The power of the UN to protect Humanity Part II – The endless conflict in South Sudan

President Salva_Kiir_Mayardit, UN

President Kiir speaking to reporters before the headquarters of the Security Council, (CC-Photo Credit: Jenny Rockett)

 

By Iona Mulder -

In 2011, the Security Council assigned a peace-keeping mission, UNMISS, to South Sudan to help stabilize this young turbulent nation. In my previous article, I described the bureaucratic progress of the deployment of the mission in South Sudan as the intended ideal process of the founders of UN to protect humanity worldwide. Unfortunately, this positive note does not extend to the actual results of the mission on the ground in South Sudan. There is one thing that can be stated with certainty: the UN (peacekeeping) mission so far has failed its mandate to contribute to the stability of the country, and to protect its population against violence when its government neglects to do so.

The mission started in 2011 to help the government to build the new nation, however, in 2013 the government of South Sudan split into two factions. President Kiir accused the Vice-President Riek Machar of attempting a coup and sacked him and the rest of the Parliament. Riek Machar denied the accusation, stating that the President Kirr was creating a dictatorship. The remaining government and the opposition group of Machar both mobilized their support to pick up arms and fight by their side, leading up to a civil war. As a result of the violence, tens thousands of people have been killed, and over three million people fled their home – resulting in the destruction of South Sudan’s infrastructure and economic system that was mainly based on agriculture and oil. In 2015, a peace agreement, including a cease-fire, was signed between the conflicting parties. But already from the beginning, there was little trust in the implementation of this peace agreement, as it was signed under immense international pressure and the threat of a weapon embargo. In July 2016, new fighting broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, that was being described as widespread ethnic violence by United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. There were already many previous warnings of massive food shortage all over the country, but in February this year, the UN officially declared a famine in multiple parts of the country. Little blame for the famine can be distributed to circumstances of nature. It is the result of years of fighting, in which the civilians are heavily targeted, and the unjust distribution of the nation’s sources by the government.

How is it possible that one of the world’s most powerful organization in its third largest mission, seems powerless to bring a solution on a political level or provide civilians protection or even humanitarian assistance? Even in the six safe areas that the UN has established around the country, in which an average o f 200.000 people seeks refuge, the mission has been unable to guarantee a place where its residents can feel safe. Sexual violence, as in the rest of the country, is a daily reality and in February 2016 a safe area was burned to the ground, in the outbreak of violence July of the same year the protection side in Juba was heavily attacked. After this attack, the UN-secretary general Ban Ki-moon dismissed the commander of the mission, after it became apparent that the peacekeepers had utterly failed to protect civilians during these attacks, even within the safe area. “The report from a UN special investigation found that a lack of leadership in the UNMISS ended in a “chaotic and ineffective response” during the heavy fighting in the capital, Juba, from July 8 to 11 that killed dozens of people.”

The main reason for the failing mission is the noncooperation and opposition of the government of South Sudan to the mission. The government more than often has denied peacekeepers access to areas where civilians were in need of protection or humanitarian assistance. Although the third biggest mission in the world, the mission does not have the capacity in mandate, staff or material to force such access. The UN does not have its own army but has to rely on the military of the signatory nations. The process of assembling an army or adjust its mandate is a bureaucratic and time-consuming process, making it impossible to respond to urgent matters. Moreover, although the Security Council agrees that UNMISS is necessary for South Sudan, it is unable to make a political fist to fight the Government’s resistance against the mission, because Russia veto’s any resolution that directly affects the South Sudanese Government.

The primary example of these problems is the deployment of the so-called Regional Protection Force. This force of 4000 strong was authorized by the Security Council, including by Russia, in August 2016 after the outbreak of violence in July that year. Due to the bureaucratic process of assembling this force, it was still not ready to operate almost a half year later. Primarily, the South Sudanese Government accepted the force deployment under the threat of weapon embargo. However, in December Russia vetoed a resolution for a weapon embargo, which gave the Government the confidence to refuse the deployment of the Regional Protection Force without facing serious consequences. This refusal led to a further delay, because of the logistical and bureaucratic restraints. Thus, even after hearing warnings in December 2016 that the conflict might escalate into a genocide and a new Security Council resolution for the expansion of the Mission and an urge for a rapid deployment of the Regional Protection Force, the force is now April 2017, still not operating. However, as Casie Copeland of the Crisis Group reported, the mandate for the Regional Protection Force only extents to Juba, while in the meantime the conflict has moved its center to other regions, and it is there that people are in need of protection, not in Juba.

The South Sudanese Government and its political supporters play a political game as they are unwilling to end the conflict. If the UN continues to play this game, it will always be one step behind. There could be an approach by the UN that would help to circumvent this game of the national government. The UN has to switch its diplomatic and military focus from the national conflicts to regional or local conflicts. This approach is especially suitable for layered societies as that of South Sudan. It is often assumed that the national crisis – the conflict between the two former factions of the parliament – is the motor behind most of the violence in the country. However, South Sudan consist of many communities, which are bound by clan, local, family, ethnic or religious affiliations. The national conflict is often used by local communities to sort out their local conflicts with other communities. For example, a village will support the party opposite of their rival neighboring community with whom they have a bone to pick. Moreover, these local communities are the ones with the most interest in peace. It is the civilians who are paying the price of the conflict, not the political or military national leaders.

As the scholar Séverine Autesserre concludes in an article on the conflict in the Republic of Congo, local peace-building and reconciliation will reduce the level of violence on the ground. Her evidence for this argument is the conflict in North-East of Congo that (re)started in the beginning of the nineties. In 2003 a national peace agreement was signed, leading to the withdrawal of international players in the conflict. However, the conflict continued long after, because the local conflicts between the eight different ethnic and local groups in the region were not addressed in the settlement. Thus, local reconciliation could reduce violence after a conflict broke out. Moreover, it could also have a deterrent effect, as the national conflict might still spark the violence, but local settlements minimize the change that the violence is to spread out over the country. Finally, it might even put internal pressure on the government to implement a peace agreement.

Fortunately, in a report written by Secretary-General in cooperation with the African Union, the advice is given to the UN to put more focus on political engagement on a local level, as political solutions at national level seem fruitless, because of national and international unwillingness to end the conflict. As stated in this report: “The Mission’s increased focus on strengthening mechanisms for peaceful coexistence at the community level should be understood as a front-line protection intervention and part of an overarching political strategy.” If the UN can succeed in applying this strategy on a broad basis, they might be one step ahead of those who prefer the conflict to continue and for South Sudan to remain a state in chaos.

There is one issue that remains unsolved, and that is the inability of the UN to intervene adequate to changing situation, because of the slow bureaucratic (and political) process of putting together an peacekeeping army. An analysis of this process will be the subject of the last article of this series.

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Iona Mulder

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