On March 12, 2020, the mandate of the UN peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was renewed for one year. The new mandate—outlining what tasks the UN Security Council expects the Mission to perform over the coming year—is a cautious and compromise-filled document, which is what allowed the Council to achieve consensus on the mandate renewal, unlike last year, when Russia abstained from the vote. Additionally, caution is needed given the unpredictable political and conflict environment in South Sudan right now. The protection of civilians will ultimately hinge on the willingness of the South Sudanese government and non-state armed actors to uphold their responsibilities. However, the mandate lays a solid foundation for UNMISS to protect civilians and contribute to security in the country over the next year.

For much of 2019, South Sudan has been in limbo. A ceasefire and a revitalized peace agreement signed in late 2018 halted much, although not all, of the violence between armed groups in the country. In February of this year, rivals President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar compromised on a number of contentious issues to form a transitional government, with Machar as Kiir’s First Vice President. However, the same formula has been tried twice in the past, with volatile and bloody results. Moreover, conflict related sexual violence has continued, at worrying levels, even as direct clashes have slowed. Many displaced South Sudanese civilians who have spoken with CIVIC over the last several years have told us that they are wary of the current political arrangement and are waiting for more concrete progress with implementation before they relocate or invest in planting crops or rebuilding their homes.[1]

In recognition of ongoing instability, the new mandate retains protection of civilians as UNMISS’s first priority mandated task. The Security Council also made clear through the text that UNMISS should continue to protect displaced persons sheltering in Protection of Civilians (POC) sites on UN bases while increasing mobility and protection in potential areas of return and relocation. Language was added to a preambular paragraph of the mandate, “emphasizing the importance of flexibility in UNMISS’s posture within and outside POC sites and that decisions on posture and deployment remain linked to threat analysis.” This language acknowledges that an improved security context in certain areas of the country may allow UNMISS to shift some resources from static POC site protection to more mobile operations, but that security could quickly deteriorate and necessitate reinforced protection of POC sites.

Similarly, UNMISS’s 2019 mandate outlined a role for UNMISS supporting, “the safe, informed, voluntary, and dignified return or relocation of IDPs from United Nations protection of civilian sites.”  The current mandate retains this task in operative paragraph (OP) 8(a)(viii), but includes a reference to local integration—recognizing that for many displaced persons, a durable solution will not include any movement beyond the towns where they or the POC sites are currently based. This development is significant, because it could also help to guard against what analysts and NGOs have highlighted as a potential for returns and relocations to be manipulated by parties to the conflict in a process that amounts to ethnic gerrymandering.

Protecting civilians and maintaining a flexible posture requires UNMISS to have a strong understanding of threats to civilians, which is why Council Members also added language to OP8(iii) calling on UNMISS to strengthen its early warning strategy, adopt an Information Acquisition Plan, and track incidences of civilian harm.

Over the last several years, language on gender and conflict-related sexual violence has been targeted for deletion by some Member States during mandate renewal negotiations, and UNMISS’s mandate renewal this year was no exception. Despite these Council dynamics, UNMISS’s new mandate includes a strong and clear message to UNMISS that their protection role includes protection from sexual violence. For example, OP8(a)(v) in the mandate, which calls specifically for UNMISS “to deter and prevent sexual and gender-based violence,” was carried over from the 2019 mandate.  Additionally, the 2020 mandate continues to recognize the importance of Child Protection Advisors and Women Protection Advisors and also includes a new reference to the work of uniformed and civilian Gender Advisors and gender focal points in OP8(a)(i) and OP18. This is a positive development. While the goal for peacekeeping missions is to mainstream gender into their operations by ensuring all staff have the training and skills to conduct gendered-analysis and planning, this is a difficult task for any organization. Unless or until this goal can be achieved, CIVIC’s research demonstrates that gender specialists and focal points often make the difference in whether missions are able to effectively track trends in sexual violence and plan patrols and activities to deter it.

Finally, the mandate text calls for an independent strategic review of UNMISS, due to the Security Council by December 15, 2020, that will make recommendations on a possible reconfiguration of the Mission. This request is in line with developing practice in recent years, including mandated strategic reviews of the UN peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali. The review should be fully independent and carried out with adequate consultation across all stakeholders. The POC sites have, at times, been a source of tension between UNMISS and humanitarian actors who play distinct but linked protection roles in the country and need to coordinate their activities to maintain the integrity of the sites.  An independent and widely consultative review could help identify solutions acceptable to all parties and support the Mission’s decision-making in a fluid context. The decision of Council Members to set the deadline for the review nine months from the renewal of the mandate is helpful. A deadline any sooner would have been problematic. Strategic reviews can take several months to complete and armed actors in the country are unlikely to make rapid progress over the next several months implementing the political and security sector reforms that could make this peace process different than the last several attempts.

From one year to the next, peacekeeping missions need to demonstrate that they are effectively using resources and developing programs that pave the way for stability and their eventual exit. However, with peacekeeping budgets under threat, there is a constant risk that Member States move too quickly to downsize missions or willfully mistake nascent and illegitimate political processes for real progress. Member States rightfully acted with caution during UNMISS’s mandate renewal. The changes to the mandate indicate that the Security Council is asking UNMISS to make modifications rather than whole-sale changes to their current strategies, which helped to underpin the peace process and provide protection to hundreds of thousands of civilians in 2019. The language in the new mandate will allow UNMISS to continue performing the vital protection functions that South Sudanese civilians need over the coming year—so long as the government and parties to the conflict implement their political commitments and allow UNMISS the access it needs to implement its own commitments.

[1] Over the past three years, CIVIC has conducted interviews with dozens of civilians in locations across the country, including Akobo, Bentiu, Bor, Juba, Malakal, Yei, and Wau.

Image courtesy of UNMISS