Volker Perthes: Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan is an important first step in the right direction
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sudan and Head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), Mr. Volker Perthes, was today’s guest at the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) Geneva regular press briefing, via video conference from Port Sudan.
He briefed the journalists on the latest events in Sudan including Jeddah talks noting that the Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan signed yesterday was an important first step in the right direction.
“Aside from that I think the most important element of this understanding that was signed last night is that both sides commit to continuing their talks under the mediation of Saudis and the Americans.”
The SRSG remains in contact with the parties. He was able to contact one of them this morning and they assured him of their intentions to continue the discussions on a ceasefire, a real ceasefire.
He indicated to the journalists in Geneva that “a real cease fire would have to go along with a monitoring verification mechanism.”
Asked about the threat to his life and calls for him to step down, the SRSG pointed out that in the past there were very few extremists making threats over the internet against him in person- which is not something the mission look at lightly – but said that the general attitude of our Sudanese hosts (state and warring parties and people) is not like that, clarifying that “there is a general appreciation of what the United Nations does.”
He mentioned the criticism from certain parties such as accusing the United Nations of coming too late, or not doing enough, pointing out in this regard to the real difficulties on the ground, like the looting of WFP, UNICEF and other agencies’ premises and supplies, which makes it difficult to the UN to distribute aid.
“what you are asking for, and rightly so, brings us to actually press on the warring parties, but also on the governors, the Walis in the different states of Darfur, the arm groups signatories to the Juba Peace Agreement to say it is your interest - not only your obligation under international law- it's your interest that UN premises, UN warehouses, UN vehicles, UN offices are actually protected because otherwise it will be very, very challenging for us to deliver.”
Talking about “the one or two smaller demonstrations” allegedly organized by people from the old regime overthrown in 2019 against his presence in Port Sudan, Mr. Perthes explained that there were up to 150, 200 people who gathered around the hotel where he resides. For him, “it is a freedom of expression, and of course we respected but it doesn't mean that because 200 people say that I should leave, I would leave. My presence here is coordinated with the state.”
“In this phase the UN is promoting ceasefire, promoting the coordination of humanitarian support, and I would judge from my vantage point, that's a great majority of the Sudanese, are not only respecting that, but they wish us to stay here and to do exactly the work,” he added.
A UN hub was set up in Port Sudan with a leadership team formed both by UNITAMS and humanitarian agencies. “One of the most important tasks for us here in Port Sudan is to oversee and coordinate humanitarian support to Sudan, which is for the time being, mostly has to go through the city either by air or the sea” explained Perthes responding to what is the SRSG and the UN in general are currently doing.
He spoke about the particular tasks of UNITAMS as political mission and a particular task of an SRSG, among which “contributing from the sidelines for the time being, but that may soon change, to the discussions on ceasefire and ceasefire modalities”, highlighting the regional activities including working with the African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and other regional international partners in the Horn of Africa which are being conducted from the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
The SRSG and his team are either here in Port Sudan or in the region to participate in these attempts to not only have a short-term ceasefire, but also to have more comprehensive talks about ending the conflict or restoring peace in the country.
The ceasefire would allow humanitarian aid and rehabilitation of damaged civilian infrastructure.
Stressing that “we are here, and we are staying here”, the SRSG said that there will be a fresh look at political processes.
“There has to be some form of political process. That's a little bit into the future, but probably not too far away, and we know that's the regional actors, African Union and IGAD are already heavily involved in preparing one of the tasks for the United Nations, and the SRSG is helping to coordinate that, so we don't have too many initiatives, but that we have a coordinated and coherent approach of all regional international actors.”
-To watch the full press conference please click here.
-You can find below a near-verbatim transcript of the SRSG briefing to journalists in Geneva that was moderated by Rolando Gómez, Chief, a.i., Press and External Relations Section, United Nations Information Service at Geneva.
Rolando: Colleagues who have a question perhaps here in the room before going to zoom. Any questions? No. No. There's no opening statement. Sorry. No opening statement. Okay. okay. We have a question from Nina of Agence France Press, go ahead. Nina.
