Six urgent ways to give peace a better chance in South Sudan

Following disturbing reports of attacks in July, and with the authorization of an increase in troops for the UN mission, we asked six experts what government, aid agencies and local actors need to do to improve the situation in South Sudan. 

South Sudanese women and children queue to receive emergency food at the United Nations protection of civilians (POC) site 3 hosting about 30,000 people displaced during the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan July 25, 2016. REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian

The United Nations has deployed a peacekeeping force in South Sudan since its birth in 2011 – but there has been no peace to keep since the onset of civil war in December 2013. Since then, over 1.6 million people have been internally displaced, and 900,000 have fled to neighbouring states. A tenuous peace deal signed on Aug. 15, 2015, has failed to bring stability to the country. 

Recent clashes in July between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir Mayardit and opposition forces loyal to former First Vice President Riek Machar – who has fled the country – have resulted in civilians and international workers being killed, raped or displaced. In one devastating report, attacks occurred not far from a nearby United Nations base. 

Earlier this month, the United Nations Security Council approved an additional 4,000 troops for the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), bolstering the current force of just over 12,000. This Regional Protection Force, when deployed, would be “responsible for providing a secure environment in and around Juba,” for civilians, UN personnel and premises, and other humanitarian actors. 

Will an increase in troops be enough to protect the country’s most vulnerable? What should the role of foreign governments and international organizations be in South Sudan? And what part has the leadership of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the SPLM-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) played in the failure of peace operations?

Six experts — from Canada’s recent ambassador to personnel of aid agencies on the ground — share their views on what may help bring about peace.

1. Decentralize aid distribution and patrols.

— Melanie Gallant, Oxfam Canada

While peacekeepers have provided safety for tens of thousands inside UN bases, grave security issues are obviously of concern in South Sudan. Many aid agencies have had to suspend or limit life-saving work due to continuing fighting and insecurity, and it is the most vulnerable people who are paying the price.

The 4,000-troop Regional Protection Force recently authorized by the UNSC must be deployed as soon as possible. But in a country where sexual violence is being used as an instrument of war, where last month South Sudanese troops raped several women aid workers, and where every day local women weigh the likelihood of being raped in search of food against the probability of their families going hungry – much more is needed.

One way that Oxfam is mitigating such risks is by influencing the decentralizing of registration and distribution points so that people get aid where they are. Foreign governments and the UN also have an important role to play in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan.

The UNSC members should improve and strengthen UNMISS so it can uphold its core mandate of protecting civilians, including protecting women and girls from sexual violence and rape. They should insist on more UNMISS long-range patrolling and communication with affected populations, including deploying gender advisors to ensure that protection measures are grounded in thorough gender analysis. They should also ensure that UNMISS provides a safe and secure environment for displaced persons, of whom 158,727 are in UN bases, through longer-term planning and funding, as well as adherence to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action.

Governments and donors should, for their part, apply diplomatic pressure to make sure that UNMISS is free to do its job. The South Sudanese transitional government, formed in April, is responsible for ensuring the safety, security and freedom of movement of UNMISS personnel, property and assets, and it must be held to account for doing so.

They should also give their fair share of funding proportionate to the size of their economy to ensure the humanitarian response is funded (as of 2014, international donors have provided approximately $491 million—only 39 percent of the $1.27 billion total requested). This should include funding for standalone protection programming that addresses the health, psychosocial, safety and economic needs of survivors of sexual violence and rape, and vulnerable women and girls.

Of course, nothing will protect the women, men and children of South Sudan like peace.

The international community must above all else redouble its efforts to find a solution to this crisis, and do everything it can to pressure the South Sudanese transitional government and the opposition to fully implement the peace agreement. Only then will families be able to return to their homes and begin rebuilding their lives. 

