Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Situation in South Sudan: Concern, GOAL and Oxfam

2:30 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I remind members, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off completely for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference with the recording equipment even when on silent mode. I would appreciate it if mobile telephones were switched off because our meeting is being broadcast live.

Today's meeting is a very important one dealing with the issue of South Sudan. Everyone will have seen on television recently what has happened there as well as read about it in the newspapers. Today, we will meet representatives of GOAL, Concern and Oxfam to discuss South Sudan. South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan three years ago and while it is Africa's newest country, it is also, unfortunately, one of the continent's poorest countries. A combination of the consequences of years of armed conflict along with unfavourable and sometimes unseasonable weather conditions have led to a situation where there are huge humanitarian needs in that country.

Irish Aid has contributed €5 million to date in 2014 to South Sudan to support the work of the United Nations and the NGOs in the region. However, the need remains great. One of the most pressing needs in South Sudan currently is that humanitarian access is granted to all civilians, especially those displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict. At the beginning of June, the number of people reported to be displaced was a shocking 1.4 million, which is a huge number.

I am delighted to welcome three organisations, namely, Oxfam, GOAL and Concern, which have workers on the ground in South Sudan. The format of the meeting is that we will hear a brief presentation from each of the organisations followed by a questions and answers session. I call Mr. Jim Clerkin, who is very familiar to members and is the chief executive officer of Oxfam.

Mr. Jim Clerkin:

Good afternoon Chairman and members. On behalf of Oxfam, the other organisations represented here and the people in South Sudan affected by the conflict and the looming food crisis, I thank the committee for taking the time to raise this as an important issue in the busy schedule of items it is called on to discuss.

The history of South Sudan, as a nation, is short but its rich history with all its diversity is one which has endured far too much time in the ravages of war, hunger and misery. Today, it is at a bit of tipping point. I refer to the realisation of hope and opportunity which comes about through independence and this widening division within the country and the impact it is having in terms of a humanitarian crisis. I lived and worked in South Sudan and witnessed at first hand the excitement, optimism and the extraordinary energy around independence. I witnessed the first group of refugees returning after the civil war which lasted 20 years. Some of the people had not even been born in South Sudan but their sense of optimism about building this new country was palpable. We need to focus on how we get it back on that track because clearly what has happened recently has knocked it off that.

It is the newest country in the world, celebrating its third birthday on 9 July but it is also one of the poorest. In the normal run of things, food crises can be cyclical and can recur time and again. However, what we are seeing now has been exacerbated because of the fall out from hostilities and is putting the fledgling country on the brink of catastrophe. Approximately 10,000 people have been killed directly in the conflict, with more than 1.3 million displaced. Over 300,000 refugees have fled to surrounding states and 4 million people are in need of humanitarian aid - food, shelter, water, sanitation and medical assistance. They are also, critically, in need of protection so that they can live a life free from actual or threat of harm. It is important to state that the issues facing South Sudan are not specific to that country but have huge regional ramifications and we need to see a regional response. We attempted to raise this issue before with the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and others in early January. Since then, the situation has continued to get worse.

In the summer of 2011 we all saw the devastating impact of the famine that ripped through the Horn of Africa. Following this catastrophic event, Oxfam and others carried out a study and produced a report called The Deadly Delay, which was extremely critical of the international community - including ourselves - in terms of the lateness of the response. As a direct result of that and of the world being far more proactive in 2012, it is fair to say that we avoided a repeat in the Sahel region of western and central Africa. It is not impossible to stop these things from happening. We need to ensure that the word famine is consigned to history. It is within our ability and it is our duty to prevent this level of human suffering. The Deadly Delay report deals with the issue of changing the trajectory of human suffering but also argues that clever investment to prevent these events from happening is actually cost-effective. It means that countries are in a much better situation following a crisis which does not become a catastrophe. We believe this crisis can be prevented from escalating into absolute catastrophe if there is sufficient will and action now.

Opportunities are opening up now, not least the commencement of the rainy season which is critical to agricultural production and the additional €600 million pledged by donors in Oslo recently. Further to the comments of the Chairman, I welcome the support of the Irish Government, through Irish Aid, for humanitarian actors such as Oxfam, GOAL and Concern and acknowledge the additional funding pledged in Oslo. There has also been a revision of the UN mission in South Sudan, with increased emphasis on the protection of civilians. Last night it was announced that Salva Kiir and Riek Machar signed an agreement in Addis Ababa that commits to forming a transitional government within 60 days. Signing an agreement is one thing but delivering on it is another matter. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, the regional body overseeing this process, needs to ensure that they live up to their commitments. These are all opportunities but they will amount to nothing if they are not matched by actions which lead to real change on the ground for those affected by the conflict including: the translation of the current cessation of hostilities into a permanent ceasefire; a process of reconciliation and inclusive political dialogue which goes beyond just the warring factions to include all of the people of South Sudan, which is cognisant of the rights of the whole population; respect for the protection of humanitarian personnel and assets and unhindered humanitarian access to those affected; and sustained diplomatic efforts in support of peace talks. Members have been furnished with a copy of letter which Oxfam encouraged a number of eminent African leaders to sign, including the former presidents of a number of the countries in the region as well as our old friend, Archbishop Tutu, encouraging those involved to live up to their commitments.

We need to see a collective condemnation of violence by the international community and that needs to be sustained every time we hear of violent acts. Efforts are also needed to tackle the underlying drivers of violence, including the proliferation of arms. We need a timely and sustained release of humanitarian funding. Such funding must be dispersed across all sectors and increased for protection activities, the sector which currently receives the lowest level of funding from the international community. It is fine to have commitments but we need to see them delivered upon urgently and in a sustained fashion. We also need to see rapid mobilisation of the resources for UNMISS, including finances, equipment and personnel. There have been some welcome commitments made in the context of UNMISS concerning the change of mandate, the scaling up of personnel and so forth but we need to see them actually being delivered. Personnel must be fully trained and sensitive to the effects of the conflict on the civilian population, particularly the women.

