The U.N. Security Council voted on Friday to establish a force of up to 7,000 peacekeepers for poor, conflict-ravaged but oil-producing South Sudan, which became independent after a referendum.
The unanimous action occurred six years after a 2005 peace deal ended years of war in Sudan, Africa’s largest nation. But the vote also came amid growing fears about conflict in volatile border regions.
The new mission, called UNMISS, calls for up to 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers and an additional 900 civilian police for South Sudan.
“This is a strong signal of support to the new South Sudan,” Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig told reporters.
Wittig, who is U.N. Security Council president for July, said the significant size of the new mission was a “substantial contribution to the security challenges facing South Sudan.”
But Khartoum has made clear it is against a continuing U.N. peacekeeping presence. That has raised concerns about what will happen to places such as northern border state South Kordofan — where the army is fighting armed groups allied to the south — when the U.N.’s UNMIS mandate ends Saturday.
The UNMIS mission, which monitors compliance with the 2005 north-south peace deal, only had a mandate to run until the south’s secession. South Sudan split away from the north on July 9 to create Africa’s newest nation.
Security Council members are working on a draft resolution to wind down UNMIS, a U.N. diplomat said late on Friday.
The draft resolution calls for UNMIS to make the necessary arrangements to withdraw but also calls for U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon to consult with the parties and the African Union on options for U.N. support for South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, the diplomat said.
The draft resolution also says that it is willing to continue U.N. operations with the consent of the parties until new security arrangements are in place, the diplomat said.
Some delegations are keen to adopt the resolution as soon as possible, potentially over the weekend, the diplomat said.
Ban said a week ago that unless decided otherwise, U.N. peacekeepers will have to cease operations in the Southern Kordofan region as of July 9.
The “liquidation” of UNMIS will start Sunday, U.N.’s special envoy to Sudan, Haile Menkerios, said on Thursday.
About 3,000 peacekeepers will start packing up their duffel bags in preparation to depart, tents will be taken down and security equipment will be collected.
“That’s a huge logistical task,” said Michel Bonnardeaux, the spokesman for U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Most of those troops are in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Abyei, while a few are in Khartoum, Bonnardeaux said.
Fighting broke out between the northern military and fighters associated with the south’s dominant political force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), in Southern Kordofan on June 5, stoking tensions ahead of the split.
Members of the north’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the northern branch of the SPLM agreed in late June to take steps regarding security arrangements there.
Ahead of the split, there were calls to keep a U.N. peacekeeping presence in volatile areas in order to protect civilians.
“I have urged the Government of Sudan for technical and practical reasons for an extension of the mandate of the United Nations in Sudan, at least until the situation (in Southern Kordofan) calms down. We can not afford to have any gaps,” Ban told journalists at Sudan’s foreign ministry in Khartoum.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said in a speech Thursday that the U.S. was “extremely concerned by the government’s decision to compel the departure of the U.N. mission in Sudan from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states and elsewhere in the North.”
Leading the helm of South Sudan’s UNMISS is Norwegian diplomat Hilde Johnson, who was most recently deputy director of the U.N. children’s foundation UNICEF and is also author of a new book on Sudan, the U.N. announced on Friday.
The mandate to establish peacekeeping forces in South Sudan calls for reviews after three and six months to see whether conditions on the ground allow for a reduction of peacekeepers to 6,000.
A number of aid agencies have called on the United Nations to increase the number of troops to be deployed to South Sudan. Oxfam has argued that the country has little capacity to protect its own population despite its commitment to do so.
However, several countries have been challenging the U.N. Secretariat to produce evidence that as many as 7,000 troops are still needed, a Western diplomat said on Wednesday.
About 7,000 troops are already in South Sudan but working under the UNMIS mandate.
The U.N. has its biggest peacekeeping mandate in Darfur where, together with the African Union, it has a mandate for some 20,000 troops.
It is also deploying 4,200 Ethiopian troops in Abyei for a six-month period under a mission called UNISFA.