently has given an additional push to the signing of this agreement.

On the humanitarian crisis - 2.2 million people have fled their homes and more than 1.6 million people have been displaced internally, which includes almost 900,000 children, and 620,000 people are refugees in neighbouring countries. It is my understanding, and maybe the witness will expand on it, that there has been an increase in hostilities recently and there have even been attacks on humanitarian organisations while carrying out their work. I think there may have been an attack on an ICRC compound in the past few days. Has the international community been in any way responsive to the need for additional humanitarian assistance? Mr. Rauchenstein mentioned the difficulty of getting humanitarian aid to the most needy people because of the difficulty in accessing the areas where they live. Obviously, there are additional costs when the humanitarian aid has to be delivered by plane or helicopter. Is Mr. Rauchenstein reasonably confident that the majority of the people who are in great need are getting at least some humanitarian assistance? From the point of view of the ICRC and other organisations that carry out exceptionally good work in those particular areas, is Mr. Rauchenstein confident that there are enough resources to try to meet in some meaningful way the terrible humanitarian disaster facing so many innocent and downtrodden people?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

I thank Deputy Smith for this question. It is a pertinent question because humanitarian action in South Sudan includes the activities of the ICRC and the programmes of the ICRC are among the most under-funded in the world. Activities have to be prioritised with the means available and prioritisation means reaching out to the most vulnerable exactly in those areas where it is also the most expensive to intervene. As the Deputy rightly points out, in some areas of Unity, which is the place where the ICRC team had to be evacuated two days ago, several tens of thousands of people are trapped in remote areas. They cannot leave for a neighbouring country but have to stay there and they have to be assisted. It is very difficult and very expensive. The difficulties are multi-sectoral. One of the difficulties is the lack of respect of the soldiers or weapon bearers for the humanitarian action. Additional efforts can be made there by the international community on the ground and by the commanders so that humanitarian actors are more respected because that is the conditio sine qua non for a humanitarian intervention.

Deputy Durkan has a question or two. We will have questions if we can.

I thank the Chairman and the guests for their presentation. Is there any evidence that the international community is becoming seriously concerned about the situation there? To what extent has it put in place any plans to become involved in a meaningful way to try to ensure the safeguarding of human rights and that in the aftermath of conflict that the whole situation will not slide back into conflict once again? I am critical of, as I have been in the past and as others have been, the UN and its ability or willingness to deploy itself in situations such as the one that exists in South Sudan. To my mind, it looks like an ideal location for the services provided by the UN - peacekeeping, in particular; peace enforcement; humanitarian work; or whatever they want to get involved in. What evidence and to what extent has the ICRC used its influence with the UN to try to ensure that it makes a meaningful input?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

The first question is also a very pertinent one now. Much of the effort being made by the international community is on the implementation of this peace agreement. What is the risk? The risk is that the humanitarian needs that need to be immediately addressed will be forgotten and that people will die of hunger or illness if this humanitarian access, which is especially challenging in the greater upper Nile, is not addressed. In that sense, I think, the international community has to do more. It is done also by certain actors on the ground but more has to be done. We have always insisted that the UN peace-keeping forces go out of their bases and also deploy in opposition-held areas. Recently there has been a long-term patrol by the UN taking place in Unity. That was welcomed in the following weeks. Another temporary operating base in Unity is planned, which is also something that is welcomed by the ICRC and other humanitarian actors because it might calm down the situation in those very sensitive areas. It is very clear that this should be done on a wider scale.

I thank the witness for the presentation. I understand that it was pressure from the US and the UN Security Council threatening sanctions that encouraged the president to sign the peace agreement a week after he said he would not sign it. It will be very fragile. It sounds like a temporary peace and, again, it comes down to the monitoring of the agreement within that peace. Who is playing that role? That is my first question.

I chair the Irish section of AWEPA, which has a programme in Sudan that works with local councils on capacity building and peace and reconciliation. It also works with female MPs.

Are they functioning and what role do they have with the organisation for the various communities they represent?

We will get a response to those two questions and I will return to the Deputy.

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

With regard to the peace agreement, it is important that the pressure does not stop when the signature is on the peace agreement, but that the entire process is accompanied by the international community and countries that are not physically represented in South Sudan. Under the UN system, they have a role to play through the humanitarian actors accompanying this process. Accompaniment presence and a certain pressure are absolutely necessary for this peace agreement to advance because it is not an end in itself. It is a long process and this must be maintained.