The people who are displaced will simply not return home if it is not safe to do so. We need to put pressure on to create the environment to enable them to return and to enable the existing population to resume their normal lives. A massive surge in the humanitarian response by agencies on the ground is needed now before seasonal rains make many areas of the country inaccessible. There is no room for delay on this. A window of opportunity exists but we need to generate momentum. The issue of South Sudan keeps falling off the radar but has the potential to be the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world in a very short period of time unless we act now. We have learned a lot of lessons from the past and can use those lessons but we need a concerted effort. I urge this committee to ensure that Ireland uses its influence in the most positive way possible. It must work with the international community to make sure that those who are party to this live up to their commitments in order to prevent this crisis from turning into a catastrophe.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Clarken and also thank Mr. Colm Byrne, the humanitarian manager of Oxfam for being with us today. I now invite Mr. Jonathan Edgar, chief operations officer of GOAL, to make his opening statement.

Mr. Jonathan Edgar:

I am here today with my colleague, Ms Fiona Gannon, who has recently returned from South Sudan and can bear witness to the tragedy unfolding in the world’s newest country. Fighting broke out in South Sudan back in December 2013. Since the second peace agreement was signed on 9 May 2014 continued fighting across South Sudan has been the norm. I agree with my colleague from Oxfam that it is heartening to hear about the agreement that was signed in Addis Ababa yesterday and the positive rhetoric from both leaders in terms of a commitment to form a transitional government of national unity in 60 days. However, there is some degree of scepticism about this and political will is required to ensure that it happens.

In just under five months since the conflict began the situation has deteriorated considerably resulting in 1.3 million people fleeing from their homes with an estimated 300,000 migrating as refugees to neighbouring countries. Humanitarian actors have warned that by the end of this year half of all South Sudanese citizens could experience forced displacement within the country or as external refugees. According to the United Nations, South Sudan is likely to face the worst famine since the Ethiopia famine of 1984-85, with potentially up to 4 million people affected, of whom 2.5 million are children. UNICEF is predicting that 50,000 children under the age of five are likely to die this year alone.

GOAL has been operational in South Sudan since 1998 and our first priority throughout this crisis has been to continue to support the 500,000 people who are currently dependent on us for primary health care, nutrition, clean water, immunisation and their basic livelihoods. All of GOAL’s areas of operations continue to be affected by the conflict, which is largely taking place in three of the ten states of South Sudan. One of the most affected is the Upper Nile State which continues to see active fighting.

GOAL provides health, nutrition and sanitation services to displaced people from Balliet and Ulang counties which have become divided since this post-December conflict, with Balliet having been ransacked in January and a fault-line opening up along pro-Government and anti-Government lines along this county border. The mostly Dinka population from Balliet fled, seeking sanctuary, first to Malakal which in turn was attacked several times. GOAL has followed these people as they move to ensure we can continue to access health care facilities, as well as providing a nutrition and sanitation through mobile clinics. We see the devastation these people face as every time they move the conflict follows. It is putting major pressure on our humanitarian aid response to ensure we can keep up with the movement.

There have been almost 200,000 people displaced into the neighbouring country of Ethiopia. Since March of this year GOAL has established a refugee response programme across the border in the Gambella region of Ethiopia where we have been delivering nutrition support to 15,000 of the most severely malnourished who have crossed into that country in search of assistance. We are currently engaged in dialogue with Concern about working in collaboration to expand that programme and reach more people.

Refugees are currently arriving in the Gambella region at a daily rate of 1,200, which requires a new refugee camp holding 50,000 people to be opened every 42 days in Gambella. This population is primarily made of up women and children with almost 70% of the population being aged less than 18 years of age.

GOAL is monitoring closely the escalating refugee problem across Ethiopia and several of South Sudan’s neighbouring countries. If famine strikes, as has been predicted, it is our opinion that the refugee crisis will become a catastrophe. In Twic and Agok, we not only continue our programming in these challenging areas, but we have responded to displaced people from Unity State, where there is still active conflict. GOAL is providing health and nutrition services for around 15,000 displaced people here, along with a water and sanitation programme.

Let me stress that while not all areas of South Sudan have experienced heavy fighting, the entire country is to one degree or another affected by this conflict, manifesting itself in a disruption to markets, a reduction in agricultural production and mass population migration. This has led to extreme burdens on an already fragile basic infrastructure. Before the conflict, South Sudan was in a fragile situation. The pattern of displacement has encouraged a particular focus on those citizens who have sought refuge at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS compounds. There are also a large number of people who are not compounds who are choosing to locate in smaller concentrations in rural locations, believing that is a safer option for them during the conflict. This bring its own problems for the humanitarian response. The combination of factors such as ongoing displacement of people, a poor cropping season, widespread market disruption, subsequent high food prices and resulting low income sources will in our opinion lead to what is being predicted as significant food insecurity and even famine

In addition, there have been multiple reports accusing government and non-government forces of targeting civilians based on their ethnicity. A report in May by UNMISS stated that there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have been committed by both parties to the conflict. Those violations include enforced disappearances, rape and other acts of sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, targeted attacks against civilians and attacks on hospitals and day centres. Even prior to the current crisis logistical access in South Sudan for humanitarian staff and relief items was volatile due to limited transport infrastructure and annual rains and floods which make up to 60% of the country inaccessible by road, at the best of times.

The level of humanitarian funding, as referenced by Oxfam, available for South Sudan, even post-Oslo, is insufficient when compared to the unmet needs on the ground. The crisis response plan remains only 60% funded, and 40% unfunded. We welcome the fact that in late May, the UN Security Council authorised a revised mandate for UNMISS, with a focus on protecting civilians; monitoring and investigating human rights; creating the conditions for delivery of humanitarian assistance; and supporting the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement ahead of state-building activities. Funding is needed to be channelled to humanitarian activities. The revised mandate emphasises that protection of civilians must be given priority in decisions about the use of available capacity and resources within the mission. We in GOAL cannot stress that enough. Notwithstanding that, more needs to be done. Violence against civilians must stop, and the protection of civilians must be a priority. A ceasefire agreement is only the first step in a longer-term peace process, requiring sustained commitment to addressing the deeper issues. The latest crisis in South Sudan must be seen as part of a longer-term protracted crisis, with its roots heavily laid in unresolved ethnic rivalries, lack of accountable and responsive government and limited access to basic services and livelihood opportunities.

There is a need to remove all formal and inform barriers to access for humanitarian staff, relief items and resources, including expansion of cross border access to enable NGOs bring relief items in from Sudan and Ethiopia. Finally, funding of the South Sudan humanitarian crisis despite pledging conferences is lower than anticipated and this must be addressed.

2:40 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Edgar for his contribution. I welcome Ms Fiona Gannon, who having worked in South Sudan has an eyewitness account of what has been happening. Ms Gannon will have an opportunity to contribute during the question and answer session.

