The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the mandate of the nearly 3,700-strong peacekeeping force in the disputed Abyei region on the Sudan-South Sudan border until Nov. 15.
It also asked Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to provide recommendations for reconfiguring and ending the mission, although Guterres informed the council early last month that he couldn’t provide such options because of differences between the two countries.
Both Sudan and South Sudan claim ownership of the oil-rich Abyei area. The 2005 peace deal that led to South Sudan’s independence from its northern neighbor in 2011 required both sides to work out the final status of region, but it is still unresolved. The U.N. force, known as UNISFA, has been in Abyei since 2011.
The resolution asks Guterres to conduct a strategic review of UNISFA assessing recent political developments between Sudan and South Sudan and provide detailed recommendations by Sept. 30 on reconfiguring the mission “and establishing a viable exit strategy."
It “should prioritize the safety and security of civilians living in Abyei, account for stability of the region, and include an option for an exit strategy for UNISFA that is not limited by the 2011 agreements,” the council said.
When the Security Council extended UNISFA’s mandate last November it asked the secretary-general to hold joint consultations with Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and other key parties to discuss an exit strategy and develop options for its reduction.
Guterres said in the April letter that joint consultations could not be held because of the COVID-19 pandemic so he held separate meeting with senior officials in the three countries.
He said Sudan indicated a reduction in UNISFA’s strength could be considered immediately, “but should proceed gradually over a one-year period” to allow time for both countries to comply with a 2011 agreement on temporary administrative and security arrangements. It would also enable both sides to consult with the African Union and the regional group IGAD on successor arrangements, he said.
Guterres said South Sudan insisted that security concerns in Abyei and in neighboring Western Kordofan warranted UNISFA’s continued presence. “South Sudan rejected the establishment of joint institutions with the Sudan, arguing that previous attempts had resulted in two wars ... due to a lack of trust between the parties,” Guterres said.
He said Ethiopia believes the premature withdrawal of UNISFA would likely lead the security situation in the Abyei area to deteriorate -- a view echoed by the African Union.
Guterres said because of the differences “no options that would be minimally acceptable to the parties could be formulated.”
The resolution adopted Tuesday expressed concern “about Sudan and South Sudan’s efforts to impede UNISFA from fully executing its mandate, including by withholding visas for police, blocking appointment of a civilian deputy head of mission and denying access to Athony airport, which would ease UNISFA’s logistical challenges, reduce transport costs, and enhance safety and security for UNISFA personnel.”
It said the delayed deployment of U.N. police “prevents UNISFA from fulfilling its security and protection mandate and holds the potential to create a security vacuum in Abyei.”
The Security Council urged Sudan and South Sudan to make progress in establishing temporary administrative and security arrangements for Abyei and encouraged the African Union and the U.N. special envoy for the Horn of Africa to intensify their mediation role to achieve those arrangements, which are stipulated in the 2011 agreement.