Mission Impossible? Lessons from UN Peacekeeping in South Sudan

08 June 2017   ·   Elisa D. Lux

The UN Mission in South Sudan faces daunting challenges, especially with regard to the protection of civilians. Despite its efforts, the mission cannot solve the conflict alone. Regional and international actors must step up and act more decisively. Germany can help by pushing for the immediate establishment of the planned hybrid court for atrocities. It can also encourage a frank debate about the limits of the protection of civilians and motivate other countries to increase humanitarian aid.

In December 2013, two years after gaining independence, South Sudan descended into chaos when fighting erupted in Juba, the country’s capital. The clashes reflected a larger power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President Riek Machar. Since then, the world’s youngest nation has earned several devastating distinctions: South Sudan is Africa’s largest refugee crisis and the third-largest globally, after Syria and Afghanistan. Over 100,000 people are reportedly dying of starvation, with another 1 million near starvation. It is also the world’s deadliest country for humanitarian workers. And warnings of a possible genocide dominated headlines at the end of 2016.

How could it go so wrong? Hopes were high in 2011 when a peaceful referendum paved the way for the country’s split from Sudan, ending a decades-long struggle. The United Nations (UN) deployed a lightweight peacekeeping operation, UNMISS, to support the new government and consolidate peace. Although no one would have discarded the risk of conflict in a country with such a tumultuous past, the fighting in December 2013 took many observers by surprise, including the UN. Within days, tens of thousands of civilians sought refuge at UNMISS bases. The Security Council responded by sending more troops and police, and re-prioritizing the mission’s mandate towards the Protection of Civilians (PoC), human rights monitoring, and support for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Yet, despite international and regional efforts to bring South Sudan back on the road to peace, the country remains embroiled in conflict. The list of broken deals and empty promises is long. In August 2015, after 20 months of fighting, and with the threat of sanctions looming, President Kiir and opposition leader Machar signed a peace agreement facilitated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The agreement did not, however, succeed in deescalating their personalized quarrel. In fact, Kiir put forward several reservations, raising doubts as to the agreement’s buy-in and viability. Controversies over power-sharing and security arrangements boiled over once again in July 2016, leading to renewed fighting in Juba and Machar’s flight from South Sudan. The armed opposition has since splintered further. Ethnic tensions have intensified, and violence has escalated in many places, with civilians deliberately under attack.

UNMISS – a failed peacekeeping intervention or mission impossible?

In light of this ongoing tragedy, questions about the effectiveness of UNMISS and UN peacekeeping more generally have gained greater prominence. Indeed, South Sudan is sometimes cited as an example for failed peacekeeping interventions. To be sure, the challenges facing UNMISS are daunting, especially with regard to PoC. But the tools for addressing them are far from being solely in the hands of the mission.

Protection challenge: UNMISS has faced harsh criticism for its perceived failure to protect civilians. Last year, armed elements forcibly entered several PoC sites, killing dozens of civilians. The mission also failed to intervene when government soldiers attacked UN personnel and aid workers in a compound close to its premises. In addition, the mission has had to deal with rising crime within the sites and accusations that it was not doing enough to protect people outside them. That said, UNMISS has saved countless lives by sheltering hundreds of thousands of civilians since the conflict began. It should also not be forgotten that it is the states in which the missions take place (“host states”) that bear the primary responsibility for protecting their civilians.

Consent challenge: Another challenge for UNMISS arises from insufficient host state support, Juba’s formal consent to its deployment notwithstanding. Government forces, for example, frequently obstruct the mission’s freedom of movement, limiting its ability to carry out mandated tasks. Such violations reveal an asymmetric power dynamic behind the concept of consent: at the formal (strategic) level, the Security Council has the upper hand. It authorizes mission mandates, which host states may feel pressured to accept. The dynamic is reversed at the operational level: under the banner of sovereignty, host states often pick and choose which mandated tasks to support or not. They know that the partial lack of cooperation, while protested, is rarely sanctioned. In South Sudan, the Government is keen on more capacity-building support but resistant towards UNMISS’ efforts to monitor human rights violations. Peacekeeping becomes an options menu. Without the full backing of the Security Council, the mission is left with little leverage.

Performance challenge: UNMISS also struggles with varying levels of performance among its peacekeepers. For one, not all troops and police are willing to operate under dangerous conditions. During the crisis in July 2016, for instance, several European countries, including Germany, evacuated police officers - a unilateral decision, which not only compromised the mission’s operational capacity, but also dealt a serious blow to the morale of staff remaining on the ground. On more than one occasion, peacekeepers also reportedly looked on as civilians were attacked. Furthermore, not all troops and police are sufficiently prepared and equipped. Part of the problem lies in the inherent difficulty of achieving efficient coordination between uniformed personnel representing over 60 countries. Despite overarching requirements, actual training and equipment standards vary widely.

Political challenge: Lack of progress on the political front has similarly impacted on the mission’s work. UNMISS has been charged with supporting the implementation of a peace agreement it did not broker, for a conflict, which the warring parties themselves do not seem ready to end. Their frequent breaches of the agreement have prompted statements of condemnation from regional and international actors, but have hardly resulted in any real consequences. While there is much talk about the need for political solutions and an inclusive peace process, concrete actions are sparse. By its own admission, the Security Council ‘barks with no bite,’ and continues to rely on operational band-aids instead. The Regional Protection Force, which has been tasked with providing a secure environment in and around the capital, is one such example.

