February 5th, 2014
10:40 AM ET

How the U.N. should handle South Sudan

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.

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Topics: Africa • Sudan

soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Sudan Hub

    Reblogged this on Sudan Hub Group.

    February 7, 2014 at 7:56 am |
  2. GatNor

    The main concern is the safety of the civilians, and a lasting peaceful resolution. The government of south sudan must adopts democratic policies which the country badly needs. The present of a non-neutral foreign troops will make peace efforts very difficult.

    February 7, 2014 at 9:01 am |
    • philos

      Another country with oil fields that wants USA democracy to come..

      February 15, 2014 at 5:30 am |
  3. Dede m

    It is about getting country back to thé normalisation not pointing out who is in Fault rebel or goss when éléphants are fighting who is getting pain of course thé grass. So let us focusing of getting peace to those who need it.

    February 7, 2014 at 4:30 pm |
  4. kakueng

    We, the south sudanese, need peace and peace wil not be effective if regional intervention is bot banned by UN.
    The UN body has the power to talk to M7(Museveni) to withdraw his troops in South Sudan.
    We also urge UN to facilitate processes of interim government in South Sudan. Either South Sudan should be under interim govt or Be Under UN until the election is held.
    Salva Kiir doesn't know his obligation as the president of the republic of south sudan and killed the very people who voted him in office and has to step down as the president of South Sudan.
    We don't want dictatorship rule in South Sudan!

    February 8, 2014 at 1:18 am |
    • Tim

      That's how it's going to be...
      Either the Dinkas or the Neurs........

      February 10, 2014 at 10:10 pm |
  5. Rami Ran

    President is real mess of the country.The writer is quite right because this happened several times in Juba UNMISS camp when Kiir's armed men opened fire @ civilians.WE NEED INTERIM GOV"T AFTER THIS GOGRIAL REGIME IS TOPPLE BY THE REQUEST OF PEOPLE OF SOUTH SUDAN!

    February 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm |
  6. j. von hettlingen

    South Sudan is awash with guns after the decades of conflict and there is a history of ethnic tension, which politicians could whip up if they believe that could help them gain, or remain in power.
    The UN itself is powerless with its 7,500 troops on the ground. It has requested reinforcements, saying its forces will not be able to prevent violence across such a vast territory. So it should empower regional troops to keep peace. East African countries seem to be keen to mediate and the two warring parties were in Ethiopia for ceasefire talks as the first step towards resolving the conflict, but progress is slow and fighting continues to rage.

    February 9, 2014 at 11:18 am |
  7. emil kaiypov

    My name is Emil Kaiypov. I am a citizen of the Kyrgyz Republic, a lawyer, and a father of two children. The proposal for which I am asking your kind support is the suspension of all currently existing hostilities on Earth.

    The main goal of my entire project is to save and improve the lives of children who are suffering from the present conflicts and violence.

    The challenge is to create a moment of "pause" [a technical term from video language] in hostilities now and in the future, as well as to refusal to restart them at all. I believe that in this context, such "pause" in the war action seems do-able and practical, much more effective than the idealistic and utopian pressing of an imaginary "stop" button. In the future the first action will equate to the second: "pause" will become "stop". In order to alert the international community and potential supporters, I made a demonstration of my own at 18 October 2013 on the territory of Syrian embassy in Beirut, with poster "pause the war".

    The purpose of this demonstration, is to show through an example that:

    1) one person has the power to perform an action directed to the benefit of all mankind.

    2) no one should be indifferent, when war is concerned.

    3) war requires us to drop everything else, in order to stop it. Daily activities, against the background of war, look meaningless and empty.

    I believe, that this idea will resonate and supporters will wish to join it. The age of information technologies, will help to spread it around the globe. Definitely there will be supporters among the world's famous celebrities. In the event that a large number of ordinary people and celebrities join this campaign, the dream to stop all military actions on the planet will be realized. This will serve as an occasion to announce the call for volunteers in the "international army of peace". It will consist of unarmed "soldiers" who are ready at any time, to go to the hot spot to "pause" the hostilities with the fact of their presence and to encourage the warring parties to engage in dialogue. Ideally, this army should consist of a world-famous and beloved celebrities from all spheres of human activities.

    I suggest that countries be ready to support my initiative, in solidarity, by placing on the cloth of their national flags, the well-known pause symbol "II". I believe that in the course of implementation of this anti-war action, the reasons for which the suspended armed conflict began, will be resolved or continued in a civilized manner. This anti-war action will bring about a new peaceful reality, when there will be no state left, which "international army of peace" had not visited.

    The termination of all hostilities, will become the point of departure for further continuous progress in all directions.

    We are able to bring about the time, when the world will be fairly managed by a workable international organization which will be trusted by all citizens of the earth. When this happens, all kinds of weapons will be transferred to international United Nations control, the purpose of which, will be the preservation of peace and sustainable development of mankind.

    We live in a world, when the collective effort makes possible the colonizing of other planets in the foreseeable future. I believe, that we have enough strength and resources for the child born tomorrow to see a world, where uniform international standards of education, labor, pension and medical care, will be established everywhere. A world, where the primary human needs will be satisfied for free.

    A world, where nobody talks about freedom, because absolute freedom will accompany each person from the moment of birth, to his last breath. A world, where the happiness and freedom of the individual, will not happen in isolation but will include freedom and happiness of all of humanity. A world without war.

    A world without war is undisputed goal, that sooner or later humanity will definitely reach. It is the primary duty of every adult to fulfill a "world in peace"– everyone’s childhood dream. Every child surrounded by the horrors of war dreams that one day somebody will come and say "It is enough!" and by saying it bring war to an end. Then war will stop. That day has come! It's time to combine our efforts in order to make that dream come true.

    February 11, 2014 at 2:34 am |
  8. Rick McDaniel

    You have a criminal dictator in Sudan.......an Islamic one........and he intends to eliminate any and all who are not Muslim.

    February 14, 2014 at 11:18 am |
  9. Samia Omar

    The posting by Rick McDaniel sums up just what a disastrous situation the South Sudan is in. What the hell do Muslims have to do with this?? You dont even know the basic facts Rick. This country's independence was rushed through by a US and UK political agenda that refused to see the reality on the ground and worked instead for some utopia of democracy in a country wracked by ethnic divisions, and with no education, health or social services worth a mention. But Oil and Guns- they had plenty of. A bunch of aging former guerilla fighters do not make for good governance. the people of South Sudan were duped and many returned from stable existences abroad- or even stable existences in Sudan- to find that they have been plunged into their worst nightmare. The USA, the UK and Susan Rice in particular should be ashamed of themselves.

    April 19, 2014 at 2:59 am |
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