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Between a rock and a hard place:The UN and the protection of civilians in South Sudan

By Mark Malan and Charles T Hunt

When the Security Council adopted Resolution 2155 on 27 May 2014, it substantially changed the form and function of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The UN departed from its previous mandate, primarily state-building activities, and chose to prioritise the task of protecting civilians. Although each UN peacekeeping operation is different from any other, changing a UN operation from a peacebuilding mission to one focused on the protection of civilians (POC) is a radical departure from anything that the UN has attempted in nearly six decades of peacekeeping.

The aim of this paper is to examine the UN’s civilian-protection mandate in South Sudan, and make an assessment of the potential of UNMISS following Resolution 2155 to protect civilians, end the violence and move South Sudan towards a post-conflict developmental agenda.

Civilian protection in UN peace operations

Although early UN peace operations in the Congo and Cyprus had limited roles in terms of protection, it is now common practice for missions to be explicitly mandated to protect civilians from harm. The perceived failures of peacekeeping in the 1990s were synonymous with a failure to protect civilians from being attacked by armed belligerents. The absence of mandates to enable this, as well as insufficient human and materiel resources rendered UN missions in Rwanda and Bosnia, for example, incapable of providing sufficient protection to civilians in mortal danger. Since the late 1990s, however, Security Council practice has evolved to recognise that the consequences of human suffering are a threat to international peace and security (see, for example, Resolutions 1265 [1999] and 1820 [2008]). As a result, there has been a revolution in the tasks of peace operations, which now include explicit and robust civilian-protection mandates.

The perceived failures of peacekeeping in the 1990s were synonymous with a failure to protect civilians from being attacked by armed belligerents

Starting with the 1999 UN mission in Sierra Leone, the Security Council has regularly invoked Chapter VII of the UN Charter to create protection mandates. Today about half of the UN missions are mandated to protect civilians ‘under imminent threat of physical violence’, in accordance with geographical, temporal and capability-based caveats, and with ‘respect to the responsibilities’ of the host state.5 It is telling that all but one of the UN missions since 1999 have included these provisions. Even when the provisions have not been specifically spelt out, responsibilities for civilian protection have been implicit

in a number of UN missions.6 These developments were reflected in the March 2009 report of the General Assembly’s Special Committee on Peacekeeping Operations (C- 34), which made explicit the relationship between peacekeeping and POC.7

The adoption of civilian-protection mandates by large missions deployed to unstable regions (e.g. the United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [MONUSCO] and the United Nations Mission in Darfur [UNAMID]) led some analysts to argue that the UN peacekeeping system is overstretched, under-resourced and ‘overmatched’.8

Consequently, implementation has proven difficult. Lack of necessary equipment and appropriately skilled personnel have hampered efforts. Different interpretations of those mandates and the associated rules of engagement by various host states and national entities have also led to inconsistent, and at times ineffective, implementation of civilians

Between a rock and a hard place: the Un and the protection of civilians in soUth sUdan


protection obligations. It has also been recognised that a lack
of strategies and operational concepts, as well as tactical-level doctrine and guidance for civilian protection significantly diminish the effectiveness of these mandates.

United Nations Mission in the Sudan – mandate to protect civilians
When the war between Sudan and southern Sudan ended in 2005, the Security Council established the United Nations Mission in the Sudan (UNMIS), which included a significant civilian- protection mandate. UNMIS was established as an integrated, multidimensional peace-support operation to help implement the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA),9 support the reform of Sudan’s security sector and protect civilians. With an authorised strength of up to 10 000 military personnel and up to 715 civilian police personnel, UNMIS included the following tasks:

To monitor and verify the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. 

To help with the establishment of the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme, as called for in the CPA. 

To help the parties to the CPA restructure the police service in Sudan, to make it consistent with democratic policing; to develop a police training-and-evaluation programme; and to otherwise assist in the training of civilian police. 

To help the parties to the CPA promote the rule of law, including establishing an independent judiciary, and protect the human rights of all the people of Sudan. 

To support the preparations for and conduct of the elections and referenda provided for by the CPA. 

To contribute towards international efforts to protect and promote human rights in Sudan, and to coordinate international efforts towards POC.10
The Security Council emphasised the importance of civilian protection when it authorised UNMIS, under Chapter VII of the charter, to:
... take the necessary action, in the areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities, to protect United Nations personnel, facilities, installations, and equipment, ensure the security and freedom of movement of United Nations personnel, humanitarian workers, joint assessment mechanism and assessment and evaluation commission personnel, and, without prejudice to the responsibility of the Government of Sudan, to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.11 

During the first years of the mission’s deployment, the Darfur crisis drew much of its resources away from supporting
the CPA. Several leadership gaps – notably, UNMIS was without an in-theatre special representative of the secretary- general (SRSG) between late October 2006 and late October 2007 – and persistent staffing shortfalls further reduced the mission’s effectiveness.12