I welcome Ms. Anne O'Mahony, from Concern who is accompanied by Ms Carol Morgan, regional director of Concern. I now invite Ms O'Mahony to address the committee.

Ms Anne O'Mahony:

I wish to apologise for the absence of our CEO, Mr. Dominic McSorley, but he had a prior commitment that he could not change.

South Sudan is very close to my heart. I have worked on and off for many years in South Sudan but I have also worked in North Sudan, so that has given me a different perspective of how the country was shaping up.

Like Mr. Clarken I remember when the peace deal was signed and the level of optimism when the new Sudan, emerging out of years of conflict, was formed and would take its place among the nations of the world. It had the benefit of significant oil revenues and there was a hope it could fund its own development.

As a result of the suffering during the war years, there were significant gaps in the provision of education. The emerging leaders had no great educational attainment and no experience of governance. There was the expectation that with limited support South Sudan would become a nation and take its place in the world. In the subsequent years the SPLA and the various other rebel forces became part of the army and were paid. There was no merging of the forces within the army so they continued to operate separately as opposed to a single unit that was there to serve and defend the new nation. That approach has been reflected throughout the way the country developed in the past three years. It was almost inevitable that it would break down in conflict. It was more a matter of when rather than if it would happen. The sad part is that there was a great opportunity for support for nation building through the three years of that evolution. That opportunity for nation building was clearly missed and not taken on board.

Oil has been both a blessing and a curse in so many different parts of Africa. In South Sudan, it has caused more pain and suffering than it has benefited the people. The oil reserves have been a source of controversy between the north and south. The taps were turned off a couple of years ago and the issue of paying soldiers and ensuring that the government had revenue to operate. All of the factors fed into what happened in mid December 2013. Conflict broke out.

We have been working in South Sudan for years. Concern staff remained in Juba over Christmas when many other humanitarian agencies evacuated their staff. Concern put in extra staff to deal with the influx of refugees and displaced people into Juba.

They needed care and maintenance and we stayed to provide them. We also continued our operations in Bentiu, which has proved extremely difficult as a location for Concern. We have a team on the ground, which stays in the UNMISS compound with staff from several other non-governmental organisations. When the area comes under attack staff move into a bunker where they remain until the attacks ease off. They then come out to try to lend assistance before returning to the bunker for another period. Ceasefire agreements come and go. It is great, therefore, that a new agreement was signed yesterday. We are all waiting with bated breath on what will emerge and whether the agreement will mark the beginning of the end of the conflict.

Many of the underlying causes of the conflict persist. We see a level of aggression among some of the South Sudanese on both sides that we have not encountered previously. Our staff have come under attack. The other day, for instance, we had to send a member of staff working in a distribution centre to receive stitches caused by aggression. Much of this can be attributed to years of conflict and the struggle that people have in relating to other human beings on a one-to-one basis.

As Mr. Edgar and Mr. Clarken stated, this is a long and protracted emergency. We are very worried about food security in the region. I worked in Khartoum in 1989 and 1990 when hundreds of thousands of famine-ravished people moved from south Sudan into the north. Is such a scenario coming down the line again? The conflict is preventing access to many of the planting areas. If the seed is not planted now and a ceasefire is not in place to enable planting to take place, there will definitely be a famine. South Sudan was starting at a low base and experienced very high malnutrition rates last year and the year before when normal circumstances prevailed. The war has completely interrupted the transfer and distribution of goods and disrupted market access.

I do not want to appear before this committee or speak at another forum in six or 12 months in the midst of one of the most dreadful famines that one could imagine. Such a scenario is not beyond the bounds of possibility, however. While we are doing a great deal of work to try to pre-position goods, security does not allow us to do so to the extent we would like. Access is also a significant issue. In addition, the rains are coming and have already arrived in many places. Concern is intensely worried that the circumstances will worsen and the funding position will not enable us to mount the level of response we would like. We are also intensely worried that access to the vulnerable populations we would like to visit on a much more regular and supportive basis will not be open to us.

To return to the contributions of Mr. Edgar and Mr. Clarken, Ireland is in a strong position to raise the voice of Sudan in the various forums in which we enjoy such a high reputation. As representatives of non-governmental organisations, we must examine how we can raise Ireland's voice.

Effective and lasting peace is a prerequisite for progress and will only be achieved if there is a demand and pressure from all sides to try to have a peace accord signed and subsequently operated, monitored and rolled out, with people held to account when it is not realised to the extent promised. We also want to achieve humanitarian access. We need to access the most vulnerable populations. The reconciliation talks need to address the gross human rights abuses that have taken place by all sides in the conflict. There must also be a commitment to nation building. Even if a peace deal were signed in the morning, we would still be faced with the same problems and underlying causes of the conflict. Concerted efforts at nation building are needed.

All of us have referred to food security and the potential for famine. Debate on this issue must be raised to a new level in areas in which members are active and can use their voices for South Sudan. The idea of a famine is horrific. Having worked through many famines, I certainly do not want a similar scenario to emerge. We must work together to prevent such an eventuality.

Timely and effective disbursement of humanitarian funds is important. One of the big issues we face at the moment is that while much of the humanitarian funding for South Sudan was intended for a wide area, as Mr. Edgar indicated, not all areas are affected by conflict and some are still at peace. Concern works in Aweil West, which has been unaffected by the conflict thus far. The funding that was committed to Aweil West has been transferred to fund a humanitarian response in some of the areas where conflict is taking place. We are dealing with high levels of malnutrition in Aweil West as part of normal practice. As a result, if the funding destined for this area is reallocated, we will not be able to deal with the malnutrition we are seeing daily. In addition, the transfer of this funding will fuel the conflict because the people affected will feel excluded, disenfranchised and angry. The conflict could spread if funding is not returned to the areas from which it is being transferred.

Ireland has a strong voice, which is well respected in many of the forums in which members are active. As such, members could speak a great deal, change the direction and bring Sudan up a notch in terms of perception and visibility.

2:50 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank our three witnesses for their graphic account of what is taking place in south Sudan and what can and should be done. We appreciate the work being done by Irish non-governmental organisations in South Sudan. Without focusing in on any region of South Sudan or the personnel of their respective organisations, do Concern, Oxfam and GOAL have security fears for staff working in the regions? Given the volatile circumstances in which they are working, this would appear to be an obvious fear.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all three witnesses for providing detailed presentations with great clarity. They paint a very bleak picture of an unfolding tragedy, in which there has already been great loss of life and all the horror and pain that is associated with conflict and humanitarian disaster. We were asked if Ireland and its political representatives could use all the forums available to us to highlight at international level the concerns the witnesses have raised. We can raise the matter in the Dáil Chamber and I am sure the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his officials will raise it in every forum available to him. The various political parties can also ensure Members of the European Parliament from their respective parties highlight the issue in the European Parliament. We will try to use every forum available to us to raise the issue.

