On March 15, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2459, extending the mandate of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) for another year. Following the signing of ceasefire agreements in 2017 and a revitalized peace agreement in September 2018, violence has subsided in many areas of South Sudan. However, as a horrific wave of sexual violence in the Bentiu region of South Sudan last November demonstrated, threats to civilians remain high. UNMISS continues to have an important role to play in protecting civilians, and this role is reflected in the new mandate, which maintains POC as the first pillar of the Mission.
Today, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) released a report that examines the challenges UNMISS faces in adopting a more mobile and flexible approach to peacekeeping in South Sudan. It provides reflections on the balance the Mission should try to reach between increasing mobility and continuing to provide static protection to civilians sheltered in Protection of Civilians (POC) sites on UNMISS bases. These reflections are particularly important in light of UNMISS’s already stretched resources and new mandate language, which focuses on UNMISS’s role in facilitating returns and relocations for displaced persons.
Since the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan in December 2013, UNMISS has provided protection to several hundred thousand civilians who sought shelter on their bases around the country. With limited resources, UNMISS has struggled to provide protection to civilians that reside in the POC sites, and to also project resources to provide protection for the many more civilians outside of the sites.
Like its predecessor, the new mandate recognizes the important role that UNMISS plays providing protection to the POC sites and directs the Mission to continue to “maintain public safety and security of and within UNMISS protection of civilians sites.” However, the mandate also includes new language that emphasizes the need for UNMISS to “support the facilitation of the safe, informed, voluntary, and dignified return or relocation” of displaced persons and imposes a 180-day deadline for the mission to complete an assessment of each POC site, including the model for providing security to the sites and steps necessary to foster a secure environment for the safe, informed, voluntary, and dignified returns and relocations of displaced persons.
Nuanced and location specific assessments of POC sites could help UNMISS better understand security threats to civilians in and around the sites and plan to address them. However, the timeline for the assessments is short and setting a deadline on assessments could inadvertently create pressure on Mission officials to begin supporting population movements that are potentially risky given the conflict environment. Moreover, few officials in the Mission have experience conducting detailed protection analysis. The political environment in South Sudan is highly charged, and both government and opposition actors have a stake in the fate of POC sites. Civilians are also aware that their responses to questions about returns and relocations will affect what resources are available to them in the POC sites, as well as in areas of potential return and relocation. Therefore, UNMISS will need to carefully determine to whom, how, and when the assessment questions are asked to ensure that the resulting data is reliable. UNMISS should coordinate closely with UN and non-UN humanitarian actors to set the parameters for the assessments and to conduct them.
The new mandate also recognizes that facilitating safe returns and relocations will require UNMISS to “extend its presence, including through proactive deployment and patrolling, to areas of displacement return, and local integration” and also recognizes that UNMISS has “significant resource and capacity challenges.” The head of UNMISS, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, has taken steps to improve the mobility of the Mission and the ability of peacekeepers to respond proactively and flexibly to threats across the country. However, many challenges to mobility remain.
Based on comprehensive research, the new report by CIVIC provides findings and recommendations that could help UNMISS achieve greater mobility, which is essential before it can facilitate safe returns and relocations. CIVIC’s report also provides insight into the perspectives of civilians residing in the POC sites on why they continue to rely on the sites for security and the role that UNMISS plays providing protection within and outside the sites. It provides analysis on UNMISS’s attempt to flexibly expand the Mission’s footprint through the use of austere operating bases (AOBs) and proposes some lessons on how AOBs can become a more effective tool for protection of civilians.
Decisions on how to equip UNMISS for mobile operations, ensure that UNMISS strikes an appropriate balance between static and mobile protection, and enable UNMISS to achieve an expanded and more flexible footprint will directly affect the lives of South Sudanese men, women, boys, and girls. Such decisions are at the center of the degree to which UNMISS can achieve its new mandate and continue preventing and responding to threats in a country where civil war has left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead and millions displaced.
The report offers a number of recommendations to increase the mobility of the mission, including the following:
To UN Member States
- Ensure that UNMISS has adequate resources and capabilities to successfully implement its mandate and achieve greater mobility, including appropriate civilian personnel, air assets, and travel budgets;
- Prioritize funding to sustain (at a minimum) and ideally increase the number of UNMISS language assistants and Community Liaison Assistants (CLAs), who are national staff members that serve as a link between the Mission and local communities and are vital for community engagement and developing early warning of threats to civilians;
- Enable UNMISS to strengthen protection in areas of returns and relocations by contributing troops to UNMISS who are willing and able to deploy as part of mobile teams and sustain themselves in austere conditions for limited periods of time. Refrain from imposing geographic restrictions on where troops can be deployed; and
- Combat systematic government blockages to UNMISS’ freedom of movement that hinder rapid response to threats outside of POC sites by engaging in sustained dialogue with South Sudanese government officials on violations of the Mission’s right to freedom of movement.
To the UN Secretariat
- Assist UNMISS in reviewing and adjusting administrative policies that prevent the rapid deployment of its civilian and military personnel to ensure that UNMISS can respond flexibly to threats in areas of returns and relocations;
- Ensure that the Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) and Statement of Unit Requirements (SURs) negotiated between troop-contributing countries (TCCs) and the Secretariat to outline the terms of their deployment allow for the flexible deployment of troops within South Sudan; and
- Intensify efforts to identify TCCs with the capacity and willingness to deploy to UNMISS, adopt a mobile posture, and operate in austere conditions.
- Work with the Secretariat to develop a plan for increasing the mobility of UNMISS’s civilian personnel;
- Continue to assert the Mission’s right to freedom of movement;
- Ensure that UNMISS’s patrolling in areas of returns and relocations is effective by establishing a system for monitoring the impact of patrols and ensure that the planning and evaluation of patrols is based on comprehensive and continuous analysis of protection threats; and
- Request adequate civilian staff in the Mission’s budget proposal to support mandate implementation. Specifically, consider adjusting UNMISS’s budget and staffing requests to increase the number of CLAs and language assistants so that they can increase their contributions to early warning systems, and contribute to the possible creation of community alert networks.