Regarding peace and reconciliation and the role of women in South Sudan, this is something that must be addressed, probably in the longer term. There are important reconciliation needs already. After the conclusion of the comprehensive peace agreement - the peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudan - reconciliation efforts should have been addressed. They were not addressed to the extent necessary. This absolutely must be tackled immediately but it will probably take much more time.

A friend of mine has returned from South Sudan after working there with a small NGO, particularly with children who have been lost. There are great stories about children being reconciled with their families. However, a major concern is the vulnerability of girls and women to rape and sexual assault when these raids or conflicts take place. Again, that programme is important.

With regard to Juba and Khartoum, does the witness notice a difference in the way the conflict has affected each of those cities?

To add a question, are there child soldiers there too?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

Juba and Khartoum both have converging interests in the situation. Khartoum profits and benefits from the oil exports of South Sudan. South Sudan depends on the pipeline of Sudan, so both have an interest in the stability of the situation. In that sense, the conflict has not negatively affected the relationship between both countries.

There are, of course, child soldiers in the various armed groups. In that regard, the ICRC has always put much effort into having the Geneva Conventions respected and those children demobilised. South Sudan is also part of the UNICEF plan of action to demobilise child soldiers, so there is enough pressure on the parties to demobilise the child soldiers who are currently deployed.

The Deputy mentioned the sexual violence against women. Boys are also sometimes victims. This is a very big concern. It is very difficult to address in South Sudan as it carries a high stigma. The victims do not come forward naturally and seek medical care and psychological support, so it is difficult to access those victims. However, it is also something that is addressed, and it is also addressed by the ICRC.

When we visited Ethiopia we saw the refugee camp. Obviously, we saw the difficult situation in which the refugees are living and the difficulties even in the social life in the camp, including those who exploit their fellow refugees. We were concerned at the time about a developing situation. Can the witness cast any light on the improvements and initiatives that have been carried out in the refugee camps and centres, especially by the UN?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

Working inside South Sudan, we have not followed the situation in the refugee camps directly but our neighbouring delegations have been there. Together with the national Red Cross societies of those countries, they have also carried out tracing work and reuniting, where pertinent and possible, children with their families. I would dare to make an assumption that the living conditions, which might be very difficult in refugee camps, are still considerably better than the destiny of the displaced in South Sudan. Of course, there is the security constraint. People have to displace, have to be very agile and cannot create some type of livelihood, while in refugee camps children have access to basic education and food is provided. However, the living conditions are very harsh in the refugee camps.

Have the refugees started returning home to South Sudan?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

No, they have not. We are still in a position where more refugees are leaving the country, especially those along front lines. Also, they are sometimes leaving due to hunger because they are not assisted.

The witness has painted a very depressing picture. We are talking about a failed state and primitive society. The positive aspect is the tentative peace process. How is the Red Cross documenting the war crimes that are clearly evident there?

Regarding the tentative peace process, I read last Friday that President Salva Kiir had ordered the number of regional states to be nearly tripled from ten to 28. This will have long-term implications. It renders the agreed power-sharing formula redundant and will increase ethnic tensions. Many have said that this will cause the collapse of the deal. What is the view of the witness on these recent developments?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

With regard to the war crimes, the ICRC supports accountability for violations of international humanitarian law that are committed. Our way of working with the parties - as we are working on both sides we must be very present in the field - is the confidentiality of the dialogue. When we come across violations of humanitarian law we have a direct dialogue with the commanders, submitting those allegations of violations of humanitarian law and recommending how to improve and what type of measures must be taken. However, we are not directly involved in accountability measures as an institution. I agree on the importance of general accountability for people who commit war crimes.

With regard to the decree of President Salva Kiir to create 18 other states, this is likely perceived as undermining the spirit of the peace agreement. There are also some legal constraints that probably accompany it, as it is also perceived as being anti-constitutional. It is a very unfortunate moment, two or three weeks after the signature of a peace agreement, to make such a decree. This is also putting in doubt the power-sharing formula that has been agreed in the peace agreement. It probably would have been better to make it later, if such a step would be necessary. It is probably not very fortunate timing.

Clearly, we are seeing the unravelling of the peace agreement through this action by the president-elect.

