Joining strengths for protection of civilians in South Sudan

Why only a concerted effort can halt violence and reignite the hope for peace

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Gloria P.Viñolas Journalist and Guest Lecturer, Ramon Llull University (Spain)

There is no silver bullet to solving the ethno-political conflict in South Sudan or to peacekeeping, especially when there is not much peace to keep. With almost two million people displaced by violence, over one million taking refuge in other countries, and over half of the population in need of lifesaving assistance, South Sudan has become the scene of one of the worst  humanitarian crises in the world — and a test of the willingness and capacity of the international community to stand up to the challenge it poses in terms of protection of civilians. While no one —as the Latin rule of law puts it— can be held to the impossible, all actors partaking in the problems and solutions to this conflict are at least expected to do what is possible to try to collectively stop the bloodshed.

At the heart of this interplay of national, regional, and international actors is the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), tasked with one of the most comprehensive protection mandates ever. Two of its main achievements have been sheltering over 200,000 civilians from violence on its bases, and the speed with which it adapted its work following the outbreak of the conflict in December 2013. Specifically, its focus shifted from supporting state-building to prioritising protection and facilitating the distribution of humanitarian aid, work it continues to carry out despite notable challenges in one of the most testing contexts in the world.

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The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) conducts a riot control training exercise for its peacekeepers.

The Security Council decided to increase the Mission’s force levels to a ceiling of 17,000 troops —including 4,000 for a Regional Protection Force yet to be deployed— following the July 2016 outbreak of violence in Juba, which once again pitted the supporters of president Salva Kiir — an ethnic Dinka — against those of former vice-president Riek Machar — a Nuer.  Hundreds of civilians and two Chinese peacekeepers were killed during the three days of fighting. In November 2016, a panel of outside investigators appointed by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon deemed “ineffective” the response of the Mission to this crisis. In their report, the panel made several recommendations to this peacekeeping operation: revisiting crisis response coordination arrangements; conducting robust patrolling and rehearsals on directives on the use of force; building shelters; and improving trauma care and medical evacuations to support its personnel.

Wherever they happen, these type of events also call attention to the need of having enough well-trained and equipped troops with the necessary support to engage, when appropriate, in robust action. One of the ways to prevent aggression against civilians is by showing presence — e.g. through visible patrolling — but credible deterrence is based on the readiness and ability to use force. In this and other key issues, UN Member States, Troop and Police Contributing Countries (TCC/PCC) and the UN Security Council have a role to play.

Identifying the necessary capacities on time and ensuring timely contributions by Member States is one of the main challenges facing missions, together with ensuring unity of purpose and respect to the chain of command by TCCs and PCCs. During a briefing to the Security Council in June 2015, force commanders and heads of military components of peacekeeping operations noted that some of these countries impose caveats such as location of deployment, types of actions that units are not allowed to undertake, and parallel rules of engagement, and asked the UN body to address it. “These and the retention of an operational link between a contingent and their capitals often results in disobedience of orders from the Force Commander”, they said in their statement.

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Akuei Bona Malwal, Permanent Representative of the Republic of South Sudan to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in his country.

The Security Council is also expected to address violations of the Status of Forces Agreement between peacekeeping operations and host countries, noted the panel of investigators appointed by the former UN Secretary General. Freedom of movement, for example, is paramount for a mission to monitor, prevent and respond effectively to violations of human rights and attacks against civilians. It is also key to ensuring prompt medical evacuations of UN personnel, something that may bear weight on the decisions of some states to contribute capacities and of some individuals to engage in robust action on the ground.

From 8th to 11 July 2016, helicopter gunships and tanks took to the streets in Juba, and scores of less sophisticated weapons constitute a daily threat to civilians across the country. Despite warnings of looming atrocities by top UN officials, a US-drafted Security Council resolution to stop the flow of arms into South Sudan was rejected in December 2016. Among the countries that abstained were Russia, China and the three African Council members —Angola, Egypt and Senegal.

Peacekeeping operations are a paradigm of the concerted effort required to help countries such as South Sudan pull out of deadlock and put reconciliation, rule of law, justice and human rights at the foundation of durable peace, development and the most important form of protection of civilians of all – one that is long-term and that stems from a protective environment. Peacekeeping operations depend on many aspects to carry out their duty successfully: on the countries that authorize them, back them politically, and provide them in a timely manner with the human, technical and financial means they need to implement their mandate. They depend on the host governments, the willingness of the parties to the conflict, and the strength of civil society. Missions are constrained by weather, the capacity of local counterparts —from village chiefs to policemen— and the lack of infrastructures. South Sudan, for example, has around 200 miles of paved road in a territory 2.5 times the size of the UK, and over 80% of its population lives in rural areas that, for the most part, can only be reached by air during the long rainy season. As is the case with any organization, missions also depend on the preparation, integrity, health and motivation of each of its staff members.

No one can be held to the impossible. However, there is a time to fully embrace the complexity of the violence that has ravaged the world’s youngest nation since December 2013 —its multiple conflicts, causes and perpetrators. There is also a time to learn from the day-to-day challenges in the field, as unglamorous as the lessons may be — for example, that muddy roads and a lack of cellular network coverage to communicate with local authorities may be enough to ruin a plan that seemed great hundreds and even thousands of miles away.

Above all, there is a time for each national, regional and international partner to take ownership of its role in fostering peace and in ensuring accountability for a job well-done within its ranks. There is a time for of all these and, after tens of thousands killed and the country at risk of even greater violence, the time is now.

Gloria P.Viñolas (@Gloriaspv) is an international journalist reporting on global development with focus on Africa, and a guest lecturer at the Master in Journalism and International Relations of Ramon Llull University (URL) in Spain. Her work appears at El Pais and has also been published in Forbes, the World Policy Institute (New York) and the leading media outlets in Spain via the multimedia newswire Europa Press. She collaborated with the peacekeeping operation in South Sudan from 2014 to 2016.

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