Views from the Field: Some Thoughts on the UN Mission in South Sudan

Views from the Field: Some Thoughts on the UN Mission in South Sudan
With the Secretary-General’s High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations set to begin its work, IPI and CIC solicited a number of papers on local and regional perceptions of peace operations. This essay is part of brief collection that provided the Panel with a range of viewpoints on recent developments in individual operations and related to the broader state of global peace operations.

By Geoffrey L. Duke

The experience with the UN peace operation in South Sudan

As a South Sudanese native who works on community security and broad aspects of security sector reforms, I have had both personal and professional experience with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Personally, I live among the communities and experience similar fears that necessitates protection of civilians, which is a core component of the mandate of UNMISS. I have friends and neighbors living in the Protection of Civilian (PoC) camps at the state capital, I live in the same city where the camp is located and my mother lives 80miles out of Juba and has no means of quickly seeking refuge at any UN camp, should there be any imminent fear that would deem such action necessary. UNMISS is here to protect civilians but I cannot expect more than what they are able to provide. However, the services they have could become more accessible. The major  hindrance  here  is  the  adequacy  of  means  to  implement  the  mandate  given  to  the mission.

Professionally, I interact with UNMISS because I coordinate the South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms (SSANSA), a network of civil society organizations from across all ten states campaigning against armed violence in South Sudan. SSANSA a national civil society body working with civil society, religious groups, the government and other actors involved in security provision to help address the problems posed to community security as a result of armed violence. Specifically, the network facilitates civil society actions to make people safer from armed violence by preventing and combating the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons in South Sudan, the region and beyond.

One  of  SSANSA’s  core  activities  is  conducting  meetings  entitled  “Security  is  Everyone’s Business” (SEB). The SEB dialogues are held for various providers of protection and recipients – which everyone in the community is invited to. UNMISS has been involved to varying degrees since the meetings began in 2013.

SSANSA had a productive relationship with UNMISS Security Sector Reform unit which was instrumental in developing security sector oversight mechanisms. Also, we have jointly worked with representatives of UNMISS from the Rule of law and justice support unit as supporters of the government initiative to develop a small arms policy, legislation and regulation (Footnote (ed.): The Small Arms policy has been passed by the cabinet. And the Small Arms Control bill is still under review at the ministerial level. The regulation is still under review at the level of the drafting committee.)

As coordinator of SSANSA, I have also interacted with UNMISS in other ways. I was a member of the Cessation of Hostilities Monitoring Team (MVT) that carried out the monitoring and verification mission of the agreement signed between the government of South Sudan and the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army (SSDM/A). The MVT included 2 representatives of UNMISS. The mobility of the team was supported by UNMISS.

What have been the effects – intended or unintended, good or bad?

Overall, UNMISS has faced some challenges in providing protection, and SSANSA believes that this is a direct consequence of the varied levels of interaction between UNMISS and the local populations. Previous actions of UNMISS indicate a reticence to interact or consult directly with civilians for whom UNMISS is supposed to be providing protection. This has resulted in misunderstandings about the role of UNMISS and what it can and cannot provide in terms of protection.

Additionally, when SSANSA has approached UNMISS about opportunities to participate in community security consultations, reactions and levels of participation have varied.

One concrete example is the launch of the “Security is everyone’s business” series of meetings in Bor in February 2013, organized by SSANSA as part of its initiative to enable better civilian protection policies and practices through regular information sharing between providers and recipients of protection. SSANSA’s conviction is that a dialogue between the protectors and the protected is indispensable to providing the appropriate and adequate form of protection to civilians.

The Bor conference was attended by fifty participants from drawn state institutions and civil society sectors as well as UNMISS.  The conference did not just highlight contemporary security concerns but discussed the role[s] each stakeholder should play in enhancing community security at the local level.

UNMISS was given an opportunity to brief participants of their role in civilian protection  – including the scope, mainly so that civilians would not expect more than what the mission could actually provide. The UNMISS representative present in the meeting declined to brief the forum saying that he does not have the mandate to speak on behalf of the mission in the meeting – but rather to just attend. This incident was raised with UNMISS senior representatives, and at a later meeting on 16 December 2013, UNMISS representatives joined and participated more actively.

Unfortunately, hostilities broke out the following day and altered the security landscape. However, community security meetings have continued as protection needs have only become more  important  now.  Since  then,  UNMISS  has  further  improved  interaction  by  providing material support by airlifting SSANSA staff to meetings that are not accessible by road due to security concerns. This indicates the support to other activities that supports the PoC mandate. These SEB dialogues have provided opportunity for communities to raise their protection concerns directly to UNMISS representatives who are in attendance.

Although  it  is widely known that human  rights monitoring and reporting, including armed violence casualty data is being collected, this documentation is not readily available, and often does not include data from areas that UNMISS considers insecure for them to visit. This makes people question the purpose of  such a mechanism, and how it would be constructive for protecting human rights.