Melanie Gallant is the Head of Media Relations at Oxfam Canada, covering a vast portfolio of international issues and projects. She led media relations for Oxfam’s response to the Ebola Crisis out of Freetown, Sierra Leone, at the height of the epidemic. Most recently, she was on mission in Syrian refugee settlements in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

2. Tie foreign loans and other incentives to a peace deal.

— Sara Marie Skinner, researcher, University of Calgary

While I think that there are some serious concerns with the current UN Mission in South Sudan, I believe that the real issues lie with the leadership of the SPLM and the SPLM-IO. If the parties to the ongoing conflict do not agree to modalities that will lead to peace within a new peace agreement or salvage the floundering agreement from August 2015, then we can expect to see more of the same and the people of South Sudan will continue to suffer. 

That said, there is an important role for the UN and foreign governments. The UN must fulfill its mandate and protect civilians. Reports of attacks on civilians and particularly sexual attacks on women near Protection of Civilian (POC) sites are unacceptable, and frankly, if UNMISS can’t meet the barest of minimum quality standards then we need to consider how the money that sustains that mission is being spent. 

If South Sudan is applying for loans from a foreign government (including China), firm restrictions tied to the peace agreement should be at the forefront of the negotiations. While pressure from outside governments is not going to address the multi-layered and multi-decade conflicts at play, creating space for a peace agreement to be implemented may require outside incentives.

There are challenges. First, South Sudan learned the art of partial and failed agreements while still a part of Sudan. Almost-agreements and backtracking on and rejecting comments and commitments that have been attributed to them is going to be par for the course. Second, it should be remembered that South Sudan did not hesitate in the past to take actions that seemed counter to its own best interest (for example, shutting down the oil pipeline post-independence). A measured approach is important when diplomacy is at play. The South Sudanese spent a large part of their history being treated as inferiors – they will go to great distances to prevent that from happening again.           

Sara Skinner is a PhD Candidate at the University of Calgary studying the nexus between violence and peace operations. She spent three years living and working in Sudan and South Sudan.

3. Hold officers accountable by implementing an AU hybrid court.

— Michelle Legassicke, researcher, Dalhousie University

UNMISS should use the recently authorized increase in forces to take a more proactive approach to protecting the civilian populated areas around UNMISS bases, as they have become targets for government and opposition forces. UNMISS has been criticized due to cases of civilians, particularly women, being attacked and/or raped when leaving the UN protected bases. 

However, one of the key challenges to current peace operations is the impunity that both government and opposition soldiers have in regards to targeting civilians. Both sides have failed to live up to their responsibility to hold officers accountable for crimes committed, and have yet to court martial soldiers. 

In order to hold soldiers accountable for actions against civilians, the international community must push for the rapid implementation of the African Union Hybrid Court of South Sudan. The August 2015 peace agreement stipulated that this court would be implemented by October 2016. While UNMISS must prioritize the protection of civilians, long term security of civilians can only be guaranteed if the culture of impunity is removed.

Michelle Legassicke is a SSHRC CGSD funded PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Dalhousie University, and a Research Fellow at the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. 

4. Keep expectations for UNMISS realistic.

—  Marina Caparini, Senior Fellow, Centre for Security Governance

 The Regional Protection Force will bring the ceiling of the uniformed peacekeeping component of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to 17,000 personnel. Nevertheless, even with the increased troop levels, it is unrealistic to expect that UNMISS will be able to provide broad civilian protection throughout South Sudan for both practical and political reasons.

The RPF is specifically mandated to facilitate safe and free movement into, out of and around Juba, protecting the airport and key facilities in Juba. But beyond the capital, UNMISS has faced considerable challenges. South Sudan has a territory comparable in size to France.  A rainy season that lasts six to eight months and flooding roads (of which only 200km are paved) render 60 percent of the territory largely inaccessible during that period except by helicopter. 