Thank you very much for taking my question. Could you say a little bit about what you think about the agreement that was reached in, in Jeddah last night? And if you're disappointed that it didn't go further in terms of ceasefire. Thank you.
SRSG Volker Perthes: Well, thank you, Nina. I'm not sure they call it an agreement. It is definitely an understanding. It's mutual commitment and that's important. It's commitment on humanitarian access on, or if you want to call it an agreement on humanitarian commitments. That's probably the correct word here. I think it is a first step. It is an important step and maybe aside from the humanitarian commitments, which two parties should respect anyway, because most of these commitments reflect international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Aside from that I think the most important element of this understanding that was signed last night is that both sides commit to continue their talks under the mediation of Saudis and the Americans. I spoke to one of the two parties this morning asking them about their plans. And they have told me that they intend to stay and to continue the discussions on a ceasefire, a real ceasefire, some of them said, we understand, our understanding is at the end, the understanding of the mediators which was publicized, is that a real ceasefire would have to go along with a monitoring mechanism, monitoring and verification mechanism.
Thank you very much, Mr. Perthes. I should just point out colleagues at moments ago, we just shared the statement by the Trilateral Mechanism on the signing of the Declaration of Commitment to protect the civilians of Sudan, which was agreed in Jeddah last night. We just shared that statement with you moments ago by email. Second question from Jan Herberman from German newspaper freelancer. Go ahead.
Yes, Good Morning. I would like to follow up on Nina's questions. Since the conflict started in mid-April, the parties have agreed on several ceasefires and all of them have been broken. So how optimistic are you that the parties honor this agreement that has been reached in Jeddah?
SRSG Volker Perthes: Well, those of you colleagues who have seen me over the last decades from a journalistic point, you know, I never answered a question of optimism or pessimism. We try to have a realistic assessment of things, and we are trying to make things work. So that's a better scenario could materialize. But to your concrete question and it's a good one. I think the deficiency of the earlier ceasefires and humanitarian forces, some of which we brokered, some of which the Americans, the Saudis, the brokered, some of which the president of South Sudan brokered, the deficiency here was that these were all unilateral announcements of respecting a ceasefire and thereby responding to requests from the UN, the Trilateral, the US, South Sudan, and others. So, this is the first time that we have a mutual declaration on something, which is not a ceasefire, but a mutual signed declaration of the two warring parties on respecting international humanitarian law and international human rights law, and some more concrete provisions like vacating hospitals and medical facilities, which is good.
And of course, the aim is to have a ceasefire, which is also mutually agreed, which I hope would give more stability and more respect to ceasefire than when it is only based on unilateral declarations, even if it's unilateral declaration from both sides, responding to the requests of facilitators or mediators. The advantage of mutual agreement aside from the commitment and signing it and being in writing, is that it would need an agreement on the modalities of the ceasefire. I mean, what does a ceasefire actually include? What does it say on the movement of troops? What does it say on humanitarian process? What does it say on contact officers, et cetera. So, in an agreement which we hope the mediators, Saudis and Americans will reach within the next couple of days, we would have more provisions about what's the nature and the modalities of the ceasefire actually are.
Thank you, sir. We now have Christian from the German News Agency. Christian, go ahead.
Thank you. [German language] Maybe you can enlighten us a little bit on what concretely you are doing now and what your purpose is in port Sudan and probably elsewhere in the region. Maybe you can take us a little bit through your own movements and talks. Thank you.
