By Josh Jorgensen

The Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) on March 15, 2023. The new mandate emphasizes the Mission’s responsibility to physically protect civilians from violence, but does not substantively change its other priorities or responsibilities. With the mandate’s new Protection of Civilians (POC) language and a request for an independent assessment, the UN and UNMISS have an opportunity to use the next year to revitalize their strategic and operational approach to POC in South Sudan in a context of rising trends in civilian harm and a humanitarian crisis. 

Over the last year, South Sudan’s political leaders have made limited progress implementing key reforms outlined in the 2018 peace agreement (R-ARCSS), even though these reforms were initially supposed to be complete in February 2023. The unity government has repeatedly delayed elections and recently extended the transition period. Vital security reforms have been pushed back as well: although a few thousand unified forces have graduated from training, none have been deployed.  

Armed conflict in South Sudan is driven by rivalries among political elites, but waged through violence against civilians, including extrajudicial killing, abduction, and conflict-related sexual violence. The UN’s latest quarterly report on human rights trends showed a significant uptick in violence against civilians. South Sudanese civilians in areas across the country continue to contend with outbursts of brutal subnational violence, which is often instigated or reinforced by political actors.   

Conflict remains a major cause of ongoing displacement: in Upper Nile state, for instance, at least 20,000 individuals were displaced by fighting in the last few months of 2022. According to UNHCR, 2.2 million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries, while approximately two million more are internally displaced as result of years of insecurity and environmental disasters. Climate change, which has contributed to devastating flooding and exacerbated South Sudan’s food security crisis, is also a key driver of displacement. Ongoing conflicts in the country are exacerbating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. According to the World Food Program, two-thirds of the population is facing severe food insecurity.  

Against the challenges posed by these converging threats, the Security Council chose to maintain the existing priorities in UNMISS’s mandate, while emphasizing a more proactive approach to physically protecting civilians in South Sudan. This effort was driven by the US as penholder, and became the focus of mandate negotiations in early March. Debate in the Council reflected broader disagreements over the role of peacekeeping in proactively and independently protecting civilians. The South Sudanese government and allies on the Council argued for a mandate that supports rather than confronts the State. After the vote on the mandate, China recalled the basic principles of peacekeeping and accused the US of attempting to “make UNMISS a power center above the Government of South Sudan.” However, since both China and Russia had abstained on last year’s UNMISS mandate renewal, the US knew these countries were unlikely to vote yes this year. Thus, the penholder was able to be more forward leaning in strengthening the POC mandate while expecting two abstentions.   

For UNMISS, the stronger language on protection in the resulting mandate makes clear higher expectations for more proactive and robust action in protecting South Sudan’s civilian population from violence.

For example, Council Members elevated language specifying that “the protection of civilians shall be given priority in decisions about the use of available capacity and resources” to the top of UNMISS’s mandate, emphasizing a pre-existing requirement rooted in the provisions of Security Council resolution 1894 (2009). Similarly, although the Mission was already authorized to use all necessary means to protect civilians based on UN policies on POC and the use of force, the Council chose to explicitly state this in the Mission’s POC tasking, requesting UNMISS: “To use all necessary means to ensure effective, timely, and dynamic protection of civilians under threat of physical violence…”. 

This language and its placement send a clear message to UNMISS to adjust its POC approach, especially outside static POC sites and IDP camps. Notably, the Council requested that the UN conduct an independent impact assessment of the Mission’s POC strategy. This will be an opportunity for an honest appraisal of whether UNMISS’s current strategy is fit for purpose, and what needs to change—in terms of disposition, resources, capabilities, and approaches—to better meet evolving protection challenges across South Sudan. 

Other changes to the mandate include new requests for reporting on climate change, peace, and security, and on the Mission’s footprint, including its use of Temporary Operating Bases (TOBs), which—as their name implies—are light-touch and short-term peacekeeping installations that can help a mission respond flexibly to emerging protection threats. The focus on climate change and conflict is an opportunity for the Mission to showcase the work it has already been doing to incorporate climate and environmental factors into its conflict analysis, and to further integrate climate analysis and planning across Mission components. The explicit mention of TOBs should also serve as a call to reassess the UNMISS force posture in more areas of the country where it doesn’t currently maintain a presence to protect civilians.  

The mandate changes create the impetus for UNMISS to move forward with a renewed focus on protection and a more proactive approach, rooted in analysis of the protection challenges it faces and what resources it needs to protect civilians.

The mandate’s additional focus on reporting on climate change is also an opportunity for UNMISS to lead the way among peacekeeping missions in incorporating environmental risk factors into integrated analysis and planning, as well as operations.  

UN Member States should expect that that the requested impact assessment on UNMISS’s POC strategy—and future assessments of the use of TOBs—may identify that specific new capacities are needed, including troops, police, or equipment. Troop and police and financial contributors should be prepared to support the UN in generating the necessary resources and fielding appropriate capabilities to respond to protection threats and challenges in South Sudan. Upcoming peacekeeping budget negotiations and the Peacekeeping Ministerial later this year will both be opportunities to provide that critical support. 

Josh Jorgensen is a UN and Peacekeeping Advisor at CIVIC. Twitter: @Josh__Jorgensen

Image courtesy of Linda Tom/UNMISS
Related Content
Filter by
Post Page
Sort by