UNITED NATIONS -- U.N. experts say South Sudan's National Security Service has been operating outside the law and poses "a significant threat" to last September's fragile peace agreement, including by allegedly killing two government critics and arresting others.
In a 111-page report to the Security Council circulated Thursday, the panel of experts also said youth activist Peter Biar Ajak was arrested on his arrival at Juba airport on July 28, 2018, and has since been detained "where he has had only intermittent access to lawyers and family." The immediate release of political prisoners is a key provision of the peace agreement, the panel said.
The cases of Idri, Luak and Ajak "illustrate the ability of the National Security Service, and the Internal Security Bureau in particular, to act outside the rule of law and official state structures," the experts said.
"These powers, and the desire of the National Security Service to retain them beyond the peace agreement, pose a significant threat to the implementation of the agreement and, by extension, to the peace, security and stability of South Sudan," they said.
There were high hopes that South Sudan would have peace and stability after gaining its independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But it 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 belongs to the Nuer people.
Fighting has killed almost 400,000 people, displaced over 4 million and left more than 7 million — two-thirds of the population — "severely food insecure" and in need of humanitarian aid.
Many peace agreements have failed, but since the September deal was signed the previously warring parties have been trying to rebuild trust, though U.N. envoy David Shearer said in March that "progress has been slow."
While the agreement has reduced fighting in many parts of South Sudan and led to the return of some opposition figures to Juba, implementation has been challenged "by delays and occasional obstruction," the experts' report said.
"A state of emergency remains in place: several prominent political detainees are still in detention or unaccounted for, and little substantive progress has been made on the most challenging provisions," the experts said, citing political boundaries, ceding power from the central government and security provisions.
"At the heart of those issues is a government reluctant to share control of key parts of the political, security and economic landscape of South Sudan," they said.
The experts said this is "perhaps most evident in the growing power and influence of the National Security Service, which has emerged as a significant and parallel fighting force able to operate outside of the rule of law and the framework for the implementation of the peace agreement."
The report details how both the government and opposition forces continue to profit "from a parallel conflict economy, including through the illicit trade in timber and gold."
While South Sudan's political elites are benefiting from the relative stability and access to an economy buoyed by a recent rise in oil prices, the experts said they are "increasingly contending with the waning patience of commanders, fighters and civilians, who have yet to see the benefits of the bargains struck by their leaders" in the September peace deal.