SRSG Volker Perthes: Thank you. Christiana. As you know, we have set up a UN hub here in Port Sudan with a leadership team, both from UNITAMS as well as from the humanitarian agencies. Port Sudan [inaudible] the rest of the world, particularly for humanitarian supplies. So, one of the most important tasks for us here in Port Sudan is to oversee and coordinate humanitarian support to Sudan, which is for the time being, mostly has to go through the city either by air, or coming from the sea. Then of course, with the particular tasks of a political mission and a particular task of an SRSG, we are contributing from the sidelines for the time being, but that may soon change, to the discussions on ceasefire and ceasefire modalities, and we are contributing expertise into that. And of course, there is, as you already indicated, the regional dimension of working together with the African Union and with IGAD and with other regional international partners, lot of activities now here in the Horn of Africa being led or conducted from and in the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
So, I have, I have my team either here in Port Sudan or in the region to participate in these attempts to not only have a short-term ceasefire, which of course has priority, but also to have more comprehensive talks about ending the conflict or restoring peace in the country. And all this particularly, the first steps ceasefire in order to allow humanitarian aid and rehabilitation of damaged civilian infrastructure, et cetera. Then at some point, and we are here, and we are staying here, there will be a fresh look at political processes. There has to be some form of political process. That's a little bit into the future, but probably not too far away, and we know that's the regional actors, African Union and IGAD are already heavily involved in preparing one of the tasks for the United Nations, and the SRSG is helping to coordinate that, so we don't have too many initiatives, but that we have a coordinated and coherent approach of all regional international actors.
Thank you. Mr. Perthes, we now have Jack Jeffrey of the Associated Press.
Go ahead, Jack.
As I, as I'm as I'm sure you know, there's been threats to your life made also quite a few calls for you to step down. I was wondering what, what your near future was: Are you planning to stay in your position in Port Sudan? So, if you could elaborate on that a little bit, please.
SRSG Volker Perthes: We have in the past, basically since I've been here, had a few, very few extremists making threats over the internet against me in person, this is true. That's something we have to deal with in many places. The authorities here are informed, and of course we look at these things without taking some too lightly, but the general attitude of our Sudanese hosts (state and warring parties and people) is not like that. There's a general appreciation of what the United Nations does. There is criticism as always of the United Nations coming too late, or not doing enough. We hear that we have to point to the real difficulties, like our warehouses, warehouses of WFP or UNICEF or others are looted, it's very difficult to distribute aid. There is criticism about the UN involvement in trying to get a political agreement, but this, to be very honest, is part of the political divides and the political conflicts which the country has seen.
So, it's often easy to put some blame on external facilitators if parties in a political conflict or now in a military conflict, don't agree with one another. We have and you appropriately alluded to that, we have had one or two smaller demonstrations here allegedly organized by people from the old regime overthrown in 2019 against my presence in Port Sudan. There were up to 150, 200 people who were gathered around the hotel. There was freedom of expression, and of course we respected it but it doesn't mean that because 200 people say that I should leave, I would leave. My presence here is coordinated with the state. And of course, as I make clear, it is about in this phase promoting ceasefire, promoting the coordination of humanitarian support, and I would judge from my vantage point, that's a great majority of the Sudanese, are not only respecting that, but they wish us to stay here and to do exactly the work we do.
Thank you, sir. We'll turn now to Emma Far Reuters. Go ahead.
Good morning. Good morning. Thanks so much for briefing us. So, are you of a short-term ceasefire in the coming days based on urinalysis of the situation and why, why not? And secondly, could you tell us a bit more about how the deal to protect civilians will actually be implemented? Thank you.
SRSG Volker Perthes: Look, we have an agreement or understanding from yesterday night, and we do have to see how the parties are prepared to respect it. We have already in the last weeks been able to reach out to one or to the other party and talk to them about violations of international humanitarian law. We have been able to speak to them about individual cases. And in most of these cases, and I'm not going into detail here, about people being taken away, being abducted or arrested with no reason as we thought because we, they probably came from the other side about people laying hand on un humanitarian supplies and others - in most of these cases, we have been able to solve something. But that was on the basis of very concrete detailed interventions, and you can only do so much in that stage.