There are numerous reports that UNMISS is not able to provide protection even within its PoC camps, and evidence of internal conflict between IDPs has resulted in some deaths. Furthermore, there is a fear that UNMISS will send IDPs in the PoC sites back to their homes without being able to guarantee their security. The positive part of the PoC camps is that communities feel safer there. The negative bit is when their perception of safety is contradicted by attacks on the camps that the UN peacekeepers could not quickly and effectively halt. Attacks on PoC sites in Akobo (Footnote (ed.) The Small Arms policy has been passed by the cabinet. And the Small Arms Control bill is still under review at the ministerial level. The regulation is still under review at the level of the drafting committee)  and Bor (Footnote (ed.) See report on Bor attack here: this year are examples.

The mission should engage with armed groups and state authorities if they failed to protect the citizenry.  Repeated attacks on civilians like the ones pointed above continue to promote the perception that the peacekeeping forces are men and women with guns who never engage hostiles even when witnessing attacks against civilians under their protection. Bor and Akobo sets a bad precedence that the mission should never allow in South Sudan and other parts of the world where UN missions are deployed.

How the UN could operate differently in South Sudan to achieve better results

UNMISS should consult more with communities, especially in regard to protection of civilians. They should formulate their PoC policy based on direct consultations with civilians living in fear. (Both in and out of the camps).  This would enable them to better align PoC actions with civilian needs in and outside PoC camps. This can as well inform which priorities can and should be addressed, what civilians can and should expect from UNMISS, and how civilians can contribute to security promotion.

The fears of a people seeking protection can best be articulated by them (who experience the PoC threats). Additionally, communities are best placed to suggest solutions that can easily be tailored to their fears by the mission. Also, it is through communicating with the communities that there will be clear understanding of what the mission can offer and how communities can quickly access these resources.

Furthermore, All UNMISS staff interacting with communities should have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities vis-à-vis the mandate. And they should be able to express these in clear terms to the people they are supposed to be protecting. UNMISS should take advantage  of  ongoing  local  work  to  provide or  consult  on  protection.  This  not  only  helps UNMISS improve its performance, but also further develops civil society capacity to take on these roles and responsibilities, providing an opportunity for an exit strategy…focusing more on the practical needs for peace consolidation in South Sudan.

In developing mandates for the mission, the Security Council should include measures to save the accomplishments of the mission, especially where certain components are trimmed off. For instance, the component of SSR has been removed in the current mandate, yet there is need for the mission to keep preparing the ground work to continue this work after peace agreement is signed. The UNMISS SSR support unit is currently dissolved and they will have to begin from scratch with new staff, new relationships, understanding context etc. That is intuitional memory loss. Keeping a core team to evaluate the SSR support, continue working with civil society and indirectly laying the groundwork for future support to government would make more sense than just removing it completely.

UNMISS  should  maximize  current  limited  patrol  capacity  by  sharing  tips  to  the  local communities on how to access assistance when they are far away from a UN base or camp; how to report violent conflicts and human rights violations? The mission has a radio, which is a very useful outreach tool to communicate with communities, it should provide communities with protection and safety tips including how to prevent attacks.  This would enable the mission to achieve more with its current resources and mitigate some protection concerns.

UNMISS should regularly gather and analyze information regarding the security and safety of civilians outside UN bases in order to prepare and advise on the displaced civilians returning to their homes. Beyond UNMISS, it is also key to ensure that the next Addis agreement recognizes that the  views and  insights of  civilians themselves are indispensable to effectively protect civilians.  Civil  society  initiatives  that  foster  dialogue  between  communities  and  protection actors, like SSANSA’s community security meetings, can all be used to gather information on the insights of civilians regarding their security situation.

More emphasis should be given to regular multi-stakeholder conflict analysis and generation of conflict alerts to understand conflict dynamics and triggers. This is critical to address the problem of relapse into conflict. However, information about a looming conflict is useless if the mission cannot act quickly. Therefore, there the mission could use a flexible rapid response mechanism to be a means of bridging the gap between anticipated and emerging conflicts especially, violence and crisis.

There  is  some  information  indicating  that  what  happened  in  South  Sudan  amounts  to genocide4. To be validated detailed investigations need to take place; if the conclusion remains the same then court procedures should be implemented. This should not be politicized whether at AU level or UNSC level.

Running successful peacekeeping operations in such an environment is incredibly difficult, but through concrete, practical steps, UNMISS can play a key role in not only keeping but also building peace in South Sudan. There is need for UNMISS to be a respected grantor to the peace agreement they midwifed. Yet, there is a tendency with the mission to portray progress even where there is simmering conflicts that could cause crisis. This is partly due to the former mandate’s requirement to extend state authority.   This makes balancing the monitoring role and supporting state institutions’ role difficult. There should be a mechanism that would enable this dual capacity but less the entailed friction.


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