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GlobalPost Commentary

How the UN can help in South Sudan

Commentary: Protection of civilians must become the primary objective.
South sudan fighting spreads mass gravesEnlarge
South Sudanese women queue for water being distributed from a UN reservoir at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Juba on December 21, 2013. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations Security Council will soon decide what should be the objective of thousands of peacekeepers in South Sudan.

When the UN’s mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was established three years ago, the goal was to strengthen the fledgling government to promote economic growth and development. Since December, all parties to the conflict – including the government and its security forces – have come under heavy criticism for the way they have conducted hostilities. Therefore, a mandate of capacity-building no longer makes sense. The ground has shifted, and so must the UN mandate. Protection of civilians must become the primary objective of the UN mission in South Sudan.

The South Sudanese people are in dire need of basic security and lifesaving humanitarian assistance. Since conflict erupted last December, over 1.3 million South Sudanese have been uprooted from their homes: one million have been displaced within South Sudan and another 300,000 have become refugees in neighboring countries. Half the population of South Sudan – 4.9 million – needs humanitarian assistance. Food scarcity is increasing, and for many the risk of famine is a real and growing threat. Surveys conducted by my organization, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), of children in two counties found that malnutrition rates were around 30 percent, double the level at which the World Health Organization considers an emergency to be “critical.” Unfortunately, the ability of organizations like the IRC to provide desperately needed food and other lifesaving humanitarian assistance in these and other areas has been seriously hampered by the violence and insecurity, obstruction of aid delivery by parties to the conflict, and harassment of aid workers.

This crisis is man-made, and the parties to the conflict bear ultimate responsibility for its impact on civilians and for its resolution. Over the course of the conflict, the government and the opposition have signed several agreements calling for ceasefires, inclusive political dialogue and ultimately peace. But the willingness of the parties to abide by these agreements has so far proven to be short-lived.

With no end to the crisis in sight, the UN can and should play a far more productive role by reconfiguring its posture to focus on protecting civilians and creating conditions for delivery of humanitarian assistance. Such a reconfiguration, however, will only be as strong and effective as those who enforce it. Four factors will contribute to the creation of a strong and effective peacekeeping mission.

First, as the mission changes, so must the posture of the peacekeepers. The Secretary General and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations have previously called on the mission to shift toward a posture of “strict impartiality.” But the UN mission in South Sudan has had difficulties in treating both parties to the conflict equally. UN peacekeepers, for example, continue to seek government permission for many of their movements that would enhance the safety of civilians, and the requests are often denied. UN officials have said that these requests for permission are rooted in a desire to avoid putting peacekeepers in harm’s way. UN peacekeepers also continue to bring government military liaison officers with them on flights and boats. Since UNMISS does not have similar arrangements with the opposition, its impartiality has understandably been called into question. The mission should take concrete steps away from reliance on government security forces and resources.

Second, the international community will need to adequately resource the mission. There are not enough police to provide the necessary patrols to enable displaced people living on UN bases to feel safe, let alone those outside the bases. Although the UN Security Council called in December for an additional 5,000 troops to be sent to South Sudan, the number of deployed troops remains substantially below that figure. Other troops and police who have arrived have been lightly equipped and not well-prepared. This results in security vacuums in an environment where the ability of the government to provide basic security is in serious doubt. For example, a May 2014 UN human rights report alleges the involvement of the South Sudan National Police Service in killings and rapes.

Third, UN peacekeepers will need to expand their reach. UN forces cannot provide security from the confines of their bases for conflict-affected people living in towns, or ensure that those in remote areas receive adequate protection. Peacekeepers must be equipped and expected to provide civilian protection outside of their bases. To expand the reach of the mission, civilian protection staffing levels should also be increased.

Finally, the UN mission should reassess its analysis of the — and thereby its engagement — in the country. Its division of the country into “red” (“conflict-affected”) states and “green” (“unaffected states,” where it has been playing a state-building role and working with the security forces and other government institutions) oversimplifies the dynamics and does not acknowledge that all states are affected by the conflict. Indeed, fighting has occurred in several areas deemed by the UN to be green, “unaffected.” In short, to avoid undermining its impartiality, UNMISS must not work with the government in one state to build capacity while in another state treating representatives of the same government as a party to the conflict.

The UN Security Council should move decisively to change the mandate of UN forces in South Sudan, and the international community should provide the resources to give that mandate meaning. UN forces are not a panacea for all of South Sudan’s problems. Ultimately, the responsibility for civilian protection rests with the government. But until the government is willing and able to protect its citizens, millions of South Sudanese lives will depend on protection from the United Nations.

Sharon Waxman is vice president for public policy and advocacy at the International Rescue Committee. She previously served as deputy to the under secretary of state for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

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