Can Peacekeeping Work? The Enormity of the Challenge in South Sudan


Despite all the time, energy, and rhetoric invested in trying to figure out how to protect civilians from atrocities, the vast majority of civilians in armed conflict are exposed and unprotected. This is very much the case in South Sudan, where, despite the presence of a peacekeeping mission, thousands of civilians have been targeted over the last two years in a vicious civil war. This war, which began — as wars often do — as a political squabble, in this case between President Salva Kiir and former Deputy President Riek Machar (the latter under the auspices of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition), has forced itself into the heart of communities and become defined by the sheer scale and nature of atrocities. Disillusioned with their own leaders, these communities look to the international community for assistance — and we have a collective responsibility to respond.

The United States has a particular role to play in any response by international actors. As a permanent and veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council (which authorizes and mandates all peacekeeping operations), the United States (along with other Security Council members) has a responsibility to ensure that those missions are mandated and resourced to perform effectively. The United States is also the largest funder of peacekeeping operations, providing 28.38 percent of the UN’s peacekeeping budget, which gives it a particular incentive to ensure that these funds are used effectively. In addition to its role in peacekeeping generally, the United States has particular political capital at its disposal in South Sudan due to the role it played in the country’s struggle for independence.

So how can the United States work more effectively with the international community to end the current catastrophe in South Sudan? As a first step, it needs to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the peacekeeping mission as a whole, a subject that is at the heart of a report I recently authored for the International Refugee Rights Initiative, which assesses the mission through the eyes of the civilians that it is mandated to protect. The report is based on field research I carried out with two other researchers in October of this year, in which we interviewed civilians as well as government, NGO, and UN officials (including UNMISS). We did this in response to a growing recognition that the need to develop better responses to situations of conflict in which atrocities take place has not been matched by an in-depth understanding of the needs and aspirations of those most affected, nor an adequate understanding of the political, historical and social context in which these atrocities happen.

When the war started in December 2013, there was a peacekeeping force already present in South Sudan (UNMISS). It had initially been deployed to monitor the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which had ended the north–south civil war in Sudan and had paved the way for the secession of South Sudan in 2011. After independence, the mission remained in the country, with a focus on consolidating peace and security and strengthening the capacity of the government to govern effectively. However, as the fighting quickly escalated, UNMISS took the unprecedented decision to open its gates to thousands of civilians fleeing violence. Undoubtedly, this decision saved lives. It was also a direct response to the shadow that fell over peacekeeping missions following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the gates stayed closed and thousands were killed as a result. Despite this action, however, tens of thousands of civilians were killed or injured within a matter of days — and civilians continue to be targeted as the war rumbles on.

Two years on, approximately 200,000 civilians are still living in one of these protection of civilian (PoC) sites. While many are grateful for the protection offered by the camps, they are disappointed that the United Nations has not been able to do more to end atrocities. Civilians are frustrated that protection appears to be available only inside the camp. As a woman living in one of the sites said, “They tell us they can only protect us if we stay here. They say that if you go out far from the camp, we can’t protect you.” And while they might be safer inside the camps (although on occasion the camps themselves have been attacked), the humanitarian situation is appalling. People have been reduced to eating leaves and burning plastic to cook the small amount of food they have as there is nothing else left.

For this and other reasons, people have become increasingly ambivalent in their support for the PoC sites. As both those within and outside were all too aware, the PoC sites have become progressively mono-ethnic and/or divided internally along ethnic lines. As a result, they are reinforcing, rather than reducing, the ethnic divisions that have come to characterise the conflict. In other words, the evolution of the conflict from a political dispute to a situation in which communities were mobilized and divided along ethnic lines has been reflected in the changing nature of the PoC sites. In the initial stages of the conflict, the PoC sites were multi-ethnic. Today, however, there is a strong belief that the camps were being used as a place to harbor and protect combatants for the opposition — who are associated with a particular ethnic group. This political manipulation of ethnicity has effectively established innumerable “front lines” wherever inter-communal tension is both present and unrestrained by rule of law. And the PoC sites have, inadvertently, become one of these front lines. As a result, while those within the camps see the PoC sites as a form of protection, those outside of the camps see them as a place of danger.

Therefore, while people are theoretically free to move in and out of the camps, the “hard” perimeters of the sites have effectively become a catch-22: On the one hand, they limit interaction that could spark identity-based violence; on the other, they do not allow for inter-communal interaction that would allow for communities to begin once more to live together in the aftermath of instances of mass atrocity. In other words, they maintain and reinforce the battle lines that have been imposed upon communities during the course of the conflict.

That is not to suggest that UNMISS did the wrong thing either by opening the PoC sites or keeping them open — indeed, quite the opposite. To close them prematurely would be a disaster. It is also fair to say that UNMISS shares many of the concerns expressed by civilians. The camps were never intended to be anything but a short-term solution, and there is acknowledgement that they were set up with no clear exit strategy.

