By Alison Giffen, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Alison Giffen is co-director of the Future of Peace Operations program at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. She has worked on the protection of civilians and peacekeeping in South Sudan since 2007 and lived in Sudan from 2007-2009. The views expressed are her own.
Tens of thousands of people in fear for their lives are sheltering inside six United Nations bases in the world’s youngest country, South Sudan. They have fled to these “safe havens” to escape the violence of a civil war that has been tearing apart their country since mid-December. Swift and decisive United Nations action is needed to protect civilians from further suffering and bloodshed.
Violence flared on December 15 between South Sudanese President Salva Kiir’s government forces and supporters of his former vice president, Riek Machar.
Mass graves, mass extrajudicial executions, attacks on U.N. personnel, sexual violence and the targeting of individuals based on their ethnicity have been reported since the first weeks of fighting, and the conflict has displaced approximately 740,000 men, women and children – a number that continues to grow. And, although civilian casualties are notoriously difficult to count and confirm, the International Crisis Group has reported that as many as 10,000 deaths may have occurred during the first month of fighting.
The main parties have since signed a ceasefire agreement on January 23, but the agreement is weak and does not address the longstanding political and ethnic fractures that are fueling atrocities. As a result, those seeking refuge inside the U.N. bases remain vulnerable to violence, a reality underscored by the high-profile safe haven failures of the past. In 1995, for example, 8,000 people were massacred in Srebrenica inside a “safe area” protected by U.N. forces. Following this and other horrific events of the 1990s, significant attention was paid to reforming peacekeeping to prevent and respond to atrocities. Despite these reforms, operations’ mandates still far outstrip the actual capability of peacekeepers to provide protection.
The peacekeeping operation in South Sudan, known as UNMISS (the United Nations Mission in South Sudan), was initially made up of a relatively modest 7,000 troops and 900 civilians with a mandate to protect civilians. Deployed in 2011, it focused its protection efforts on early warning, prevention, and support to the government of South Sudan to fulfill the state’s responsibility to protect its people. But while Security Council members backed this strategy, they didn’t adequately invest in its success through coordinated pressure on the government of South Sudan to make reforms that could have prevented this crisis.
This approach to protecting civilians turned out to be foolishly idealistic and wholly inadequate when government forces turned against their own citizens, opposition and irregular forces rose up to join in the abuses, and communities committed crimes against their neighbors.
More than 80,000 people sheltering within U.N. bases remain at risk of being caught in between parties that don’t know or don’t care about the laws of war. These bases are located in towns that will remain strategic targets as combatants jockey for power during negotiations.
An even greater concern is that the “safe havens” may be deliberately targeted if perpetrators believe they are holding ethnic, political, or military enemies. Like in Srebrenica, these compounds can become massacre sites.
To address the violence, the Security Council authorized thousands of reinforcements in December, which would nearly double UNMISS’s size. Yet while this and the ceasefire are important steps to preventing conflict down the road, the international community and UNMISS must maintain a focus on preventing atrocities now by taking four key steps:
First, UNMISS must define and implement strategies to use its current capacity to protect civilians. As many cases have demonstrated, the deployment of reinforcements can take a very long time, and indeed sometimes never occurs.
Second, effective strategies hinge on timely intelligence and expert planning. Not all threats to civilians will be deterred by the mere presence of blue helmets. UNMISS must be able to determine which threats must be stopped by force, which could be dissuaded by the risk of accountability, and which require mediation. U.N. members could send these capabilities to UNMISS more quickly than deploying military units.
Third, reinforcements will be useless if UNMISS’s freedom of movement is constrained by any party. The South Sudan government has an extensive history of limiting UNMISS’s movement and UNMISS has a history of submitting. The United States and other U.N. members should therefore put considerable pressure on parties to allow the safe transport of UNMISS personnel and assets.
Finally, this crisis should force U.N. stakeholders to re-examine the assumptions underlying UNMISS’s mandate, and modern peacekeeping more broadly. Today’s peacekeeping operations are not neutral. On the contrary, they are mandated to work with host-state governments to build state institutions and most recently to support government security forces to eliminate illegal armed actors. This holds true even if the government is a party to a conflict or committing abuses.
These mandates dilute scarce resources. Of greater concern, however, is that peacekeeping operations like UNMISS can find it difficult to hold governments to account for abuses while trying to cajole them to move toward democratic institutions. Moreover, when peacekeeping operations are seen as partial to one side, opposition groups are more likely to view the United Nations as a party to the conflict rather than an impartial protector or trusted arbiter.
With this in mind, UNMISS needs to take a position of strict impartiality. High level U.N. officials have indicated that a repositioning is underway, with Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous recently saying: "Clearly, in the present situation we are treating all sides equally…"
The United States and other U.N. Security Council members must reinforce this redirection by sending strong messages to U.N. headquarters, UNMISS, armed forces on all sides and the people of South Sudan. The message should be that UNMISS has essentially shifted into neutral, but that neutral does not mean passivity in the midst of violence.
Looking ahead, a new Security Council mandate should be negotiated that focuses on the impartial protection of civilians, rather than a reliance on the government of South Sudan. The United States and U.N. members will have to depend less on UNMISS and become much more directly involved in the state and society-building. Such a drastic transformation of UNMISS can help it reduce the violence in South Sudan today – and help to avoid similar crises in the future.