UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations opposes a plan by South Sudan's government to move to elections if warring parties are unable to reconcile differences at peace talks now scheduled to start May 17, the U.N.'s deputy peacekeeping chief said Wednesday.
Bintou Keita, who recently returned from South Sudan and Ethiopia, told reporters that high-level shuttle diplomacy is taking place to try to reduce the gap between the parties and improve prospects for success at talks that been delayed three times since April 26.
She said it was "wise" for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional group known as IGAD, to delay resuming the High-Level Revitalization Forum in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and acknowledge that the parties are "so far apart that there is a need to have some kind of homework" first rather than "ticking a box and saying we have had a meeting."
With ministers, the international community and South Sudan's government engaging in the high-level diplomacy, "I think we have a better chance" to make progress on narrowing differences, Keita said.
There were high hopes that South Sudan would have peace and stability after its independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But the country plunged into ethnic violence in December 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president who is a Nuer. A peace deal signed in August 2015 didn't stop the fighting, and a cessation of hostilities agreement this past Dec. 24 was broken within hours.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and forced over 4 million to flee their homes, more than 1.8 million of them leaving the country in what has become the world's fastest growing refugee crisis.
Keita said fighting is still going on, and last Friday the U.N. said a new surge in violence in the civil war is having a "devastating impact" on thousands of people ahead of the peace talks.
She said one element "brought into the mix" in her discussions with government officials, including South Sudan First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, was new elections as a "Plan B" if the talks fail.
Keita, the assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, said government officials told her elections were "another way to look at exiting ... the dire situation in which the country finds itself," and could be arranged in three to six months.
"We said, well, even in places where it is extremely well organized there is no way that you can go through all the steps of preparing elections in the conditions that we are seeing now" in South Sudan, she said.
Keita said it is clear to the U.N. that from the economic, political and humanitarian perspectives, South Sudan is not "a country where it is conducive right now to go through any meaningful elections as a Plan B."
"So for us there is no Plan B," she said. "The only plan is the High-Level Revitalization Forum."