Rise to Peace blog

The United Nations in Africa: South Sudan’s Quest for Stability

Background

On July 9th, South Sudan celebrated ten years of independence, remembering how its people overwhelmingly voted for independence from Sudan in 2011. But another entity, the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), is also marking ten years of existence this year. Initially meant to consolidate peace and development in the world’s youngest country, UNMISS has grown into the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, currently deploying 19,233 personnel. With a budget of over $1.2 billion for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, it is also the second most expensive ongoing UN mission. This is after the mission in Mali. This article hopes to analyze this monumental mission that has shaped a country.

Early UN attempts at state-building were violently reoriented by a civil war between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar and by broader communal violence between (and within) their respective Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups. Though a 2018 peace agreement facilitated the tenuous formation of a unity government in 2020, a recent UN report found that violence has only gotten more brutal, unaccountable, and decentralized since the end of the country’s civil war. The Government of South Sudan (GoSS) has failed to implement major security and accountability measures from the peace agreement. Consequently, its security forces are frequently accused of obstructing peacekeepers and violating civilians’ human rights. With the UNSC recently renewing UNMISS’ mandate until 2022 and establishing a three-year “strategic vision” for the country, practitioners are tasked with interpreting mission effectiveness within the four key pillars of the mandate. 

The UN Mandate

Keeping in mind the centrality of the mandate to any UN mission, this article uses UNMISS’ updated mandate as a point of departure for evaluating mission effectiveness. It will also keep the 2018 peace deal as an additional guideline. The terms of the mandate reaffirmed in 2021 are essentially the same as those in Resolution 2155 (2014), which was updated when the nascent country fell into civil war. With some important clarification in the language in the 2021 resolution, the four pillars are broad: protection of civilians, monitoring of human rights abuses, facilitation of humanitarian aid delivery, and supporting the active peace agreement. 

Sadly, these four pillars look nothing like the original mandate from 2011. This is because UNMISS has had to drastically scale its ambitions back from consolidating the state to alleviating and containing a multi-dimensional crisis. Using the mandate itself to measure effectiveness is essential. In part, it reflects the wishes of concerned multilateral actors and frames what the mission is actually allowed and expected to do. This article distills the goals of the mandate into two broad, dynamic criteria for evaluating UNMISS: providing protection and facilitating aid to civilians and promoting institutional stability and security. These have been constant, salient challenges facing UNMISS, and they encompass much of what the mission is there to achieve.

Providing protection and facilitating aid to civilians

Though UNMISS can only exist with the consent of the GoSS, one might forget considering how often peacekeepers are blocked or even attacked by government forces. The UNSC acknowledged this in 2014 and again in Resolution 2567 (2021), when it “[condemned] the continued obstruction of UNMISS by the GoSS and opposition groups, including restrictions on freedom of movement, assault of UNMISS personnel, and constraints on mission operations.” Government intransigence amid vast civilian suffering presents UN personnel with difficult decisions and frequent occasions of paralysis in the face of violence against civilians. Since it cannot achieve protection of civilians (PoC) in every case, UNMISS has also been tasked with reporting on government privations, hoping for long-term accountability through documentation and human rights pressure.

Though UN missions are frequently criticized for the lives they fail to save, a critical analysis must try to understand what would have happened had peacekeepers not been there. As of 2020, there were almost 200,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside UN-administered PoC sites. UNMISS’ recent focus has thus been protecting civilians and administering aid and basic services in and around these sites. This establishment of veritable peace corridors is reminiscent of early visions of peacekeeping, but even through this lens, UNMISS can only be viewed as semi-successful. This is because it has frequently been unable to protect civilians and aid workers within its own PoC sites. Subsequently, it has had little success expanding the domain of its PoC sites outwards. There remain 1.5 million IDPs outside of PoC sites. Ultimately, violence against civilians and aid workers has continued and even worsened since the end of the civil war. 

Similar things can be said for humanitarian aid. The UN has estimated that 8.3 million South Sudanese are currently in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 800,000 from 2020. Both sides were known to intentionally starve communities during the civil war, and the GoSS continues to block access to peacekeepers and aid workers seemingly at will. Though a great deal of aid has moved through roads restored and protected by UNMISS, GoSS corruption and violence and the frequent pilfering of humanitarian goods have deterred major international donors in recent years. UNMISS should leverage these once-eager financiers against GoSS intransigence, putting economic pressure on a government reliant on international support.

Promoting institutional stability and security

In terms of building a stable and responsive state in South Sudan, the 2018 Revitalized Agreement offers valuable metrics, such as refugee resettlement, rebuilding of physical infrastructure, and finalization of a permanent constitution. Unfortunately, any traction on these issues is largely out of the hands of UNMISS. This is because African regional organizations have led the way in mediation and implementation. Relations with the GoSS have soured ever since the 2014 mandate said UNMISS would protect civilians “irrespective of the source of…violence,” tacitly pitting it against government troops. 

But the mission is not completely ineffective on the political front. At a community-level, UNMISS-facilitated dialogues have deescalated violence in numerous areas recently. There is significant potential to partner with communities instead of the GoSS, but UNMISS has yet to hire a sufficient number of community liaisons to foster engagement. Subsequently, its patrols have been notably hesitant to engage on foot in communities. These are tangible policies UNMISS must correct if it is to overcome the challenges posed by the government. UNMISS should institutionalize and expand these often-successful dialogues for reconciliation and deradicalization in local South Sudanese communities.

Conclusion

It is certainly better for hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese that UNMISS was deployed, but with its resources, the mission could do far more to push the country in a constructive direction towards peace. From a strictly peacekeeping lens, UNMISS receives a somewhat passing grade for establishing areas of relative protection. But with the post-Cold War pairing of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, UNMISS has fallen flat. Frequently marginalized from the peace process, it has largely abdicated its role in shaping post-war South Sudan. 

Most South Sudanese remain susceptible to factional violence and dire humanitarian need, and little has been done to grow state capacity or even state interest in helping them. As much good as UNMISS has done in specific areas, it can only be national stability that helps those millions of South Sudanese still living on the precipice. And now that UNMISS has begun transitioning its PoC sites into GoSS-controlled IDP camps, it is unclear what major tools are left for this mission to fulfill its mandate. 

Overall, UNMISS has a great deal of experience and success to pull from but has not been bold enough in tackling one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The UN must either recommit to the political process in South Sudan or accept that it is merely being used to protect a civilian population ignored by the government. It should also expand and standardize conflict resolution initiatives of the kind frequently highlighted in its own reports. Much of the violence in South Sudan stems from specific, community-level disputes. Engaging with at-risk communities and investing in specialized civilian personnel would go a long way towards saving lives in South Sudan.

 

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