All three speakers indicated that 4 million people out of a population of 8.26 million need humanitarian assistance. This is a substantial proportion of the population. We also heard that 10,000 people have died and 1.4 million have been displaced in what has been a relatively short conflict, although no conflict can be said to have been short enough. The loss of life and displacement of persons has been huge and it is necessary to provide people with protection, food, water, nutrition and shelter. Is assistance reaching the people who are most in need of it? I recently read reports indicating there have been up to 30 deaths as a direct result of an outbreak of cholera and that the disease was spreading. What is the most recent information in this regard?

Members will have read reports that the long-running power struggle between the South Sudan President and his former Vice-President was one of the main catalysts for the violence, loss of life and horrors being inflicted on the population of South Sudan? Is that correct or what part do other difficulties and problems related to ethnicity and non-inclusivity on the part of the regime play in the ongoing conflict?

Mr. Jim Clarken and Mr. Jonathan Edgar mentioned the mediation talks that apparently have made some progress. As I may not have heard them properly, I presume those were the talks that were being brokered by Ethiopia and Kenya.

3:00 pm

Mr. Jim Clarken:

Yes, Kenya.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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To date has the international community given that process or those efforts the necessary assistance and support? To my knowledge, UN Resolution 2155 is focused on four particular tasks - protection, human rights, humanitarian assistance and cessation of hostilities. Is that particular resolution adequate and has the United Nations addressed the issues of greatest urgency in the conflict to date? Like the Chairman, I compliment the personnel of those organisations who are working in extremely difficult circumstances. We all hope they are safe and that they can go about their tasks in a safe manner.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy Brendan Smith. I will allow everybody in as we have six witnesses and that will give everyone a chance to answer the various questions from members rather than going over and back. I call Deputy Durkan.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I welcome and thank the guests for appearing before the committee to give us the benefit of their knowledge in the area. On the issue of aid, can we be reassured that those for whom the aid is intended goes directly to them with the minimum of interference or disruption and that is reinforced from the point of view of raising aid in donor countries? It is most important that is emphasised. What is the most effective way of using all possible areas of influence to try to bring about an interruption of the violence and recognition of an attempt being made to avert a famine in the future? Is it the threat of an international war crimes tribunal, for example, in the case of Mr. Taylor in an adjoining jurisdiction? What is the possibility of arresting the downward progress in its tracks because that appears to be an ongoing issue, in one location this year, in another location next year and in another location elsewhere. Nobody appears to have any respect for the international community or the international community itself has not exerted its influence in a way that is sufficiently convincing. The reason for that is that there are no consequences for perpetrators of that nature Notwithstanding the fact that there may well be historical reasons for wars and internal wars, the obvious way to bring issues to a conclusion is by way of negotiation or peaceful means. When will that happen and what is the best way to tackle it? I know I am asking a question that has been asked of the witnesses many times previously but I am looking forward to their response. I have long held the view that the international community does not exert its influence. It does not have any authority in many of the regions and because it has no authority there is no respect for it. Ultimately, there will be no respect, effectively, for what donor countries are doing. They are actually feeding the starving population in a country that is ravaged by war which is an indirect reassurance, so to speak, that the fighting men can continue to fight on and wreak on all kinds of destruction on the community and then the international community will try to help feed the people in the absence of anything else. I do not know the answer but from an international point of view we need to come to some conclusions in that area and the sooner the better.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Eric Byrne.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I welcome the witnesses. This is not the image of Africa we wanted or thought we were achieving. We pride ourselves in recognising the economic growth in certain countries in Africa and the development and maturity of Africa as a continent. The witnesses expose to us again the horrors and somebody used a comparison with the Ethiopian famine. The irony of that is that Ethiopia is on the doorstep. While it might beg all kinds of interesting questions about why it has come to this, Sudan has suffered an unmerciful many years of conflict. The witnesses have obviously witnessed the joy of the South Sudanese people getting their independence after a vicious war with their friends in Sudan. South Sudan has been admitted to the United Nations as a full member and now they divide and tear each other apart, so it is another human tragedy.
May I ask a few direct questions as I am not familiar with the area. South Sudan is broken from North Sudan in that Sudan comprises the north while South Sudan is in the south, the oil is somewhere in the middle and there is much border conflict between north and south. What does Sudan think of the conflict in South Sudan? Does it aid, abet, assist or open corridors? They were one people at one stage. My second question is one we do not like to raise, that of tribalism, a conflict between two former fighters for South Sudan's independence. Since they have divided it would appear they are divided on ethnic grounds. If they have divided on ethnic grounds what is the composition of the ethnicity between the Dinkas and the others? Is the ratio 50:50, is it religious or cultural or what are the differences between them that make fight such a vicious war? The reports from the region are disturbing. Ms Anne O'Mahony mentioned the viciousness and the brutality and how it is affecting workers on the ground., and the range of brutalities in which they are engaged.The brutality involves not only killing, raping but recruiting young child soldiers, all of which are very disturbing.
If anybody was looking in here, they would see many white people from Ireland speaking about aid again to Africa. Yes, we are going to provide humanitarian aid but on the political front, Africa is a mature continent. Who is carrying the burden of political responsibility for these outrages in South Sudan vis-à-vis the African Union? I understand the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, is probably the African Union's tool. So far as we can, we will provide humanitarian aid but the who carries the political consequences? In fairness, it would seem to me that the Ethiopians are playing a rather progressive role so far as they brought the two leaders together who had not spoken since the war broke out. They have signed a new agreement but whether it will be lived up remains to be seen. The tragedy would be - the Ethiopians know this only too well - that what Ethiopia suffered and to which Irish people responded to an incredible degree in the support it gave to the Ethiopian famine, could ironically be replicated across the border from Ethiopia. The witnesses have all our support. We will raise the issue at all possible levels, with the Tánaiste, MEPs and in the European Union.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Seán Crowe.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentations and note the amazing work being done by their staff and those on the ground in South Sudan and in other areas.

As has been stated before, those who work for the organisations represented here are great ambassadors for Ireland. They put many of us elected representatives to shame in the context of their commitment and passion for change.