The challenge, however, lies in ensuring that protection strategies adapt to the evolving dynamics of the conflict. People’s perceptions of the PoC sites are strongly influenced by how they define their protection priorities, particularly the way in which they balance the need for physical security with their need for humanitarian assistance and access to livelihoods. Making these adaptations is made all the more challenging where the ability of the mission to offer protection outside of the camp is limited and other interests militate against the exit of these populations.

Although the PoC sites exhibit strong similarities with refugee camps, in reality they remain somewhat distinct inasmuch as they were set up primarily to offer people physical protection rather than being viewed primarily as a source of humanitarian assistance. In reality, of course, the two cannot be separated: Humanitarian assistance structures and livelihoods are dependent on security, just as security is of little value if one’s basic needs are not met. However, as a function of their mandate, the line between the protection of civilians as a physical form of protection and broader notions of human security (freedom from fear and freedom from want) has inevitably become blurred. In some respects, this is exactly how it should be, and the PoC sites represent a more “pure” form of protection (albeit one that has, at times, failed) than is normally available for those fleeing conflict. After all, one of the greatest problems with refugee and IDP camps across the world is that they are often defined by their failure to offer the protection they are mandated to offer, and those who go there to seek safety remain vulnerable to attack.

The PoC sites, therefore, are unprecedented. They are also likely to be a model for offering some protection to some civilians in other situations of conflict. However, their limitations must be acknowledged. Unless they exist in tandem with a more rigorous engagement with the broader political context in which the conflict is taking place, they are likely to be limited in their effectiveness — and even potentially harmful.

Of course, there are no easy answers and the challenges UNMISS now faces are considerable. It is being criticized for its failures to protect civilians outside the camps, and yet with its mandate expanding to monitor the implementation of a peace agreement signed in August 2015 there is a real danger that the protection of civilians will only be diluted further. This would be a disaster if security continues to deteriorate. Indeed, the peace agreement presents a conundrum: On the one hand, there is little faith in the agreement and much to suggest that the parties will return to war; on the other, if the agreement is not supported it will definitely fail with devastating consequences for civilians. In addition to internal complications of poor governance and a weak state structure, the conflict’s geopolitical positioning further complicates the situation. Both the government and opposition are allegedly stockpiling weapons (which are in plentiful supply). And, with another internal war taking place over the border in neighboring Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, coupled with long-established networks for destabilization at the disposal of neighboring governments (including, most notably, Sudan and Uganda), many of the ingredients remain in place for a protracted conflict.

Within this highly complex context, the international community needs to do much, much better, and the United States has a critical role to play in addressing this. In order to improve the performance of UNMISS, the United States must use its role on the UN Security Council to ensure that the protection of civilians remains at the core of the mission’s mandate and that sufficient financial, material and human resources are provided to fulfil this mandate. In addition to these resources, the mission needs political support — support that has thus far been undermined by divisions within the Security Council. Without a doubt, the United States can play a role in building political consensus, which will be especially important in ensuring that the mission has the clout to engage in the political facilitation role that civilians so desperately wish to see.

Ultimately, the only durable antidote to the atrocities being inflicted on the civilian population is not a peacekeeping force that can never be anything more than palliative, but an inclusive political solution to the conflict and accountability for what has taken place — a solution that goes beyond the redistribution of power among a small minority who have access to weapons and the inclination to use them. And the United States can support this process in a number of ways. It can offer aid that can help to provide peace dividends. Although there is good reason for skepticism about the peace agreement, it will only be made more fragile if the process does not quickly bring economic benefits. It can also work with international partners to ensure that there are consequences for potential spoilers in the process. Finally, it can ensure that its engagement is comprehensive. The agreement contains many laudable provisions that address the root causes of the conflict and that aim to transform governance in South Sudan, and these provisions are critical if lasting peace — peace that is built on something robust and substantial — is to be attained.

Of course, it is unlikely that the parties will be enthusiastic about full implementation. But that is precisely why external actors are needed to ensure proper monitoring and accountability of the process. At the end of the day, it is vital that we learn lessons from the 2005 CPA, which was whittled down to just a few of its elements. It would be a travesty for the same to happen in South Sudan. Civilians deserve far better. Indeed, the fact that many already refer to it as the “compromised peace agreement” illustrates the cynicism with which it is already being received.

But in the meantime, while the protection provided by UNMISS is better than nothing, much more needs to be done for the majority of civilians whose lives remain fundamentally unsafe. And the United States can, and must, play a fundamental role in ensuring that greater protection is made possible.


Lucy Hovil has 16 years of experience in carrying out research in conflict-affected areas. She is currently IRRI’s Senior Researcher. Lucy is also the Managing Editor for the International Journal of Transitional Justice, one of Oxford University Press’s Law journals. She was formerly the Senior Research and Advocacy Officer at the Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University, Uganda, where she founded the organization’s research department and oversaw their working paper series. You can follow her on Twitter: @LucyHovil.


Photo credit: Day Donaldson