The way forward – Deeds not words

In the face of such formidable challenges, what can be done to improve the situation?

For a start, IGAD, the African Union (AU), and the UN Security Council must step up their efforts and act more decisively. It has not helped that calls for an arms embargo have ricocheted off the Council’s walls for more than two years. The AU’s lack of visible progress on establishing a hybrid court to prosecute atrocities, as envisaged in the peace agreement, may well have contributed to emboldening perpetrators who act with de facto impunity. And divisions among IGAD members pursuing their own national security and economic interests in South Sudan have limited the body’s ability to exercise coordinated pressure from within the region.

To change the calculus of the warring parties, regional and international actors must speak with one voice and overcome tensions between them over how to move forward. They urgently need to agree on a coherent political strategy, underpinned by real leverage. Beyond tangible advances on the hybrid court, such leverage could come from IGAD members fully enforcing existing sanctions that seek to prevent South Sudanese peace spoilers from parking assets in their countries. Given the conflict’s regional dimension, the US and European Union (EU) could also encourage key players, such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda, to play a more constructive role in the peace process in return for debt relief and security assistance. Donors investing in South Sudan, including China, should align their efforts under a joint donor approach, which takes into account progress on the political front and is premised on a durable ceasefire. Moreover, the Council could empower UNMISS to extend capacity-building support, but only if and for as long as the government desists from obstructing the mission’s mandated activities.

In addition, it is important to guard against overinflated expectations. The 4000-strong Regional Protection Force will likely not be able to prevent large-scale hostilities in Juba if the government and opposition decide to mobilize their armed elements. And the PoC sites, a measure of last resort never intended to last as long as it has, will remain a flawed tool. In this regard, it is high time for member-states to have a frank debate about the limits of PoC. A good starting point could be the paper submitted last year by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to the Security Council on the challenges inherent to the PoC sites and lessons learned from South Sudan.

UNMISS and the UN also have their work cut out for them. Last year’s protection crises have triggered several internal investigations. Their recommendations provide a useful road map, not just for UNMISS but for UN peacekeeping more broadly. This includes the need to further improve integrated contingency planning and scenario-based training, troop posture and mindset, security infrastructure of mission premises, as well as medical response capacities. While some progress has already been made, the challenge lies in continuously reviewing and revising the mission’s strategies to ensure a more effective delivery on mandated tasks. To improve performance accountability, the UN would also be well advised to develop an overarching, transparent standard by which to sanction contributing countries whose peacekeepers repeatedly fail or refuse to perform according to the rules of engagement.

In a similar vein, countries contributing uniformed personnel to UNMISS should be more realistic about what risks they may face in such a volatile environment. This includes a better understanding of the rights and obligations to use force to protect civilians. Withdrawing personnel at times of crisis, while perhaps understandable from a national perspective, is simply not acceptable from a peacekeeping viewpoint. Not only does it raise the specter of a domino effect among contributors (which would bring the mission to its knees); it also undercuts the very spirit of peacekeeping. After all, peacekeepers go where no one else is willing or able to go.

What role for Germany?

Germany, the third-largest UNMISS contributor among EU member-states, can support the mission in several meaningful ways. As a member of the Group of Friends of the Protection of Civilians, Germany can use its influence to push the Security Council to review the limits of PoC in South Sudan, as suggested earlier. It can also encourage troop- and police-contributing countries that have not yet done so to endorse the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians, a set of 18 unbinding pledges framed around PoC in UN peacekeeping. Furthermore, given its voice in the EU and its experience on criminal accountability, Germany should engage the AU on speeding up the establishment of the hybrid court. Even though Berlin has few political entry points in Juba, it can support efforts for a political solution by reaching out bilaterally to key regional players, in particular Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. Finally, and in light of the severe humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, Germany can motivate other European countries to contribute generously to the 2017 South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan, which still lacks over US$ 800 million in funding.  

Five lessons from South Sudan

The case of South Sudan offers five key lessons. First, finding a political solution is paramount. Such a solution should be supported, not substituted, by military or technical engagements. Second, it is not enough to reaffirm the primacy of politics; concrete ideas backed by actual leverage and ultimately actions are needed for this approach to work. Absent those, the quest for a political solution can backfire: the conflict parties realize that non-compliance with previous commitments trigger but empty warnings, which they, in turn, seek to mitigate with mollifying (equally empty) promises. Third, regional and international actors should avoid overlapping or competing initiatives, which incentivize conflict parties to ‘forum shop’ and play mediators against each other. Fourth, lack of political progress impacts on a peacekeeping mission’s ability to carry out other tasks, especially where the mission is not in charge of the political process. In this regard, it will be interesting to review the effectiveness of the division of labor between UNMISS and IGAD, which holds the lead on the political front, once the conflict has been resolved. Fifth, peacekeeping missions require the full support of the Security Council to offset the asymmetric power dynamic behind the concept of consent. If the Council fails to support missions in holding host states to their commitments, they are effectively left out in the cold.

All told, the conflict in South Sudan is protracted, but it is not insurmountable. It requires all stakeholders to move beyond the comfort zone of well-established rhetoric and follow through on their own words.

Friedenseinsätze English Sub-Sahara Afrika

Elisa D. Lux

Elisa D. Lux worked at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York from 2012 until 2016. This article presents her personal opinions only.