The situation that is the subject of discussion is another of those difficult ones in respect of which the committee is trying to obtain an understanding. Are our guests of the view that the peace talks will have an impact? Is there any guarantee that matters are going to settle down? The conflict appears to be bubbling over and people have referred to the dangers of ethnic violence erupting. What is the position with regard to internally displaced persons, IDPs? Are most of them being housed in camps mainly in the vicinity of Juba or are they spread throughout the country? Are many of those who fled the fighting staying with distant relatives? Our guests referred to the number of people who have fled to other countries, such as Ethiopia, and the impact this has had. The countries in question have their own difficulties and experienced famines in the past. On last night's edition of "Newsnight", reference was made to the emergence of rape and sexual violence in the conflict. It was stated that the use of rape and sexual violence had been a relatively unknown phenomenon during the war but that it is becoming increasingly common. What resources - for example, those relating to counselling, etc. - are our guests' organisations in a position to put in place in order to offer support to those affected?

The entire region is awash with weapons. Are there any programmes in place to try to buy back some of these weapons or to take them out of combatants hands in some other way? Such programmes have been successful in other regions. Is it just the case that there are too many weapons in South Sudan? All of our hopes are focused on the new agreement and I would welcome it if our guests were in a position to provide any further information in respect of it.

Reference was made to attacks on staff. It is probably not unusual that difficulties occur when people who are hungry are seeking food at aid stations. However, our guests have seen fit to mention this development so I am obliged to ask whether it is a new factor. What can be done in the context of providing security for staff at aid stations?

I wish our guests well. If the situation with regard to security is not resolved, then there is a possibility that a famine could develop. If people cannot grow their own food, then conditions are only going to get worse. Reference was made to areas where conflict has not broken out but into which the organisations represented here have been obliged to deploy resources. If additional resources can be sent to those areas, then perhaps the amount of food available in the region might increase. I am of the view that this is one of the goals we should be seeking to achieve in the long term.

3:10 pm

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the representatives from the three organisations and I compliment them on the amazing work they are doing in such difficult circumstances. How many staff do the organisations have on the ground in South Sudan? Our guests have given us a clear message to the effect that until some level of peace is restored, they will be fighting a losing battle. Are they confident that the current peace talks will be brought to a successful conclusion? What is the level of international involvement in the context of trying to assist in brokering peace and restoring some level of stability to the region?

Ms O'Mahony stated that planting crops is not going to be possible. What sort of window of opportunity exists in the context of ensuring that they will be planted? In other words, how quickly must stability be restored in order that planting might proceed on time? What will be the difference in terms of the amount of aid that will be required if planting takes place and if it does not? Given that the plan is only 60% funded, what amount of money - in dollars or euro - will be required in order to bridge the gap? From where is that money likely to come and by how much would the various donor countries be obliged to increase the level of aid provided in order to make up the difference?

Our guests have painted a pretty horrific picture of what is happening in the region. It will necessary for peace to be brokered and for a level of stability to be restored before matters will improve. The best way for our Parliament and the EU to assist is by ensuring that pressure continues to be exerted on the leaders in South Sudan. Deputy Durkan referred to the imposition of sanctions and also to the human rights abuses that are taking place and the fact that no on is being brought to book in respect of them. Obviously, a major difficulty exists in that regard. Will our guests comment on how we might assist in that regard?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Some of our guests referred to what happened in the Horn of Africa, particularly in the context of the warning signs that were available beforehand. Criticism has been levelled at the UN, the EU and other entities for not taking action in the Horn of Africa despite the existence of those warning signs, namely, population movement, drought and conflict. Our guests have intimated that a more or less similar situation is evolving in South Sudan at present, with the displacement and movement of people, atrocious weather conditions - including both drought and extremely wet weather - and conflict. The similarities are striking. Members of the committee visited Ethiopia three years ago and at the Togo refugee camp in the south of the country we met refugees from the Blue Nile region. They informed us of the terrible atrocities they had endured and which had forced them to flee their homeland. Obviously, the conflict there remains ongoing. What are the UN, the African Union and other political entities doing in respect of this matter? Pledges relating to financial contributions were made at the Oslo conference a few months ago. Clearly, however, there is a need for a political settlement in order to ensure that the situation will not develop in the same way as that which arose in the Horn of Africa a number of years ago. Will our guests comment on that matter?

Ms Anne O'Mahony:

In the first instance I will address some of the issues relating to staff security. Concern always weighs up the risks involved and it is always an issue of risk versus need. If there is no great need, then the pressure on us is not great. When the need is great, however, we are obliged to make decisions on a daily basis as to who can go forward and who cannot. Of course there are risks. We are involved in food distribution, which brings with it a huge amount of risk. What we have done is build extra barriers, brought in additional staff and tried to keep people back as much as possible from the actual distribution sites before letting them through gradually in a more controlled fashion. We have also tried to focus on women at distribution points rather than men. There are various security issues which we face on a daily basis. However, we have good security controls in place.

We have good communication systems, interaction and information sharing. There is a good deal of coming together around security issues with the various NGOs and the United Nations to look at how to keep people safe, the best evacuation procedures and where people should stay. There are major concerns and issues but we try to minimise the risks as much as possible. However, at the end of the day, we have a job to do and people will take risks to do it. Concern has 219 national staff working in South Sudan as well as 25 expatriates. It is easy to consider the national staff as one group, but if we are working in Bentiu we cannot place Dinka there and we will not hire Nuer there. Consequently we have to bring equatorial staff in there. We have to consider the ethnic mix in every location where we are situated to ensure the staff are safe and that we are not fuelling conflict by bringing in undesirables, as perceived by the local populations. These are all issues that we must take into consideration when we are planning for staff.

Reference was made to effective ways of holding people to account for what is going on in the country. The International Criminal Court is there. The ICC has done a good job with some people who have been brought to trial. However, this is only a tiny portion of what needs to be done. I am afraid there is increasing disrespect in various countries in Africa for the role and function of the ICC. This disrespect has been led primarily by Kenya because the Kenyan President has been indicted for war crimes and is trying to generate the idea of Africa marching away from away from the ICC. The court is looked on very unfavourably. Bashir, the President of Sudan has already been indicted for war crimes and has never been picked up or presented. He visits other African countries and there is no duty or perceived duty within other African countries to hand him over. At the moment the court is not proving an effective deterrent instrument to deal with the conflict.