In August 2006, the Security Council decided to expand
the UNMIS mandate and deploy the mission to Darfur, while continuing its existing mandate and operations. The Security Council decided that UNMIS would be strengthened by up to 17 300 military personnel and by up to 3 300 civilian police personnel, including up to 16 formed police units (FPUs), and that the mandate would support the implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement and the N’djamena Agreement on Humanitarian Ceasefire on the Conflict in Darfur.13

Differing interpretations of the mandate created serious confusion for UNMIS and its partners during the CPA interim

However, UNMIS was not able to deploy to Darfur because
of the Sudanese government’s persistent opposition to a UN operation in that region.14 UNMIS therefore continued with
its original mission of supporting implementation of the CPA, focusing on the parties’ outstanding commitments, including the redeployment of forces; resolving the dispute over the oil-rich Abyei region; and preparing for national elections in 2010 and the referendum in 2011.15

Like the other missions with a POC mandate, UNMIS had difficulty translating its POC mandate elements into a viable concept of operations. Differing interpretations of the mission’s Chapter VII mandate for POC created ‘serious confusion’ for UNMIS and its partners during the CPA interim period. There appeared to have been limited coordination and cooperation on POC in the mission, with different sections working in isolation. Several attempts were made to clarify the Security Council’s mandate and systematise the mission’s approach, until finally

a decision was made in early 2010 to ‘mainstream’ POC and abolish the UNMIS Protection Section.16

According to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s April 2010 report on progress with the mission, the UNMIS strategy for protecting civilians was based on a three-tier approach:

• Providing the immediate security required to physically protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence

• Facilitating the delivery of basic needs by securing access for humanitarian and relief activities4

• Deterring attacks on civilians and enhancing the state’s capacity to protect through conflict prevention and management, and the strengthening of human- rights mechanisms.17

This rather ambitious protection strategy was translated into concrete UNMIS operations by means of increased patrolling and a greater UNMIS presence in remote potential hotspots in southern Sudan. The strategy was also evident in the mission’s response to major conflicts, such as the January 2010 clashes between Dinka and Nuer groups, which resulted in 50 reported deaths and at least 11 000 displaced persons.18

Rather than enhancing state capacity to protect, however, it seems that UNMIS
troops were dependent on state capacity (i.e. the acquiescence of the SPLA) to fulfil their patrolling duties. For example, in the months leading up to April 2010, UNMIS continued to receive reports of serious abuses carried out by the SPLA during its military operations, and reports of armed groups along the border of Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal state and southern Darfur. However, the secretary-general reported that ‘UNMIS was unable to conduct an assessment of these areas owing to the lack of security guarantees from SPLA’ and that ‘... planned aerial assessments of the border areas ... in Western Bahr el Ghazal State were also called off after security clearances from SPLA were denied’.19

In October 2010 the secretary-general reported to the Security Council that
UNMIS had ‘... finalized, in consultation with the UN country team, a strategy
for the protection of civilians intended to provide clear direction on how it [would]
meet the objectives of its protection of civilians mandate during the last year of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement’.20 The mission’s strategy provided for a ‘more holistic’ approach to POC, and included various civilian and military activities, including political dialogue, conflict resolution, physical protection, human rights and legal reform. This strategy was based on a three-tiered approach to POC that had recently been promulgated by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Field Support (DFS):

• Protection through political prevention (monitoring, verification and early warning, as well as conflict prevention through political advocacy and engagement with the government)

• Protection from physical violence (political mitigation and conflict-resolution initiatives supported by the projection of force)

• Establishment of a protective environment through advocacy, legal reform and capacity building of state institutions.21

Notably absent, however, was concrete guidance on how the projection of force would protect civilians against the kind of violent inter-communal conflict and armed attacks that persisted during the transition from war to peace.22

Between June 2011 and March 2012, International Alert conducted an assessment of peace, conflict and peacebuilding in South Sudan following the CPA. Their assessment found that some states – notably Northern and Western Bahr el Ghazal, and Central Equatoria – were free of significant sustained violent conflict. However, in the centre and north-east of the country, there was little evidence of any progress in peacebuilding: violent tribal conflict and armed insurgencies were still found to

be widespread throughout 2011. In the states of Unity and Jonglei, violence had significantly increased around the time of independence

Between a rock and a hard place: the Un and the protection of civilians in South Sudan 

Following a resurgence of violence in Jonglei, Upper Nile and Abyei in early 2011, UNMIS increased its presence in the affected areas, helped with the protection of people displaced by the violence, and increased its political engagement with stakeholders. However, the SPLA denied access to UNMIS personnel, which severely hampered their ability to patrol in conflict areas such as Abyei, Jonglei and Upper Nile, and to deter threats against civilians.24

While the prevailing situation in South Sudan at independence may point to weaknesses in the second tier of the UNMIS
POC strategy (i.e. the protection of the population from
physical violence), it certainly hints at abject failure in the third tier – namely the establishment of a protective environment (through advocacy, legal reform and capacity building of state institutions). It is arguable that the UN did little to ensure that the conventional security and justice foundations of post-conflict peacebuilding – DDR and security sector reform (SSR) – were in place before the referendum that led to independence for South Sudan and the liquidation of UNMIS.

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