So, we very much hope that with this mutual commitment on respecting international humanitarian rights law, respecting humanitarian forces, respecting the free movement of people of civilians, of respecting the sanctity of medical facilities and they catering [inaudible] them and all that, that the parties will actually do what they can also to communicate to their lower ranks, that this is a commitment which has to be honored. And we will see it today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, whether it actually works. At the same time, we expect these talks on ceasefire to start off again from today or from tomorrow. It shouldn't technically take too long to agree on the modalities of the ceasefire, but of course, it's also political questions where the negotiators in Jeddah have to go back to their respective leaderships.
Let me also be clear that the lack of respect for a ceasefire is not necessarily because an agreement is not complete or is not detailed enough. It is also because both parties still think that they can win that war and they are taking opportunities to improve their positions on the ground. The difference to the first week of war is that, and again, that's my interpretation from my conversations with both sides, that both sides have realized that even if they win, it will not be a quick win. And that [inaudible] long war could damage the entire country and then there wouldn't be too much to win. You could lose the country even if you win the battle.
Thank you, sir. We now have Gabriela [inaudible] of Mexican newspaper. Go ahead and Gabriela.
Thank you. Thank you very much, Rolando. Thank you very much for, for taking my question. I have a follow up on my colleague of AP’s question. Tell us about your safety. I mean, you received a lot of threats on social network, but we know that this? can incite violence in the world, in real life. So, I would like to know about your safety and also about the safety of your team. Does your team have enough protection in the field? Thank you.
SRSG Volker Perthes: Look, you don't want me to go into operational details. I think I feel safe here. See what I think I feel safe here. The state has an obligation, of course, to protect international nations, not only the United Nations, but also embassies. We see a couple of embassies trying to or preparing to relocate to Port Sudan. We see government ministries setting up liaison offices in Port Sudan. Port Sudan is stable. Of course, there are tensions over the country. You would expect that in a situation of war, Port Sudan is stable and we two feel safe here.
Thank you very much. We have a few more questions for you. If you can indulge us for a bit. We, if, if you don't mind, Christian, we'll leapfrog over you and go to someone we haven't heard from yet. Chu [inaudible] from cctv, and we'll come back to you Christiana, then Yan. Go ahead, Chu.
Okay. Thank you for taking my question, Rolando, and good morning. I have a question that, is there any updates for the largest scale looting of the food in Sudan. Do you have any updates to share with us? Thank you.
SRSG Volker Perthes: I don't have a statistical update, but what we know is that thousands of tons, more than, sorry, I don't have the exact figures, but that large amounts of supplies from WFP and others have been looted. It’s whole warehouses that have been looted. And this is something we actually take up with the local authorities, particularly in Darfur, where most of the looting has actually happened. And while I am speaking to you let me see whether I have a cheat sheet here where I can give you the figures. No, actually I cannot, but I can give you some, some details. Like in Geneina alone in Wester for almost 70, more than 60 of the vehicles of the UN were looted and warehouses were looted, and offices were looted.
That makes it extremely difficult for us to resume or restart humanitarian operations, even if we manage, and we're speaking of the force, speaking of west of war, which is close to the Chadian border, even if we manage to, to build a supply bridge as it were from Chad, we need some equipment to actually deliver or to deliver to humanitarian to NGOs on, on the ground. So what you are asking for, and rightly so, brings us to actually press on the warring parties, but also the governors, the Walis in the different states of Darfur, the arm groups signatories to the Juba Peace Agreement to say it is your interest -not only your obligation on international law - it's your interest that UN premises, UN warehouses, UN vehicles, UN offices are actually protected because otherwise it will be very, very challenging for us to deliver.
Thank you very much. And in fact, if we can manage to get updated figures for you from WFP or Humanitarian College, we'll share those with you. We'll go back to Christian of the German News agency for follow up and then we'll hear from Jamie and then Jan, then we may have to close this briefing after that. Christian, go ahead.
Yes, thank you very much. Mr. Perthes, in a side sentence, you said on the political mission that the UN for the time being is contributing from the sidelines. And then you said that might soon change. I was wondering whether you can enlighten us a little bit on what exactly is soon and what is gonna change. Thank you.