Let us consider the position of Salva Kiir Mayardit, the current President of South Sudan. He came out of the jungle and the war and assumed the position of statesman three years ago, although for 40 or 50 years he had been fighting in the jungle. It is an altogether different role for him and I am unsure how far he has made the transition from rebel fighter to statesman as well as taking on the role and responsibility of leader. A leader has responsibilities for his citizens. Whether we are referring to Riek Machar on the Nuer side of the coin or Salva Kiir Mayardit as the President, these leaders have responsibilities and obligations to their citizens. The committee is right to suggest that they seem to look at the humanitarian issue as filling in the blanks for their non-recognition of the problems that conflict between their peoples are causing. It is a major issue in terms of perception of what leadership roles are all about. Again, an entire education field is necessary on that score in examining how to address issues of leadership.

Cholera is a major issue. Concern is leading a working group in Juba dealing with cholera. The committee is correct: at the moment over 40 people have died from the disease. A recent estimate suggested that a further 100,000 people are directly at risk of suffering in the near future. We are part of a working group that is putting out messaging relating to water and sanitation issues to try to control the spread and transmission of cholera in overcrowded areas. The internally displaced people camps in Juba are not places where anyone would wish to live. It is the same in Bentiu and some of the other IDP locations. They are all at risk but we are looking at strong messaging and strong water and sanitation interventions to try to control the situation, as much as possible. Furthermore, we try to link in with the medical organisations to ensure that they have stocks and supplies pre-positioned to enable a response.

3:20 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I will come back to you again because clearly you have a good deal more to offer. Ms Gannon, do you wish to come in now?

Ms Fiona Gannon:

I am unsure whether the committee would like us to go back over some of the questions that have already been answered.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Perhaps you could address some of the questions because I have to get to Mr. Clarken as well.

Ms Fiona Gannon:

I will outline some matters relating to staff and scale, the issues behind some of the questions. We have approximately 40 international staff and approximately 600 national staff in South Sudan the moment. Reference was made to security. I will add a little to what Ms O'Mahony has said. One of the new dynamics since December has been the free movement of our national staff around the country. We must be careful about who moves where according to ethnicity. This is a major change for South Sudan. It means that some of our international staff from Kenya and Uganda do not have freedom of movement. There are certain areas they can go while there are other areas where they cannot and this has to be factored in when planning for our staff and security. It is something we must continue to observe.

A question was asked about whether the peace will hold and whether we were optimistic. I would like to think that I would be optimistic but I am a little cynical. The timing of the peace agreement is fortuitous. We are heading into the rainy season and typically - any South Sudan observer would confirm it - this is when fighting slows down anyway because it has to slow down. It is in everyone's interests that a peace accord is signed and I am hopeful that pressure can be brought to bear on the leaders and that they manage to hold the peace.

One of the biggest challenges in recent months has been the translation of the high-level peace agreement to individual fighters on the ground. There does not appear to be the necessary coherence from the top level down to the fighters on the ground. All this makes me question whether some of the alliances of the anti-government forces or pro-government forces are true, whether they are banding together because they believe in something or simply because it is a good opportunity to gain ground or power.

Questions were asked about how the peace agreement or new initiative can be made more effective. I do not know. If we knew the answer to that we would probably not be working for the organisations we are working for. One of the reasons the peace agreement was signed yesterday was because there were threats of sanctions from the members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. That was very interesting. It was the first evidence of strong rhetoric from their peers and it seemed to have some kind of positive effect. If such supports could be boosted by countries like Ireland and if the members of IGAD could be backed up and supported it would have benefits.

My personal concern is that it is a little late. The committee asked about the planting season. The planting season is starting. In normal years because of the challenges in South Sudan, including poor road infrastructure etc., agencies like ourselves would have pre-positioned supplies in advance. That pre-positioning window is effectively closed now, at least in respect of road transport. Therefore, we would have to consider a massive and expensive airlifting operation to get seeds and tools and so on into remote areas in order that people could actually plant on time. My concern is that we are looking at weeks rather than months and I am unsure whether there is sufficient time to pre-position all the necessary stocks and supplies. Perhaps other colleagues could comment on that.

Deputy Eric Byrne asked about the role of Sudan, an interesting question. Better and more seasoned commentators than I could comment on the role of Sudan but I believe there is an opportunity in respect of Sudan and what could be done from the Sudan side in terms of access and opening up corridors to allow some humanitarian access between the countries. Recently I was in Sudan and I know that agencies there face similar challenges when it comes to trying to access newly-arrived populations from South Sudan.

It is interesting that in North Sudan they cannot be called refugees, they are called displaced groups, which shows how North Sudan views the arrivals from South Sudan. There would be opportunities should North Sudan be willing to assist.

Various people asked about tribalism. I worry a bit about the oversimplification that can happen when we talk about tribalism. It is true, however, that there have been very clear ethnic divisions in this recent conflict in South Sudan. That harks back to the peace agreement signed all those years ago when there were opportunities to sow seeds of good governance that were not taken up. The big lesson, should this fresh peace agreement hold, is that countries such as Ireland need to push harder for the international community to examine the underlying causes of conflict and truly try to grapple with those issues and areas of governance.

3:30 pm

Mr. Jim Clarken:

We need to be cognisant that fragile and new states, such as South Sudan, need concerted support over a long period. They cannot emerge on their own. The temptation has been to withdraw or not to focus on that support within the region, where there has been some good leadership, with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, and others, putting pressure on these countries. They appreciate the regional implications of this. Already we are servicing approximately 400,000 people in South Sudan and neighbouring countries. The impact on host communities in poorer parts of neighbouring countries is pretty devastating. That in itself begets conflict between new people and locals. The international focus and attention on helping to build nations needs to be sustained, not just by the regional powers but the international community. I will hand over to Mr. Byrne who returned from South Sudan last week.

Mr. Colm Byrne:

I will try not to repeat what has been said. Without security there is no humanitarian response so we do take that extremely seriously, and we have an obligation, not just as humanitarian actors but also as employers. We are all funded by Irish Aid in South Sudan, and as part of the broader regional response, and we have a contractual obligation to adhere to Irish Aid security management guidelines. We have specialised security personnel on the ground. It is important to emphasise that we all co-ordinate with one another. We also have to be very careful about that and about how we communicate because it is not for us to be involved in military activity on the ground.