While any peacekeeping operation relies on the consent of the host state, in practice South Sudan has imposed movement restrictions on UNMISS forces and helicopters, contravening the Status of Forces Agreement, and impeding their ability to conduct monitoring and patrols aimed at deterring attacks. South Sudan also continues to reject the deployment of unarmed unmanned aerial systems (drones), a force multiplier which could facilitate UNMISS’ protection of civilians work.

Even with the increase in its troop component to 17,000, UNMISS’ capacities for the provision of physical protection to civilians will likely remain modest. This is not unique to UNMISS, but is a challenge faced by all peacekeeping operations. Peacekeeping is only one element of a political strategy implemented by the UN with the aim of assisting any given conflict-afflicted states in moving towards a sustainable peace. The political imperative is reflected also when a peacekeeping mission is mandated to protect civilians.

UNMISS’ Protection of Civilians (POC) strategy has consisted of three tiers: preventing threats to civilians through political process (supporting the peace process and engaging politically through dialogue and engagement to prevent attacks on civilians); provision of physical protection by military and police components (notably of the UN compounds and bases that were transformed into ‘POC sites’ – de facto IDP camps that shelter 180,000 people); and establishment of a protective environment (helping to build the state which enjoys public trust and legitimacy, and that will then be able to protect the people itself through provision of security, rule of law and respect for human rights). Given resource constraints and the impossibility of providing broad physical protection to all civilians, many efforts are concentrated initially on the political dimension, and as the situation stabilizes, on the environmental protection dimension. 

Finally, protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping operations is beset by various other problems, including an aversion to risk-taking among UN bureaucrats, unrealistic expectations in the host state population, inadequate training and equipment of some contingents, and lack of political will and the use of national caveats by some troop- and police-contributing countries, restricting the use of their contingents in robust peacekeeping actions, even when directly witnessing attacks on civilians.

While the UN has sought increasingly to sanction non-performing contingents, it must also rely on member states to provide troops and police. It is hypocritical of Western nations to criticize lack of robust engagement of peacekeeping contingents when Western militaries have been largely absent from UN peacekeeping operations since the late 1990s.

Marina Caparini conducts applied research and policy support on security and justice governance, with an emphasis on conflict-affected and post-authoritarian settings.

5. Consider the transitional international administration of South Sudan.

— Chester A. Crocker, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs 

 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with African counterparts in Kenya this week to discuss the tragic crisis in South Sudan. If this latest effort to salvage peace in the world’s newest state fails, it is time for new thinking.

First, some background. While it was still one country (that is until 2011), Sudan was the largest state in Africa. Large states are harder to govern than small ones, and most of Africa’s larger ones (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Ethiopia) are not in great shape. That is not necessarily a good argument for breaking them up. But that’s what African and Western leaders, led by Washington, achieved with the diplomacy that produced the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and the independence of South Sudan in 2011. We did this for reasons that seemed unchallengeable at the time, including the Bashir regime’s butcherous behavior toward its southern citizens.

The CPA might have worked had South Sudan’s founding nationalist John Garang not died at the very start of the transition in mid-2005. But breaking up a fragile state out of sympathy for the oppressed and on the strength of one visionary leader’s promise was a dubious choice by southerners and their outside champions. 

Sadly, as events since the December 2013 outbreak of bloody civil war make clear, the leaders of independent South Sudan have proven themselves utterly unworthy successors to Garang. In a well-governed country, they would be serving time for their corrupt, vicious and predatory behaviour towards each other and their own civilian population. Neighbouring states, the African Union, the United Nations and Western nations have repeatedly tried to get them to return to negotiation and restore some form of inter-ethnic power sharing.

Since the latest fragile peace broke down in July, we outsiders are trying again, proposing similar ideas and authorizing additional, more robust UN troop contingents in hopes of protecting civilians as well as the UN’s own contingents.  