SRSG Volker Perthes: I think in a war situation you never know what soon actually means because everybody tries to achieve things in a couple of days, and then it does take long. [inaudible] But on the substance, you have seen the announcement from the American and the Saudi mediators. They are entering into talks on Ceasefire now they're entering into talks on the modalities, which I can do in Jeddah but then on the monitoring and verification mechanism where you need more partners for and you will need them on shore and offshore. You will need them in Khartoum, in Sudan, and you will need them from abroad, and since the United Nations, my mission UNITAMS has some experience with chairing the Permanent Ceasefire Committee in Darfur, which is not the same, but it is an existing mechanism under the Juba Peace Agreement, we do have people who have been on the ground, who have the context to both sides, who are experts in their fields, generals, colonels, retired generals who can be made available to an actual structure or monitoring mechanism. The positive thing here is that they are not only experts, but they have been in the country for a year and [inaudible], and they have built trustful relationships with all parties.
That's one. The other thing is, as you spoke about the sidelines of course there are coordination structures or there is a coordination between the, the so-called Quad, which is US, Saudi Arabia, UK, and the Emirates and Trilateral mechanism (UN-AU-IGAD) and the UN with its own expertise in is feeding in ideas on what this monitoring structure could look like.
Third point, last point on this. Also, according to the statement, which you have seen from the Saudis and Americans, there will be a discussion with the parties on the ground with the RSF and SAF about widening the discussions to international partners, international regional partners as well as to civilians from Sudan. And we will definitely be part of this.
Thank you very much. We have two more questions for you, sir. We have Jamie Keaton from Associate Press here in Geneva. Go ahead, Jamie.
Hi, sir. Thank you very much. Yesterday the Human Rights Council here narrowly passed a resolution that called for stepped up security of the right situation, notably amongst civilians in Sudan. Critics including a number of African and developing countries, said that such a resolution could hinder efforts to uphold the ceasefire and continue the talks. So, my question is: was this resolution discussed by the participants in the talks or by the warring sides or in any of your channels of communications with Mr. Griffiths and others? Was this an issue there? And what's the truth? I mean, does a resolution like this help or hinder the efforts to end the conflict?
SRSG Volker Perthes: Well, time will tell, and I'm not going to comment on the positions or on the interests since the apprehensions of individual nation states member states here whether it was discussed in Jeddah or not, I don't know. I'm not in Jeddah. I have not been there. You would have to ask the participants and the mediators and my discussions with Martin Griffiths, with my colleague, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, they were very much about bringing the humanitarian support forward in a pragmatic and practical way. He was here visiting us here in Port Sudan. We had common calls with the leaders of both sides as well as with civil society actors. And we continued to cooperate and to coordinate to make the efforts of the mission and the SRSG here and the broader internationally coordinated humanitarian support to make that common venture [inaudible].
Thank you very much. We'll take the one last question from Jan Herberman once again, Jan.
Yes. Thanks a lot. I'd like to come back to the talks in, in Jeddah, in a, a possible agreement. The ceasefire agreement would be quite stable if the two leaders, the two generals, would sign it, I suppose. So, do you see any chance that the two generals might convene in Jeddah and seal the possible deal?
SRSG Volker Perthes: Look, I think from the experience of other ceasefire agreements, it's usually not the principles signing it, not the top people. It is trusted representatives, and we do have trusted representatives of both sides there are in Jeddah. They would not sign anything which doesn't have the consensus of their leadership in Khartoum. So, I think it's neither a necessity, nor necessarily the most pragmatic way to try to get the two leaders to come to Jeddah.
Mr. Perthes, I'd like to thank you very, very much for joining us here. I know your time is precious. Thank you for all your efforts and especially if you're appearing on video for us. So again, thank you. And we'll now resume the briefing, staying on the subject of Sudan. Just I once again want to remind you that we did share the statement by Mr. Perthes' office, which among other things, notes a declaration as an important first step towards alleviating human suffering and protecting the lives and dignity of civilians in Sudan.