Updates Below, with reactions from key member states

South Sudan is on the verge of a famine. So why would the country expel the one UN official in charge of coordinating international aid to stave off mass starvation?

The numbers are staggering.  Some 1.5 million people are internally displaced by a civil war that erupted last year and half a million people have fled as refugees. This includes over 121,ooo people who fled to UN Peacekeeping bases that are serving as de-facto IDP camps. The food security situation is particularly worrisome. We are now in the middle of what’s known as “lean season” and some 4.6 million people are considered “extremely food insecure.” The ability of humanitarian agencies to do their job has been hampered by ongoing fighting, looting and general insecurity.

According to the World Food Program, South Sudan faces “the worst levels of food insecurity in the young country’s history” in which “millions of people in South Sudan are trapped by a terrible mix of brutal conflict, rising hunger and a deepening economic crisis.”

Given this morass, you would think the Government of South Sudan would do all it can to support the efforts of the United Nations humanitarians who are doing what they can to help South Sudanese, despite the huge challenges.

Alas, that’s not the case. Just yesterday, the government in Juba expelled the top UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Toby Lanzer. Apparently, they didn’t appreciate the perfectly factual things he’s been Tweeting.

@TobyLanzer, who I’ve followed for months, is an important source of news from South Sudan, particularly as it relates to humanitarian issues.  Here are a sample of of his tweets that seemed to have piqued Juba.

Toby Lanzer Tweets

 

As you can see, it’s hardly controversial stuff. But apparently, the government in Juba found these factual statements too hard to face. The AFP reported that Juba is justifying the expulsions because Lanzer’s Tweets were “not giving hope to the people of South Sudan.”

“The mandate of the United Nations in South Sudan is to supplement, is to support the government of South Sudan, it is not to cause a havoc,” government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told reporters.

He said the UN’s outspoken aid coordinator Toby Lanzer had crossed the line.

“He has made a statement which is not responsible and completely against the government. Toby Lanzer’s statement was not giving hope to the people of South Sudan given that he was predicting the total collapse” of the country that is wracked by civil war, he added.

What makes this all the more curious is that Lanzer was scheduled to leave South Sudan in just a few weeks to take up a new job as the humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel crisis. But rather than wait a short while, the South Sudanese government apparently wanted to send a message to the UN that publicly discussing South Sudan’s immense humanitarian challenges, insecurity and instability is not to be tolerated.

Ban Ki Moon has issued a harsh statement criticizing Juba’s decision to expel Lanzer. But harsh statements are pretty much the fullest extent of what he can do to try and reverse Juba’s decision.

The Security Council, on the other hand, has previously warned that government officials and rebel fights who are undermining peace efforts may be singled out for targeted sanctions, like a travel ban and asset freeze. This includes individuals who are:

“obstructing the work of international peacekeeping, diplomatic or humanitarian missions or hindering the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid or access to such aid” (emphasis mine).

The ball is very much now in the Security Council’s court. They now have a decision to make on how to respond to this affront from the government. It would seem only appropriate that as lean season sets in and the scourge of a potential famine looms on the horizon, that the Security Council sends a strong message that interfering with humanitarian operations is not to be tolerated.

UPDATE: Key member states are starting to pile on the government of South Sudan and have joined Ban Ki Moon’s demand that Juba reverse this decision. Yesterday, a number of European countries and Canada issued the following statement.

“The European Union Delegation, the Heads of Missions of Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, The United Kingdom and the Heads of Mission of Canada and of Switzerland issue the following statement in South Sudan:

The Heads of Mission join UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in condemning the decision of the Government of South Sudan to expel Mr Toby Lanzer, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General.

Mr Lanzer has spared no effort on behalf of the millions of victims of the man-made crisis in South Sudan. He has echoed the views of many members of the international community who believe it is time that the leaders of South Sudan pay heed to the suffering of their people, and make the decisions and compromises that their people and the deepening humanitarian tragedy demand.

The Heads of Mission call for Mr Lanzer to be reinstated and to be allowed to serve out the term of his appointment.

The Heads of Mission further call for all those who are working in the humanitarian field, from UN Agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations alike, to be accorded full respect and for their vital work to be facilitated by the Government of South Sudan.”

So far, the public response from the USA has come in a series of pointed Tweets from Samantha Power. (And you know Juba follows Twitter chatter closely!)

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And here is a Tweet from the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, Sheba Crocker

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And here is the full statement from the State Department:

The United States condemns the Government of South Sudan’s decision to expel the United Nations Deputy Special Representative in South Sudan and Humanitarian Coordinator of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), Toby Lanzer. The expulsion of Mr. Lanzer is an affront to the international community working to bring peace and stability to South Sudan, and demonstrates a callous disregard for the suffering of the South Sudanese people. The government’s priority should be bringing an end to the violence that has already displaced more than 2 million of its citizens – half a million of whom are now refugees in neighbouring countries – and left 4.6 million facing extreme, life-threatening hunger.

The United States has contributed more than $1.1 billion in emergency aid to house, feed, provide medical services and improve water, sanitation, and hygiene services for the people of South Sudan. We strongly support the work of the UN Mission in South Sudan and that of Mr. Lanzer who has been instrumental in addressing the dire humanitarian needs of conflict-affected communities and has been a strong partner and advocate for vulnerable populations in South Sudan.

We join UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other governments in calling on the Government of South Sudan to reverse its decision and to cooperate fully with all United Nations entities present in South Sudan, as well as other international organizations working on behalf of the South Sudanese people.

Taken in sum, these statements are not quite an ultimatum from the USA. But they are certainly a step in that direction. And the Security Council is certainly empowered to take actions to punish the government of South Sudan for expelling a UN humanitarian worker.

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