Protecting Civilians in South Sudan: Time to Revisit the Mandate

Young residents of a protection of civilians site await the arrival of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Juba, South Sudan, February 25, 2016. (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)

As noted in a recent Global Observatory article by Haidi Willmot, there continue to be major barriers to implementing the protection of civilians (PoC) mandate across the United Nations system. Nowhere are these more evident than in PoC sites in South Sudan. The UN has condemned recent attacks on these sites and, following an inquiry concluded this month, accepted responsibility for failing to prevent the deadliest, which killed 30 and injured many more in Malakal from February 17-18.

As Willmot noted, the PoC mandate suffers from selective application, difficulties from limited resources and capabilities, and potential issues around the impartiality of peacekeeping forces. Further complicating the picture is “The absence of a common, holistic understanding of the protection of civilians both within the UN system, and the broader international community.”

Bearing this in mind, management of PoC sites in civil war-ravaged South Sudan has proven a difficult new departure from the UN’s regular protocols. The most recent figures show there are currently 158,727 civilians seeking refuge in six bases of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). As well as the Malakal violence, an attack employing small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades damaged the compound in Bentiu on April 25.

Some of those peacekeepers and commanders deemed responsible for the failure in Malakal are being repatriated, and the UN has stated that additional measures will be adopted to prevent such failures in future. While it is vital that civilians are more effectively protected from such attacks, the question of what PoC should entail, and the appropriate division of labor for achieving this, remains unanswered.

Originally, UNMISS had intended for its PoC sites to be a short-term solution to a temporary crisis, allowing for immediate protection to be offered to thousands of civilians fleeing violence. While UN guidelines state that such measures should indeed be a temporary last resort, it has become increasingly clear over time that those sheltering within UN bases need longer-term protection. The ongoing South Sudan conflict means many civilians are likely to keep seeking this refuge for months, and perhaps even years. This has led to PoC sites being considered by some as merely a new kind of settlement for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The longer-term need for a safe haven requires a broader understanding of what protecting civilians entails. Preventing violent attacks on civilians, while clearly important, remains a very narrow definition. Médecins Sans Frontières recently argued for an urgent need to improve living conditions within PoC sites, stating that they are de facto IDP camps, and that the humanitarian standards applying in the latter should also be met in PoC sites.

Clearly this is a much broader vision of protecting civilians; one that entails not only providing security from violence but also access to food, water, sanitation, and the other essentials of day-to-day life. Despite the events that occurred in February and April and the continued presence of tens of thousands of displaced civilians, not only has UNMISS not embraced this wider understanding of protection, it has actively opposed it, citing a policy that states:

“In the event that civilians do seek protection at an UNMISS base the mission should avoid providing any unwarranted incentive that might lead to a long-term presence of the civilians or induce a pull factor for further civilians to come to the base.”

Even though the numbers of civilians now living in the South Sudan PoC sites is much larger than originally planned for, living spaces have not been proportionately expanded and sanitation and water services have not been sufficiently improved, posing major health and protection risks, including the potential for outbreaks of communicable diseases like cholera, and the threat of criminal activity.

But, while we would argue that providing basic medical care, sanitation, protection, and water and food security are all integral parts of protecting civilians, it is not necessarily the case that UNMISS is the appropriate body to provide for all of these needs. As Haidi Willmot argued:

“Important protection activities are also undertaken by political, human rights, humanitarian, refugee and development actors, as well as by civilian populations themselves.”

Although it is charged with the protection of civilians, another part of the UNMISS mandate (as set out in the most recent Security Council resolution, adopted on 15 December 2015) is “Creating the conditions conducive to the delivery of humanitarian aid.” This requires UNMISS:

“To contribute, in close coordination with humanitarian actors, to the creation of security conditions conducive to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, confidence-building and facilitation, so as to allow the rapid, safe and unhindered access of relief personnel to all those in need in South Sudan and timely delivery of humanitarian assistance, in particular to IDPs and refugees, recalling the need for compliance with the relevant provisions of international law and respect for the UN guiding principles of humanitarian assistance.”

On June 22, MSF released a hugely critical internal review of the February 2016 Malakal attacks, revealing that aid providers were not given sufficient protection by UNMISS to enable them to respond effectively. The report pointed to serious issues that arise when humanitarian organizations “operate under the security umbrella of a body which does not sufficiently measure risk in relation to humanitarian needs and potential impact.” It argued that the UN Department of Safety and Security recommendations paralysed almost all UN agencies and international NGOs, and prevented the interagency mass casualty plan from being carried out and resources being shared.

The report also highlights the developing situation after the attacks, claiming that UNMISS continues to oppose providing protection in the new sector of the PoC site, and the continuing failure to meet basic humanitarian standards.

PoC sites are clearly an imperfect solution for all concerned, as MSF’s report points out:

“PoCs are not an ideal solution for anyone, least of all their residents. UNMISS and the GRSS [South Sudan government] do not want them, the IDPs do not want to live in them and humanitarian agencies do not want to operate within them. They are, however, an uncomfortable reality of South Sudan today and are inextricably linked with the ethno-political conflict.”

Given that these sites do exist, it is vital that the protection of the civilians living within them is interpreted broadly and that the different parts of the UNMISS mandate—in particular those relating to PoC, human rights, and facilitating humanitarian aid—are viewed holistically. There is no point in protecting civilians from violence if they are then left to die from infectious diseases, malnutrition, or violence within the compound itself.

The attacks against civilians that have occurred in the South Sudan PoC sites are deeply regrettable; as is the UN’s failure to prevent them. But the longer-term challenges of protecting the health and welfare of civilians also need to be met. A survey conducted by MSF revealed that three-quarters of those surveyed living in PoC sites feel unsafe and have lost trust in UNMISS. But data from the survey also suggested that for most of those seeking refuge it was safety, rather than food or healthcare provision, that led them to the PoC, undermining the claim that the proper provision of such services could be a “pull factor.”

Those living within the PoC sites in South Sudan continue to endure unsanitary and unsafe living conditions. Solving this will require a much closer and much better relationship between UNMISS on the one hand and MSF and other humanitarian actors on the other. Viewing civilian protection more broadly and as a collective endeavor may provide some common ground on which an improved relationship could be built.

Johanna Greco is a Research Assistant in the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield. Simon Rushton is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield.