South Sudan and the Perils of America’s Peacekeeping Policy


This week, a story broke about a gruesome attack on a residential compound in Juba, South Sudan, on July 11. It was perpetrated by government soldiers and targeted foreign aid workers, particularly Americans, and members of the rival tribe, the Nuehr. The soldiers went on a four-hour rampage, raping, beating, and killing, and yet the U.N. forces stationed a mile away failed to react to repeated pleas for help.

Last Friday, the United States tabled U.N. Security Council Resolution 2304, authorizing a 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force to reinforce the 13,000-strong peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. With the peace agreement between the Kiir and Machar factions in tatters, the additional troops are to help the United Nations protect civilians caught between both sides. Accordingly, it is also authorized, and will ideally be equipped, to undertake “robust action” in support of its mandate. The resolution passed despite objection from South Sudan’s own government, which denounced the United Nation’s “colonialism” and demanded it butt out. The South Sudanese government has been warned that obstruction may lead to an arms embargo and has mollified its stance somewhat, at least publicly.

The systematic violence in South Sudan raises serious questions about President Barack Obama’s new vision for U.N. peacekeeping, unveiled in September 2015 in the form of a presidential directive. This was the first such directive since 1994, when President Bill Clinton, chastened by the intervention in Somalia, sought to limit the occurrence and U.S. support for such missions. Obama’s directive strikes a far more positive tone, emphasizing the contribution of U.N. peacekeeping to U.S. interests, the need to reform the United Nations to conduct its missions better, but also to improve American support, to include both capabilities and troops.

Obama’s activism on peacekeeping is commendable, but the tragic situation in South Sudan reveals fully its tensions and limitations. Is this the use of peacekeeping that Obama intended? Why did Washington push the United Nations to deploy “peacekeepers” to a country where there is no peace to keep? There is much to celebrate about Obama’s vision for U.N. peacekeeping, which can support both U.S. interest and values. However, the policy also has significant flaws and carries a serious risk of devastation and despair.

Seeing South Sudan, Thinking Rwanda

U.S. engagement with South Sudan spans decades. The first visit by a U.S. representative occurred in 1981, when Roger Winter met with the head of its separatist movement. Throughout the next decade, a cabal of “wonks” in Washington worked behind the scenes to “shape foreign policy in favor of Sudan’s southern rebels.” Washington designated Sudan a state-sponsor of terrorism, imposed sanctions on it, and (occasionally) sponsored its regional rivals. During the George W. Bush administration, Congress, civil society organizations, and political leaders in the United States caught on and the push for secession gained momentum. In 2011, South Sudan was born and quickly became a major recipient of U.S. assistance (totaling almost $600 million in FY2013).

Though South Sudan then held 75 percent of former Sudan’s oil reserves, there is no obvious national security prerogative underlying America’s support. The lobbying is instead an admixture of humanitarian concern, evangelical Christian solidarity, and animosity toward the Sudanese regime in Khartoum. Either way, as the United States centrally enabled the creation of this state, it has also assumed responsibility for penning the Security Council resolutions aimed at stabilizing it, mimicking in this manner the leadership assumed by Britain or France over their former colonies.

There is, however, an additional reason for America’s leadership on South Sudan – one epiphenomenal to the two countries’ history. To many American officials, perhaps most of all to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, the crisis in South Sudan presents the international community with a moral obligation to act, and to make amends for its staggering inactivity during a previous African crisis, namely the Rwandan genocide. In her writing prior to joining government, Power detailed scathingly the American unresponsiveness during the killing of 800,000 Tutsis over 90 days in 1994. As Romeo Dallaire, U.N. force commander in Rwanda at the time, has also shown, the United States, along with France and Belgium, knew far more than others of what was unfolding in early 1994. Yet, America used its influence on the U.N. Security Council to downplay the crisis, seek to withdraw the mission, and obstruct efforts at reinforcing it. South Sudan, then, is America’s chance – and the international community’s chance – to do better, or so many in Washington seem to think.

The American interest in protecting civilians dovetails with normative developments at the United Nations in two distinct ways. First, since the U.N. deployment to Sierra Leone in 2000, mandates for “blue helmet” operations authorized under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter have routinely included the task of protecting civilians. “POC,” as it is abbreviated, now represents, to some, a core priority for the United Nations. Second, when U.N. member states endorsed the “Responsibility to Protect” in 2005, they took on the duty of protecting vulnerable populations endangered or neglected by their own government – though agreement on this point is far from uniform, particularly regarding implementation. These developments enabled the latest resolution on South Sudan, though the four abstaining votes at the Security Council illustrate that these emerging norms are far from uncontested.

Norms and mandates notwithstanding, the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has a patchy record of protecting civilians. Their inaction during the Juba attack in July is far from atypical, and has generated official reviews and repeated censure. In 2014, U.N. forces did take the step of welcoming tens of thousands of at-risk civilians to its bases, thereby sheltering them from violence, albeit in rudimentary and unsustainable conditions. At the time, Samantha Power drew a parallel with the failure of U.N. troops in Rwanda to offer similar protection, resulting in the death of all those clamoring to the blue helmets for help. Against this backdrop, Resolution 2304 aims to do more – to boost the United Nation’s protection of civilians, by extending its reach and effectiveness.

Framed in this manner, the actions taken by the U.N. Security Council last Friday are both admirable and compelling. The problem is one of sustainability. Power, in the same 2014 address, noted somewhat obliquely:

I hope it goes without saying that the political processes and the mediations and the national reconciliation, that that is the first order priority, of course, of international efforts.

Her point about the centrality of political processes is apposite, but there is little to suggest that this “goes without saying” or is a matter of course. Judging by the United Nation’s record in South Sudan, and also in Mali, Central African Republic, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), U.N. activities are frequently detached from any political process likely to produce peace.

The reason is twofold: Mediation is difficult, and politics is divisive, both “in-country” and at the Security Council. As a result, protection of civilians, an admirable aim, becomes an acceptable, apolitical lowest common denominator, ennobled by its humanitarian feel and unfettered by any demands for actual change. Thus, the United Nations increasingly addresses the symptoms of conflict – the death, disease, and devastation – rather than the dysfunctional political situation from which they stem. This is problematic, both in terms of sustainability but also because, in the midst of conflict, any form of intervention is political, unleashing second-order effects whose implications can be ignored only at great peril.

To the Rescue: Robust Peacekeeping

A central idea behind Resolution 2304 is that the peril of deploying peacekeepers into a conflict zone, to protect civilians against the wishes of the host-nation government, will be overcome by the robustness of the force. The memory of Srebrenica looms large: U.N. peacekeepers charged with maintaining safe zones for Bosnian civilians were neither equipped nor ready to act when these were challenged by Serb forces, and therefore failed to prevent the systematic targeting of civilians ostensibly under their care. Two decades on, the force sent to protect is, in U.N. jargon, “robust,” meaning it will be capable of protecting itself and “civilians from threats, regardless of source.”

The evolution toward robust peacekeeping is a welcome development for those who see U.N. forces as impotent and spineless. Traditional peacekeeping principles – impartiality, non-use of force except in self-defense, and host-government consent – were meant to prevent lightly armed and voluntarily committed troops from embroiling themselves in a war for which they have no mandate, capabilities, or backing. These principles have eroded amid demand for a more forceful stance against those targeting civilians and obstructing the path to peace. Assertiveness, it is argued, is not only good for the civilians on the ground, but also for U.N. peacekeeping, which was thoroughly discredited following its failure in the Balkans.

Accordingly, the United States has championed “robust peacekeeping” as a new norm. For the United Nations to meet U.S. interests – stated in Obama’s directive as “mitigating state fragility and preventing, containing, and resolving armed conflict” – it is seen as necessary that the forces deployed are not outgunned. It was in large part to strengthen U.N. forces that Obama presided over a peacekeeping summit in 2015 where he lobbied member-states to contribute more. Obama’s peacekeeping directive also speaks of the “enabling capabilities” that the United States might provide. Most of the countries pledging support have honored their commitment and a follow-on summit is planned for London in September to extend progress further.