It is unlikely to succeed. Civilians – along with oil and guns – are the very stakes in this bloodletting. There are three options. We can continue writing cheques and beating our diplomatic heads against the wall. We can avert our eyes from South Sudan’s trauma and let nature take its course, as the jackals and hyenas circle around. Or, we can try to mobilize broad global and African support for a temporary suspension of South Sudan’s sovereign license to destroy itself. In a word, this would mean a plan for international administration of the country for a transitional period.     

Chester A. Crocker is a distinguished fellow with CIGI’s Global Security & Politics Program and the James R. Schlesinger professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.

6. Reduce violence while South Sudanese work on peace.

— Nicholas Coghlan, recently retired Canadian ambassador to South Sudan

Foreign governments and international organizations were key to the creation of South Sudan, for better and for worse. In light of discouraging recent events, many commentators now claim that the international community was irresponsible in forcing through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005; left a host of critical issues unresolved; failed to follow through in helping consolidate democracy and accountability in Southern Sudan over the ensuing years; then compounded their negligence by ramming through, against the will of both principal parties, an ill-advised peace agreement in August 2015.

Following the self-inflicted crisis that blew up in December 2013, both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar – the feuding president and his VP, from traditionally rival ethnicities – gave every foreign dignitary who tried to help, from John Kerry to Ban Ki-moon, the same impression: they simply could not care about the unprecedented misery they were jointly inflicting on South Sudan and seemed prepared to let this third civil war go on for years, if need be. Neither would even pick up the phone to speak to the other.

Enter the international community again; this time in the form of the pre-eminent regional political body IGAD (comprising South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti), with the broader international community backing and bankrolling, in the form of the Agreement on Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS), signed in August 2015.

The ARCISS has not held. But once again, we need to be clear where the primary blame lies: with the leadership of the principal parties to the conflict (which, of course, has since diversified and become even more complex than before). And once again we must sally into the breach: the humanitarian stakes are simply too high for us to walk away. 

After August 2015, it took a painful nine months for the international community to persuade rebel leader Riek Machar to overcome his doubts and actually return to Juba. The breakthrough, modest as it was, came as a result of a seemingly obvious bluntly-worded ultimatum presented to the parties, that threatened an escalating series of measures, including the withdrawal of American financing for the mechanics of the return process, to which all IGAD members plus all other international backers of the peace process (including China) signed on. Machar was back within hours; a few of us were left wondering why we hadn't tried this approach before.

What is needed at this time is more international solidarity of this kind, with a similar preparedness to take firm, concerted action.

The challenge is to achieve the precise terms of that consensus. Peace 101 dictates that you need the full support of the regional parties; but in this instance those parties (most obviously Uganda and Sudan) have widely differing and sometimes opposing interests in South Sudan. At a higher level, it has been suggested that surely nobody could question the need for an international arms embargo on South Sudan, and/or some form of justice for those responsible for the atrocities of December 2013. But even within the American political establishment there is no consensus on an arms embargo. Wouldn't this equate South Sudan with Sudan, ask South Sudan's strongest backers in the U.S.? At the UN Security Council other often unrelated agendas (Russia's; China's) of course come into play. As for justice and accountability – review once again the IGAD membership list and ask yourself how many of the neighbours might be interested in setting up the precedent of any form of international accountability, even if it does not carry the detested label of the International Criminal Court?

It will be necessary to be pragmatic, modest and incremental in searching for such consensus; sending in an international force to establish security within Juba is not a bad start, as long as the international will holds and member states pony up the troops and the cash. The academics will carp that much more drastic surgery is what is needed. But it is the South Sudanese who hold the key to the long-term success, or otherwise, of this country, and it should not be otherwise.

All the international community can do, for the sake of the vast majority of the benighted population of the country that has suffered so much, is try to slow the killing and create the space and the time for the country's leaders to come to their senses and/or for new leadership peacefully to emerge. 

After serving two years as Head of the Canadian office in Juba, South Sudan, Nick Coghlan became the first resident Canadian Ambassador to South Sudan in 2014. Nick retired in July 2016; the views here expressed are his own, not those of the Canadian government.