Caught in the Middle: Civilian Protection in South Sudan

The recent fighting between the government of South Sudan’s forces and rebels aligned with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State proves that civilian protection remains the key challenge for the United Nations in the country. During the attack by rebel forces, sixteen civilians were killed, including a paramount chief with his four children. Despite several signed cease-fires, civilians continue to be subjected to “extraordinary acts of cruelty” and ethnically motivated violence. Since December 2013, the UN estimates that at least 10,000 people have died in the conflict, around 1.8 million people have been displaced, and the country has been pushed to the edge of famine.

On July 9, 2011, amid a cloud of optimism, the world saw the birth of South Sudan. After years of violent civil conflict and political struggle, the independence of the new country was celebrated. The international community and stakeholders felt that ethnic polarization and inter-communal tensions could be mitigated by developing state institutions and building a state that could deliver basic services.

When the new state was formed, it was assumed that state authorities would work in partnership with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to enhance civilian protection and promote a culture of respect with regard to human rights. Sadly, this was never the case, and the ongoing violence perpetrated by state authorities and non-state actors highlights this fact. With the government’s inability to protect civilians, the mission’s bases are now home to close to 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) seeking protection from physical violence.

A Legacy of Ill Will

Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, the UN’s modus operandi in Sudan has been one of reaction. The integrated mission was never able to influence political actors and armed groups on matters of civilian protection. It should not have come as a surprise that this behavior reasserted itself in South Sudan after the country separated from Sudan. Especially considering that before they began to lead an independent state, South Sudanese political actors were widely seen as corrupt, nepotistic, and without regard for the law. After independence, state authorities in South Sudan sought to marginalize ethnic groups and maintain power for an exclusionary elite, which is not compatible with building a democratic state with accountable institutions.

Without continual pressure from international actors, it appears that the government of South Sudan will continue to ignore its primary responsibility to protect civilians. Both parties to the conflict are likely to continue their non-adherence to international humanitarian law, which will lead to persistent human rights violations, sexual violence, destruction of property, and forced displacement.

In the near and long term, protection of civilians will remain contentious between the mission and the government. As long as perceptions remain in government circles that the mission’s mandate portrays the government as a culprit in the killing of its own people, any strategy for protecting civilians will be handicapped.

A New Approach to Protection

Streamlining the UNMISS mandate (Resolution 2155) was a step in the right direction in this respect. The new mandate requires the mission to focus on: (i) protecting civilians; (ii) monitoring and investigating human rights; (iii) creating enabling conditions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance; and (iv) supporting the implementation of the cessation of hostilities. The new mandate also calls for the inclusion of a protection force from the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a force that is responsible for providing protection for the IGAD monitoring and verifying missions as well as protecting civilians. Resolution 2155 states that the protection of civilians “must be given priority in decisions about the use of available capacity and resources within the Mission.” This helps position the mission to be proactive when it comes to protection.

For its part, the mission will need to develop meaningful relationships with state authorities, opposition groups, and civil society. The “good offices” of the special representative of the secretary-general could be vital in this effort by reestablishing trust and credibility. Currently, the mission’s protection of civilians strategy is confined to those within its premises. To avoid past mistakes, the strategy should now incorporate the voices of local communities and civil society in order to make civilian protection more holistic.

The last ten months have proven particularly challenging for UNMISS. The mission has had to open its doors to thousands of IDPs escaping violence perpetrated by state authorities and armed groups. Its relationship with the government and its credibility have deteriorated. With the mission’s mandate up for renewal in November, the Security Council has a chance to evaluate what’s working and ensure that past mistakes are corrected, particularly the active promotion of civilian protection. The new mandate is a step in the right direction, but the mission will need to be better at identifying holistic and inclusive approaches to civilian protection that ensure the safety of innocent civilians.

Lamii Moivi Kromah is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute’s Center for Peace Operations. He previously worked for the United Nations on protection of civilians issues in Sudan and South Sudan.