Cholera is an important issue. South Sudan has very little national and physical infrastructure, and very limited health services. Only 15% of people have safe access to good sanitary conditions and 30% do not have safe access to clean water. The conditions are ripe for the spread of cholera. Our concern is that the outbreak seems to have started in Juba or at least that is where the initial cluster of cases happened. There are also reports of it appearing across the country. As Juba is the main urban centre, the main centre of population and a major trade route we fear that it will spread. The good news is that the mortality rate as a result of cholera appears to be declining but it is still well in excess of what is considered safe. We feel there may be efforts to start to contain it but there is much more work to do and we should be very careful not to be complacent about that.

There has been significant international attention on the crisis. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, the UN special representative on genocide and the UN commissioner for human rights were there within a short period of one another at the start of May, prior to the signing of the re-commitment to the cessation of hostilities. There was an increase in the level of international attention. It is important to stress that it needs to be sustained for a long time. We cannot afford to let it drop, which is part of the reason for our presence here today.

Someone asked about political responsibility and the role of nations in the region. We should acknowledge the role of IGAD in that there has been a recommitment to a cessation of hostilities. An agreement was signed yesterday. African states are beginning to take a stronger leadership role and to demonstrate stronger political support for peace negotiations. Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya are hosting refugees from this crisis. Countries are taking responsibility, not only for the humanitarian response but also for the political process which is integral to a long-term political solution. There is a tendency to get frustrated with Africa and we should be careful not to talk about Africa as a whole. It is a country of many different states with huge cultural diversity and historical backgrounds of which we should be aware. We should also acknowledge where progress has been made.

Everybody has spoken about the planting window but I emphasise the concern that it may already be too late. The planting season for a good crop yield will end in the early weeks of June. A total of 1.3 million people have been displaced from their homes. They will not return home unless they feel safe. They will not be able to begin planting unless they have the seeds and tools to begin planting. Physically and psychologically they are traumatised by the ravages of war. We cannot expect suddenly to turn this around in the space of four to six weeks and expect everything to be ok. It will not work like that. Long-term support will be required to provide food, social and psychological support, shelter and medical assistance. There is a great deal of work to be done to turn this around. That is why we are stressing the urgency of timely, effective and flexible humanitarian funding.

We should also stress that there have been development gains in South Sudan, over the past three to five years. There is a risk that all of that will be undone right now, if we do not respond and make sure to provide humanitarian funding and funding for ongoing development activities.

As to whether the current agreement will hold, there is a risk that we are too critical at the outset. We need to give space and opportunity for the parties to the conflict to prove themselves. IGAD has been very critical of the parties to the conflict for not respecting the cessation of hostilities agreement. It has also demonstrated its ability to influence Riek Machar and President Kiir in the present context. We should be hopeful but there is also an obligation on the international community to continue this sustained pressure, interest and engagement and to keep this on the international agenda because it will not be resolved overnight.

The arms issue is very interesting. Anyone who has worked in South Sudan will know that the use of arms is widespread and is part of the culture. Even those in the cattle camps will carry a gun because this is the norm at this stage. Decades of conflict have resulted in a proliferation of arms. The international community needs to have respect for the arms trade treaty. Many of these guns end up in South Sudan and in other countries affected by conflict because people sell arms or are prepared to allow the transit of arms through their countries and on to countries affected by conflict in the full knowledge that human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law will occur. It is important to increase pressure on those states that have not signed the arms trade treaty and to show respect to those countries which have signed the treaty in order to keep this issue on the agenda.

The issue of sexual violence had not been discussed to a great degree until the launch of a number of reports on human rights. The level of sexual violence in South Sudan has been quite horrific. Ireland in particular has been very vocal on this issue of sexual violence and armed conflict and also on the issue of women, peace and security through the UN Security Council Resolution 1325. We should continue to support the Friends of 1325, the EU and the UN to keep Resolution 1325 on the agenda. I stress the importance of influencing the behaviour of armed groups and of those who bear arms on both sides and the civilian population but there is a need for increased respect for human rights and for international humanitarian law.

3:40 pm

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan who has a special interest in this area.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I refer to South Sudan before this conflict broke out when it had two and a half years of relative peace. Parliamentary democracy - if we can call it that - was very fragile. Can this be put down to what happened between the north and the south with regard to oil supplies? Oil is always accompanied by corruption.

I read the message from the eminent African leaders about the hopes for society after independence which were not fulfilled. The leaders are all former presidents and I wonder what the current presidents of these countries have to say.

I refer to the role of Uganda and the role of Ugandan troops in military offensives. Uganda is receiving people who have fled the conflict but is it not the case that Ugandan troops are contributing to the conflict in South Sudan? Has our embassy in Uganda made any representations in this regard?

How much is this conflict facilitating more land grabs and undermining community ownership of land?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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The committee can raise this issue with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and ask him to raise it at EU level and to keep it high on the agenda. We can raise it ourselves during the Italian Presidency at the meeting of foreign affairs committees and with MEPs. What other actions can this committee take to help maintain awareness of this situation?

Ms Carol Morgan:

I will deal first with the question on the funding gap. The humanitarian community was looking for €1.8 billion for 2014 and there was a funding gap of €1.2 billion. A further €600 million was committed in Oslo, so there is currently a shortfall of €600 million. We are hopeful that the €600 million committed in Oslo will translate into real commitments because in previous cases this has not happened.
I will address Deputy O'Sullivan's questions. While the violence was triggered by the falling out between the president and the vice-president, there were other reasons. For the past four years South Sudan has experienced a decline in per capitareal income. Following independence people had very high expectations for rapid improvements in their standard of living but instead there has been an increase of income and wealth inequality and the gap between the rich and the poor has increased significantly. Different military groups were brought together in one army but they still reported to their ethnic leaders and when the conflict broke out it developed along the lines of ethnic groupings. Probably in order to appease those involved in the previous conflict South Sudan had created over three dozen national Ministries and commissions. The country is divided into ten states and each state has a large administration maintained at significant cost. Over 70% of government expenditure goes towards payment of salaries of the armed forces and the police, leaving less to pay for the provision of basic services which in recent years have been supported by the donor communities.
Seventy-two per cent of the population is aged under 30 years and most of these people will not have had the opportunity to attend school so they are poorly educated. They have not experienced an improvement in their livelihoods and there have been very few opportunities available to them. The young volatile population has been very ripe for manipulation by the various leaders and young men have become involved in the conflict. I have seen this for myself in the camps in Juba which are supported by Concern. One camp has a lot of young men and very few women and children. On a few occasions the riot police have been called in when we are distributing humanitarian aid because the camp is very tense. The young men in the camp are very frustrated and this can be a very dangerous situation, considering the ready availability of arms. These factors have contributed to the ongoing conflict.
I refer to the question asked whether we can be sure that the people who need the aid are receiving it. The UN has an established structure in South Sudan for the administration of aid. The humanitarian country team is led by Toby Lanzer and it has done quite well in the circumstances. The clusters are fully functioning and the humanitarian community as a whole has developed a crisis response plan and all agencies participate in the clusters. We are aiming to have a multi-sectoral approach with a division of labour and duties in order to avoid duplication and to ensure the aid goes to where it is needed. Last March, Concern made an attempt to send two trucks of supplies up to Bentiu and after three weeks on the road they had to come back because they could not go any further.

