Peacekeeping in South Sudan: Offering full-spectrum protection for civilians

13 Jan

The UN Security Council’s decision of the 24th December 2013 to reinforce the UNMISS[1] Peacekeeping operation in South Sudan represents a serious attempt to assist in the prevention of attacks on the civilian population within the country. On a wider level, the reinforcement of UNMISS indicates the role that peacekeeping is now expected to play in civilian protection, but it may also provide a warning to how much a peacekeeping operation can achieve without a comprehensive political process to back this up.

Resolution 2132, which reinforced UNMISS, is also representative of the UN’s stronger stance on what to do when violence breaks out in an area where an operation is already being deployed – a journey which began with the calamitous decision in 1994 not to reinforce the UNAMIR operation in Rwanda when it became clear that a systematic campaign of genocide was being planned, and ultimately undertaken. Therefore in many ways, the UN’s reinforcement of UNMISS is the ‘right thing’ to do, a product of a 20 year reflection and development on how to respond in situations where a mission is deployed and civilians are threatened. Moreover, the UN’s decision to reinforce has saved lives in South Sudan, in part as a result of the simple fact that there are now more peacekeepers deployed in the conflict zone to protect the civilian population. This is to be valued.

However, civilian protection at this tactical level could pose future difficulties for UNMISS.

The very presence of UN peacekeepers can sometimes offer enough of a deterrence to would be ‘spoilers’ to a peace process, including those considering attacking civilians. However, deterrence alone will not last forever, and this presents considerable difficulties where civilian protection mandates are concerned. If violence continues after reinforcements have been deployed, with peacekeepers being unable to effectively deter further attacks, then the UN will have difficulties, both logistical and in terms of legitimacy. Richard Gowan’s article for World Politics Review speaks to these challenges, where he outlines three possible scenarios for the UMISS peacekeeping mission in the near future[2]:

In the first and best scenario, the mission will manage to hold together militarily long enough for more-or-less sincere political talks to end the violence. In the second, it might muddle through in the face of half-hearted negotiations and spasmodic but serious violence, trying to save as many lives as possible. The third, worst-case scenario would involve the fragmentation and rout of UNMISS after repeated attacks on its bases, personnel and convoys.

This challenge in cases such as South Sudan, is partly the result of the undefined relationship between the original design of peacekeeping – deploying missions where there is actually peace to keep – and what operations are now being asked to do regarding protection of civilians. Ever since the first armed peacekeeping operation (UNEF I) was closed on the eve of the 1967 war in the Middle East, there has been an implicit admission that peacekeeping is only effective if the parties to the conflict actually wish for peace. Peacekeeping where there is no peace to keep is dangerous territory for the United Nations, and peacekeeping failures have often gone hand in hand with deployments into areas where UN peacekeepers are no more than bystanders in conflicts where combatants have no real interest in pursuing peace. In the case of South Sudan, it could well be that additional peacekeepers are to be deployed into an area where there is little peace to keep. This dynamic has not gone un-noticed by troop contributors[3].

There seems to be no getting around it:  a comprehensive approach to the protection of civilians requires considerable political activity above and beyond the creation of short-term ceasefires and consolidation of battle-lines.

The necessity of a holistic political process is critical for full civilian protection. Importantly, this will require reflection on the evolution of structures and power dynamics wherein ethnic tensions are allowed to fester, civil society groups had little access to power-making structures, and allegations of corruption have been pointed at political elites[4]. It would be hugely beneficial if such reflection were to also examine the planning and execution of international statebuilding practices which no doubt influenced the actions at a national level. No conflict is contained purely within the borders of the state, safe from external influence. South Sudan is no different.

A more sustained, pre-deployment, process of reflection could lead to more attuned strategies for peace. The New York Times warns of the difficulties of devising a peace process without a significant understanding of the conflict, arguing that

Any push toward a tribally defined solution to the conflict — like a Bosnia-style ethnic power sharing deal — would be disastrous, for it would entrench and validate ethnic fissures, rather than give political power sharing a chance to smooth them over.[5]

An editorial in the Washington Post shares this sentiment, noting that power-sharing ‘could become just another division of the spoils, and elections could become another exercise in ethnic division’[6]. Thus in understanding international peacebuilding, a much broader constituency of stakeholders must be engaged at earlier phases. This – in the words of civil society actors from the region – will require political sacrifices from the conflicting parties[7].  Elsewhere, the role of religious leaders, civic leaders and former combatants in creating a durable peace have been highlighted as being critical in establishing a durable peace[8]. A United States Institute of Peace report from 8 January further elucidates this[9]

Strategies for protecting civilians in South Sudan are ultimately being undertaken too late in the political process and in a bit of a policy vacuum. International peacekeeping operations have limitations, particularly when their deterrent effect falters. In looking towards establishing a political solution to the conflict, a suitable testament to the civilians who have been killed, injured, or forcibly removed (and to those peacekeepers who have been killed and injured trying to protecting them) would be to do more (and earlier) to encourage a political system which has the ‘peaceful coexistence, progress, development and happiness[10]’ of the South Sudanese population at its heart. It is in these processes where effective, sustainable civilian protection lies.

 Dr. David Curran, Peacekeeping Fellow


[1] UN Department of Public Information, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2132 (2013), Security Council Increases United Nations Mission’s Military Presence In South Sudan, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2013/sc11230.doc.htm

[2] Gowan, Richard, Diplomatic Fallout: Can the U.N. Rebuild its Force in South Sudan? http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/13460/diplomatic-fallout-can-the-u-n-rebuild-its-force-in-south-sudan

[3] Republica, Your war, our soldiers!, 07 January 2014, http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=67502

[5] New York Times, South Sudan’s Tangled Crisis, 05 January 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/opinion/south-sudans-tangled-crisis.html?_r=0

[7] Alliance for Peacebuilding, Statement of Sudanese and South Sudanese Civil Society on the Conflict in South Sudan, 30 December 2013, http://www.allianceforpeacebuilding.org/2013/12/statement-of-sudanese-and-south-sudanese-civil-society-on-the-conflict-in-south-sudan/

[9] Princeton N. Lyman, Jon Temin, Susan Stigant, Crisis and Opportunity in South Sudan, US Institute of Peace, 08 January 2014, http://www.usip.org/publications/crisis-and-opportunity-in-south-sudan?utm_content=buffer2b45c&utm_

[10] Alliance for Peacebuilding, Statement of Sudanese and South Sudanese Civil Society on the Conflict in South Sudan, 30 December 2013, http://www.allianceforpeacebuilding.org/2013/12/statement-of-sudanese-and-south-sudanese-civil-society-on-the-conflict-in-south-sudan/

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One Response to “Peacekeeping in South Sudan: Offering full-spectrum protection for civilians”

  1. Moses wawich January 13, 2014 at 10:01 am #

    David : you have articulated very well the enforcement and the whole architecture of the situation in South Sudan. I was b/c of the UNMISS protection that safe my life now, other wise I could not be alive now. Thank u very much for the article.

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