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.
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.