In addition, they encountered numerous checkpoints where they were made to unload and reload their cargos by various groups who were looking for bribes. The situation has been very difficult. Moreover, it is a very expensive operation because so much of the material has to be transported by air. Transporting food by air, for instance, is three times more expensive than doing so by road or barge. The River Nile route was closed, for example, although I understand the UN is investigating whether it can be opened up in order to provide greater access to affected populations.

3:50 pm

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the delegates and apologise for having to leave the meeting to attend a debate and vote in the Seanad. I was hoping to have an opportunity to speak to them in private on a matter about which I am concerned.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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The Senator may do so after the meeting.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Thank you, Chairman. Some of the other questions I intended to ask may already have been asked by colleagues. What do the delegates see as the likelihood of the situation in South Sudan rectifying itself and being brought under control? Will the delegates indicate how many staff their organisations have working in the country?

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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Those questions have been answered, but the Senator is free to continue.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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That is fine, Chairman. I can speak to colleagues about what has transpired.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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The Senator will have an opportunity to speak to the witnesses when we go into private session. I now invite the delegates to make a concluding contribution, beginning with Mr. Edgar.

Mr. Jonathan Edgar:

Thank you, Chairman. A great deal of information has been shared today and there has largely been consistency in terms of what the three key speakers have said. We in GOAL have been lobbying institutional donors and governments for some years regarding the situation in South Sudan. There is a lot of talk about transitional areas there, that is, areas which are moving into development from situations of humanitarian crisis or recovery. We never saw full evidence of that, however, even though the funding streams were moving in that direction and the rhetoric around some of the programming was reflecting it. We must keep in mind how long it will take to get back even to where we were before the conflict, which was not at all a positive place. Prior to the current crisis, there was a degree of optimism and the organisations working on the ground, including the United Nations and donor governments, are all pushing in the same direction. However, there remains an extremely long way to go.

In terms of assessing the situation in South Sudan compared with that in other countries, it seems clear that we are looking at a ten to 15-year timeframe rather than five years or something of that order. There must be a reality check in this regard. This is an already exacerbated situation which is being made much worse. There are deep-rooted issues that must be addressed as part of the resolution of the current crisis, which is essentially a cyclical response to those same issues. If they are not addressed in depth and detail, the same problem will occur in the coming years. From a value for money perspective as well as a humanitarian perspective, it should be the imperative of the international community to engage, once and for all, with conflict resolution in the region by grasping some of the nettles that have proved tricky in recent years.

Ms Anne O'Mahony:

An important point to make about South Sudan is that it is a country with enormous potential. It has fantastic land which could be utilised in a very productive way and great waterways and water systems, including the Nile river. It has vast quantities of oil - one might say it is sitting on an enormous lake - and the process of exploration is at the very beginning. It has the potential to be a great nation. Indeed, if we could just bang heads together and get people to work to build the country properly, it could be fantastic.

However, as to whether we are optimistic for South Sudan's future, I have to say "No". The conflict is too bitter, ingrained and intractable at this time. Having said that, if there is sufficient international will, support and engagement, there is certainly hope that something can happen. As an organisation, the situation in South Sudan has left us very stretched. We are working with refugees in Ethiopia and Uganda and the internally displaced in South Sudan while continuing to run the longer-term development programmes in areas of South Sudan that are not part of the conflict. We are also dealing with the Syrian crisis, further potential weather problems in Somalia, and we recently went into the Central African Republic. These efforts are putting huge pressure on us as an organisation, as I am sure they are on my fellow delegates. We have an obligation to deliver on our organisational humanitarian mandate and the situation in South Sudan represents a significant challenge for us all.

In the meantime, the problems go on for South Sudan. If this peace deal has a chance of survival it will give people a little hope, but only if all the other instruments go in around it to help with the nation-building process. We were not in a great place last December but we were at least making progress. The outbreak of conflict at the end of the year set the country on a downward spiral which we must work together to address. We are all here today for that reason, to consider how we can work together to check that downward spiral and get South Sudan back on track.

Mr. Jim Clarken:

It is our job on this side of the house not to despair. We have been in more difficult places and have seen greater challenges surmounted. We must be optimistic while also being realistic. What we have at this time is a window of opportunity to achieve an agreement. We are continuing to work to raise international awareness of the crisis and ensure it is a priority. There is an opening in the coming months to do something before the situation becomes catastrophic in the immediate sense. We must continue to work on nation building and ensuring sustained international support and interest in a country that has amazing potential and amazing people. A report we distributed to members called Above and Beyond explains how different ethnicities are supporting each other. That grassroots, community-level support is and has been there. We need to ensure the leaders are held to account by their own people and the wider community.

We are very grateful to the committee for having us here today. This crisis is happening in the midst of a humanitarian system that is strained by what is going on in Syria and other places in the world. At the same, we can do a huge amount to prevent it from turning from crisis into catastrophe. It is important that we do everything we can, and we are asking the committee to raise its voice and use its influence in whatever way it can. We very much appreciate the support of the Chairman and members.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thank the delegates for their contributions to the meeting. We have learned a great deal from this engagement and will remain focused on this important issue. It is perhaps as important as what happened some years ago in the Horn of Africa. The peace deal that is in place is temporary, but we hope it will hold and the situation will improve as time goes on. We will ask the Tánaiste to raise the issue at the forthcoming European Council meeting, we will raise it ourselves at our European Presidency meeting in Rome, and we will also talk to our MEPs. I ask the delegates to keep in touch with us on this matter. This was a useful discussion and members are very interested in what is happening in the region.

The questions were very good and members' knowledge of what is happening there is clear.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.10 p.m. and adjourned at 4.35 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 18 June 2014.