By Lauren Spink and Daniel Levine-Spound
On March 15, 2022, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) renewed the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which will guide the actions of peacekeepers over the next year. While mandate renewals can involve significant changes or additions to mandate language – the core mandate text remained largely the same this year. So, rather than focus on what was adjusted, Mission officials should take this time to note what was not changed, and the message that this decision sends. Most critically, the UNSC retained protection of civilians as the central focus of the Mission’s mandate, and this emphasis should continue to guide Mission activities.
UNMISS’s Role in Past Years
Since the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan, UNMISS’s mandate has been strongly focused on protection of civilians. The Mission’s mandated protection activities have included providing physical protection to displaced civilians sheltered in special Protection of Civilians (POC) sites on and adjacent to UNMISS bases and regularly deploying to protect civilians in priority areas around the country—including by protecting them from sexual violence. UNMISS also works to prevent violence through its high-level political engagement and community dialogue initiatives.
After the signing of a 2018 revitalized peace agreement between most parties to the conflict in South Sudan, the UNSC gradually began increasing the Mission’s role in support of the peace process, including by directing UNMISS to provide technical assistance to the mechanisms created by the agreement and support the inclusion of women and youth in the peace process. UNSC members have rightly been reluctant to position UNMISS too quickly or entirely behind the revitalized peace agreement or the new government it created. Although the agreement has contributed to a reduction in large-scale political violence, aspects of the peace process have been deeply flawed; the new government is mostly comprised of the same political actors who waged civil war against each other and the country’s civilians, and the parties to the peace agreement have shown limited political will to implement critical pieces of it.
What did and did not change in the new mandate?
During the mandate renewal, UNSC members decided to retain the Mission’s central focus on protection of civilians, including its mandate to protect civilians in POC sites. It also preserved the Mission’s responsibility to maintain contingency planning and a flexible posture for protecting civilians in areas where POC sites have been re-designated as displaced person camps under the oversight of the government. This decision reflects an important reality of the conflict—when under threat from government or opposition forces, civilians flee to UNMISS bases for security. UNMISS can support the national police, for example, in protecting civilians when they face threats from non-state actors. But the Mission also needs to be prepared to protect civilians in and around UNMISS bases when national security forces are unable to protect civilians or are themselves the source of the threat.
UNSC delegates also decided to maintain the Mission’s troop and police ceilings—the maximum number of military and police officials they are authorized to have deployed in the country. This decision was taken despite a voluntary reduction in the actual number of troops and police deployed to the Mission that took place in 2021 under the previous head of UNMISS—and it reflects the instability of the current environment in South Sudan. Although civilian casualties appear to have decreased in 2021 as compared to previous years, presidential elections are scheduled to take place in 2023 and electoral preparations in the country throughout 2022 are likely to trigger increased violence. Maintaining troop and police ceilings that are higher than the actual number of uniformed personnel currently deployed on the ground will allow the Mission to increase deployments if the situation looks likely to deteriorate or violence increases.
The UNSC added language to the mandate that outlines a role for UNMISS in pre-electoral preparations, including support to the authorities in drafting a permanent constitution and providing for the participation of women, displaced persons, and refugees in the electoral process. The new paragraph on UNMISS’s role in electoral preparations also directs the Mission to mitigate potential tensions throughout the electoral period, while new language in the section on UNMISS’s protection role emphasizes that it should protect civilians in the context of elections. Moreover, the UNSC included new text in several areas of the mandate on the importance of ensuring its activities are linked to gender-sensitive and conflict-sensitive analysis. These additions further underscore the centrality of protection in the Mission’s role and the need for UNMISS to ensure its activities do not exacerbate vulnerabilities in the complex conflict environment within which it operates.
Being deployed in a large country with limited resources and a long list of tasks, UNMISS will be pulled in many directions over the coming year. UNMISS’s new mandate opens additional space for the Mission to provide technical support to electoral preparations. But overall, the direction from the UNSC is clear—UNMISS should remain focused on protection of civilians, both in the context of electoral preparations and more broadly.