The witness spoke about capacity building on the ground, Red Cross branches, local volunteers, local staff and so forth. Will he expand on that?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

Many of the activities we carried out were carried out hand in hand with the South Sudan Red Cross, which is also the youngest national society worldwide that has, for the time being, a rather limited capacity. We integrated teams, worked with and empowered them to carry out their own projects in conflict-affected areas. We hope to contribute to a stronger national society. We are investing much energy and - it must be said - funds in forming what are called emergency action teams, which are rapidly able to intervene in case of disaster, whether man-made or natural, in order to support victims. This is something we are committed to, together with participating national societies from other parts of the world.

The witness congratulated the Irish Government and people. What else can the Government, in particular, do? If he has a message for it this morning, what else can the Government do? Could we do something at the international level relating to the mandate of international peacekeeping in the area?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

My message would be to support the peace process as far as possible. Through the country's footprint on the ground, we ask that the embassy encourage the authorities to respect the basic rules of humanitarian law. What is of the utmost importance for the next month is that humanitarian actors get access to the difficult areas where civilians are trapped. Any support in that regard is very beneficial.

I join in welcoming our visitors. They have presented a very harrowing picture this morning and we are certainly deeply concerned about it. With regard to the very tentative peace agreement, are all the key players at the table? What are the implications for breaches of the agreement? Are there any sanctions? Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked about the monitoring. Irish Aid provided nearly €25 million since 2012 but how adequate is the aid available from the international community to meet the basic needs of the people?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

As I stated, the humanitarian action is underfunded because there are other priorities and it is a protracted conflict. Nobody knows when we will see the exact end. This is also about saving lives. Although the conflict might be protracted, every contribution is very helpful and necessary.

In the peace agreement, there are no sanctions foreseen for not respecting or meeting deadlines but there is a wider frame of possible UN sanctions that might be decreed or voted, should some of the parties not abide by the peace agreement. There are no direct sanctions. What was the first question?

I was wondering about the key players.

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

It is assumed that everybody who had to sign the peace agreement has done so. These are the various parties. There is a possible risk of fragmentation, as some people are not happy any more and might break away. That is always possible but if there is a common effort to address humanitarian needs and advance the process, it would help to avoid this.

The witness might say a word or two about the very basic educational system in place. Are there any indications that those in conflict see the bigger picture, such as that multinational companies would be prepared to invest in the country and bring about some prosperity if the conflict was ended for good?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

The educational system is very bad; there are 10% of children attending primary school. Secondary school attendance is absolutely marginal, so education must be addressed very soon. In conflict areas, schooling is for the time being very rudimentary. The country is in an economic crisis and there is a very blatant black market, with the value of the local currency decreasing, which makes it very difficult for enterprises to import, buy dollars and make the economy advance. We are in a sequence where people are leaving the country and are not interested in working there. This could of course be turned around but for the time being, that is not the case.

I wish to ask a question on access for non-governmental organisations, NGOs. Has that improved or can they move reasonably safely?

Mr. Franz Rauchenstein

That is also a very good question, so thank you. Access is one of the major problems today in the conflict-affected areas. In certain parts of Unity and Upper Nile, there is fragmentation of armed groups. There are smaller groups operating and security guarantees for NGOs or international humanitarian actors are difficult to achieve. Our team had security guarantees from both of the parties but we were nevertheless looted and threatened, which demonstrates the volatility of the situation. It must be safe to distribute humanitarian aid and if harm is created by distributing aid, the effect must be considered. It is a worrying element as sometimes, humanitarian aid is looted after it has been distributed.

Do any other witnesses wish to contribute? If not, and members have no further questions, I thank the witnesses sincerely for the comprehensive presentation and for the way in which they answered questions from members. I thank members for the direct questions, which were answered in a very direct way as well. We look forward to an improvement of the situation in South Sudan. It is fragile and volatile but we hope the political process can move on. I know elections have been postponed to 2017 but we hope they will take place in an open and transparent way for the people of South Sudan. We will keep monitoring the issue on this committee. We would like to see more interaction between the Red Cross and ourselves as it plays a very comprehensive role. We will keep in touch. I thank the witnesses for coming before us, as South Sudan was on our work programme. It is great to have had the head of the International Red Cross in South Sudan before us to answer questions from members and update us not just on the political position but what is happening on the ground for people and NGOs.

I remind members that there will be an informal meeting in the afternoon with a delegation from Somaliland, so Africa is very much on the agenda. The foreign Minister will be here and it is to be led by the President's son, Mr. Michael Higgins, Jr. I would appreciate it if as many people as possible could come to the meeting at 2.30 p.m. We have a budget next week and some will be relieved to know there is no formal meeting because of the many expected votes.

The joint committee adjourned at 11 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 October 2015.