The UN mission in South Sudan has failed – but it wasn’t given the support to succeed

The United Nations Security Council needs to beef up its mandate, troops and equipment.

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNmiss) has increasingly come under criticism for failing to achieve its core mandate — to protect civilians — following the July 2016 crisis in the capital city, Juba.

Numerous factors contributed to this failure: chief among them a fundamental mismatch between the mandate and the capacity of the mission.

The current mandate of the mission expires on December 15. The UN Security Council is reviewing the possibility of extending it.

This raises several key questions. Would UNmiss be able to overcome the many hiccups it has experienced to support the peace process beyond December? Would it continue with a similar mandate or will the mission be empowered with an executive mandate of full capability?

The July crisis was ignited when armed fighting broke out between soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and those of his former vice-president, Riek Machar — who respectively lead the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army in government (SPLA/M) and the SPLA-O (army in opposition). The crisis marked a grave violation of the peace agreement signed between the two leaders on August 17 2015.

This agreement was expected to end the civil war with the establishment of a transitional government of national unity. The deal collapsed when fighting erupted once more, forcing Machar to flee and resulting in many deaths, sexual violence, torture and harassment of civilians.

Initially established in July 2011 with the ambitious mandate of supporting the newly independent state by building capacity, protection of civilians has since become a core mandate of UNmiss. The mission was authorised to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians from any threats of physical violence, “irrespective of sources”. This shift was the result of the civil war that broke out on December 15 2013 between the armed forces of the two leaders.

Efforts in this regard have included the sheltering of more than 200 000 internally displaced people in UNmiss bases in Benitu, Malakal, Wau, Bor and Juba — known as protection of civilian sites. On the whole the mission has failed to protect civilians, including the internally displaced people.

The Centre for Civilians in Conflict recently published a comprehensive report on the effect of the July crisis on civilians and the subsequent response from UNmiss. According to the report, there were incidents in which SPLA/M soldiers shot indiscriminately, killing dozens of internally displaced people at protection of civilian sites in Juba and other incidents when civilians were killed based on ethnic grounds. There were also reports of rape, abductions, summary executions and extensive looting perpetrated by these soldiers.

The report details how UNmiss peacekeepers were “unable and at times unwilling to respond” to the crisis, because they were caught in the crossfire between the two fighting forces.

In another incident, peacekeepers were unwilling to respond when the soldiers, wearing uniforms bearing the insignia of the president’s personal guard, attacked a civilian compound located very close to the UNmiss base. The soldiers committed physical and sexual abuses against international aid workers and staff, and looted the compound.

On August 23, the UN secretary general established an independent special investigation team to examine the July violence and the response from UNmiss. The recently released report confirmed that the SPLA/M soldiers perpetuated the violence and that UNmiss failed to respond or implement its mandated tasks.

Following this report, the secretary general dismissed the force commander of the mission for incompetency and requested his country, Kenya, to send a replacement. Kenya rejected this and responded by withdrawing its 1 000 troops from South Sudan. This decision will negatively affect the political and operational dimensions of the mission.

It is critical to ask why UNmiss has failed.

The report emphasises weaknesses in UNmiss planning, preparation and co-ordination.

Similarly, a UN board of inquiry report on the February 2016 violence against internally displaced people in Malakal revealed confusion in UNmiss command and control, rules of engagement and co-ordination — both within mission components and among partners.

These causes point to a key flaw — the mandate of the mission does not match its capacity. The UN High-Level Independent Panel on United Nations Peace Operations has underscored the importance for mandates to “be aligned with capacities”. In the case of UNmiss, the mission has been tasked with a mandate of huge responsibility — but has been given limited capacity to achieve this.

The mission consists of roughly 12 000 troops and 1 320 police officers but has no “force multipliers” such as attack aeroplanes, helicopters and advanced weaponry. During the July fighting, UNmiss had less than 2 000 troops and some police officers on the ground. These peacekeepers were scarcely able to protect themselves, let alone avert the violence of SPLA/M soldiers who had ground and air capabilities.

Added to that, the political support extended to UNmiss was neither sufficient nor timely.

Although there have been moves towards establishing a hybrid court aimed at ensuring justice for victims of violence, this has not yet materialised. After the July violence, the Security Council decided to deploy a regional force of 4 000 troops to function as part of UNmiss but this has also been obstructed by Kiir’s government. Despite ongoing violations, the international community, and the Security Council in particular, have yet to take truly meaningful action against perpetrators.

How could UNmiss overcome these setbacks and how would the mission function after the current agreement expires? Would it continue in a similar role of limited capacity or will the mission be empowered with an executive mandate of full capacity?

The first option has already proven unsuccessful — and the situation in South Sudan is growing increasingly serious. This is a result of the proliferation of multiple armed groups in the country; the growth of ethnic-based polarisation; continued violence perpetrated by the government and opposition soldiers and militias; and a lack of effective and committed leadership in the country. Continuing with the same mandate would not allow UNmiss to be effective in protecting civilians and support the peace process.

In this respect, the success stories of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor offer valuable lessons. The administration was authorised to exercise administrative authority over East Timor during its transition to independence, and was given the right mandate, troops, police, equipment and robust rules of engagement required for that specific situation.

UNmiss should be given a similar mandate. Beyond the protection role and support for the political process, UNmiss should transform the divided SPLA/M, which continues to pose real security threats to civilians and challenge the peace process, into an accountable security force with a complete reform and restructuring process. This can only be possible if the Security Council authorises UNmiss with an executive mandate — and fully equips the mission with all implementation capabilities. — ISS Today

Meressa K Dessu is a researcher and training co-ordinator for the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding division of the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa

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