By Lauren Spink
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan — known by its acronym UNMISS — has perhaps been most known for providing security to civilians inside protection of civilians (POC) sites in and around its bases. In October 2020, UNMISS began the process of re-designating the POC sites into camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). This shift was more than a technical name change — it transferred control of the sites from UNMISS to government authorities, many of whom have been implicated in abuses and atrocities committed throughout the country’s civil war.
The sites were created when, eight years ago this month, South Sudan descended into a violent civil war, and hundreds of thousands of civilians across the country fled to UNMISS bases to escape ethnic and politically motivated killings. For years afterward, civilians resided in the sites, which served as a refuge while repeated attempts to broker peace in the country faltered. At their peak, the sites held more than 200,000 civilians, and before the start of re-designations in October 2020, more than 165,000 individuals were still living in the sites. In 2018, a revitalized peace agreement was signed. Although implementation of the agreement has been achingly slow — nearly every deadline in the agreement has been missed — it has created a framework for moving the country forward.
UNMISS has now re-designated four of its five POC sites and this has so far led to only a small increase in reported human rights violations, but the looming contest for presidential elections tentatively due in 2023 threatens a deterioration in an already precarious security environment. UNMISS should remain focused on protecting civilians amid competing demands, including by preparing to physically protect civilians in re-designated POC sites in case of renewed violence. UNMISS’s mandate from the U.N. Security Council and a status of forces agreement with the South Sudanese authorities allow it to do so. And as UNMISS considers whether or how to re-designate the last POC site remaining under its control, it should learn lessons from past re-designations and work with other U.N. agencies, non-governmental organizations, and national authorities to address protection and housing concerns of the site’s residents.