Yet, try as America might, robust peacekeeping remains highly contentious. Much as with NATO in Afghanistan, individual troop-contributing countries impose caveats on what their forces can do – and at times these restrictions are kept secret until a crisis erupts and action is needed. In May 2015, leading troop-contributors met in Rwanda to sign the Kigali principles – a pledge to permit and prepare their troops for POC operations. Nonetheless, nine months later in South Sudan, an attack on the U.N. civilian protection site at Malakal elicited a tardy, passive, and overall insufficient response from peacekeepers – forces drawn from the very countries that had met in Kigali the previous year. In early July of this year, hundreds of people were killed and many raped, with U.N. forces struggling to contain, never mind end, the violence. When the foreign aid workers were targeted, the U.N. forces were again passive, and another official review into the failure to protect is now in the works.

It is anticipated that the Regional Protection Force will be sized and equipped to do better, yet details of manning and capabilities remain unknown. Diplomats initially mooted that regional countries provide forces, yet Juba has responded that under no circumstances will troops from neighboring Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya be accepted. In any case, Uganda has already bowed out.

To be sure, the mission is unenviable. Can the force succeed without clear-cut support from the host-nation government – and for how long? In these contexts, security operations must serve as the shield behind which reform can take place, to address the reasons for foreign forces being there in the first place. Without progress on this front, the United Nations is signing up for quasi-imperial project with no end in sight. In that sense, the South Sudanese government’s allegations of “colonialism,” however cynical, cannot simply be dismissed.

More practical issues apply. The language of protecting civilians generates expectations among the local population, which, if dashed, will result in deaths for which the United Nations will be held responsible. Even with a 16,000 troops, UNMISS will struggle to contain violence in a country the size of France (Paris’s police prefecture is itself 30,000-strong). Tactical mobility and intelligence will improve the force’s reach, however past cases suggest that sustainable, wide-spread security can be achieved only through cooperation with the government’s security forces and/or local-level self-defense forces. In South Sudan, not only is the government not on-board, but its forces engage in human-rights abuses. Meanwhile, the United Nations is certainly not mandated, equipped, or intended to stand up village defense forces to protect civilians against their own government.

Just “Do Something”

In the face of government opposition and ongoing conflict, it may still be better to engage and save at least a few lives than to walk away and let mass killings happen. It is difficult to argue this point. Yet in South Sudan, as elsewhere, the United Nations must be careful not to promise what it cannot deliver. Indeed, there is a dangerous tendency to send U.N. peacekeepers to “do something” – to be the international community’s placeholder in lieu of more concerted action. The United Nations then becomes a dumping ground for problems that individual countries, including the United States, have no interest in addressing on their own but to which a response is deemed necessary. As U Thant, the third secretary-general of the United Nations, put it, “Great problems usually come to the United Nations because governments have been unable to think of anything else to do about them.” In tasking the international body to “do something”, member-states also allow themselves to blame it whenever it fails to impress. Kofi Annan makes the point in his memoirs: “The UN was, and will probably always remain, an easy target when it comes to analyzing failed peacekeeping operations.”

This was probably not Washington’s intent when drafting Resolution 2304, yet it may end up being its outcome, should things go awry. This would be an unfortunate denouement to Obama’s peacekeeping activism, but one that we have seen before. Indeed, Bill Clinton was a loud supporter of U.N. peacekeeping until the debacle in Somalia, after which U.S.-U.N. relations quickly soured. Blaming the United Nations for such upsets is convenient, yet as an organization of governments, its performance reflects what its member-states allow and equip it to do. The blame game is also self-defeating, not least for the United States, as it further discredits an institution that has and can serve Washington well, and which already has far too many enemies within the Beltway.


David H. Ucko is associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. With Mats Berdal, he recently published “The Use of Force in Peacekeeping Operations: Problems and Prospects” in the RUSI Journal . Follow him on Twitter: @daviducko.

Image: U.N. photo, JC McIlwaine

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