As violence continues in South Sudan, the protection of civilians has become the central issue. With millions of people displaced from their homes, sheltering in Protection of Civilians (POC) sites on UN bases and in remote villages and swamps across the country, providing effective protection programming is the ultimate Sisyphean challenge. Despite a billion-dollar UN mission with 13,000 armed peacekeepers, ordinary South Sudanese continue to lose their lives at an alarming rate. It is essential to recognise the need to continue to evolve the practice of direct protection, recognising the limitations of what can be done in complex conflict, while assertively looking to scale up what is working and adapt established approaches to address the changing realities of contemporary conflict. This article provides a brief look at one emerging approach to direct protection work, unarmed civilian protection (UCP).
What is UCP?
Unarmed civilian protection (UCP) is an emerging methodology for the direct protection of civilians and for localised violence reduction. UCP provides unarmed, specially trained civilians, recruited from multiple countries and cultures, who live and work with local civil society in areas of violent conflict. It has grown in practice and recognition in the last few decades, with over 50 civil society organisations applying UCP methods in 35 conflict areas since 1990. UCP can be applied at all stages of a conflict, but it can be particularly effective early on, and after conflict has subsided. UCP can work in conflict areas where no UN peacekeepers are present (e.g. Mindanao, Myanmar, Colombia) but also, in a complementary manner, with UN missions (e.g. South Sudan). The concept of UCP contributes to several discourses taking place at the UN and elsewhere, including Women, Peace and Security; Protection of Civilians; Children in Armed Conflict; Mediation; Human Security; and Peacebuilding.
Deploying professionally prepared unarmed civilians before, during or after conflict aims to prevent or reduce violence, provide direct physical protection to civilians under threat and strengthen or build resilient local peace infrastructures that help communities protect themselves and resolve conflict non-violently. Unlike traditional military peacekeeping or armed private security firms, this is done without the use of, or reliance on, weapons; instead, UCP emphasises relationships over military power.
Although different organisations implement UCP in different ways, they usually share key methods, principles (e.g. non-violence, non-partisanship), sources of guidance (e.g. International Humanitarian Law) and skills. UCP practitioners engage with affected communities for varying periods of time, usually ranging from a few months to a few years. The four main methods of UCP are proactive engagement, monitoring and intervening, relationship-building and capacity development. Each of these methods has a number of applications, including protective presence, protective accompaniment and inter-positioning, ceasefire monitoring, rumour control, early warning/early response, confidence-building, multi-track dialogue, local mediation and training and supporting local UCP infrastructures. Each intervention may use a different combination of these tools depending on the context and the specific protection needs at the time.
In some situations, UCP can be a better option than armed protection. The absence of guns and uniforms can make it easier for UCPs to be accepted by all parties. It can pose less of a threat to actors that are in conflict with the national government. This strengthens the perception of non-partisanship and reduces the risk of being targeted by rebel groups. All of this can make it easier for civilians to approach UCPs, especially in areas where state and non-state armed actors may be actively fighting. When civilians receive protection from actors perceived as partisan, they can be assumed to be partisan themselves. When non-partisan UCP implementers provide direct protection it can provide the opportunity for civilians to separate themselves from parties to the conflict.
Operationalising UCP in South Sudan
Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP) has been implementing UCP programming in South Sudan since 2010. When the conflict began in December 2013, NP was largely focused on strengthening local peace infrastructures, with direct protection programming in Jonglei State, the most restive part of the country at the time. As with other NGOs, the outbreak of the war forced a rapid reorganisation of priorities. Due to immediate insecurity and the rapidly changing environment, NP redeployed the majority of its resources to emergency response in Juba, Bor and Bentiu. However, within months, in response to the spreading crisis, we had expanded to 13 static field teams plus an additional mobile emergency response team. NP’s primary purpose has been to contribute to the direct protection of civilians in areas of conflict, and to support conflict prevention and stabilisation in areas on the periphery. While there have been notable successes, the challenges have been immense.
Protective accompaniment for the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence
Due to overcrowding and limited resources in POC sites in South Sudan, civilians frequently choose to leave. For women, this has often meant moving to surrounding areas to find firewood, livelihood activities and other basic needs. The POC in Bentiu sits in the middle of what has been highly contested territory throughout the war, which has meant the consistent presence of armed actors from all sides of the conflict immediately adjacent to the base. Women reported that they were targeted every time they left the site: harassed, forced to pay a ‘tax’ to pass, beaten, raped, abducted and killed. Although the risk was high the critical need to collect cooking fuel meant that they had no choice but to venture out, moving in groups and trying to pick areas that appeared less risky.
In response to the threats facing these women, NP started to conduct protective accompaniment (patrols) outside the POC site. In the early stages of the intervention, it was estimated that 65% of violent incidents took place during firewood collection or livelihood activities. To counteract this, NP’s team conducted nearly 200 direct protection activities, enabling several thousand women to safely access areas outside the POC site. The team conducted regular patrols for a period of six months. By establishing working relationships with women’s groups, prevention strategies were developed to allow groups of women to be accompanied – ranging from 15 to several hundred, as women learned that the patrols directly deterred sexual violence. The NP accompaniment team varied in size according to the size of the group and the assessed risk.
Patrols were suspended and ultimately discontinued when changes in the external context brought in new, unknown personalities within armed actors and it became unclear whether the level of deterrence would be sufficiently high to offset the risk. The team reoriented its activities towards accompaniment and protective presence in other high-risk areas both within the POC and in other locations.
The key outcome of this intervention was the protection of thousands of women and girls at risk of sexual and gender-based violence whilst outside the POC. Women would often wait for hours after collecting firewood so that they could walk back to the POC in the accompaniment group rather than returning alone or in small groups, illustrating a level of trust in the protective impact of this process. However, while this was an effective tool, the scope of the problem is immense and coordination with other actors is essential. Areas where there was a high risk of sexual violence and bush locations where women and girls were specifically exposed due to the concentrated presence of armed actors were mapped, and the NP team’s observations were shared with other humanitarian actors and UN personnel to help inform other interventions, particularly the locations and schedules of UN peacekeeping patrols.
Despite the challenges, protective accompaniment activities like these can have a significant impact in improving safety and security. The correlation was clear. No woman was harmed while within an accompaniment group, although women who moved outside the POC site on their own reported daily violations. NP received messages of appreciation from women themselves, as well as from the acting Governor of Unity State and the UNMISS Human Rights Commission. UCP proved a deterrent to the armed actors that had previously committed acts of sexual violence. Feedback directly from armed actors in the area indicated that they intentionally changed their behaviour when an accompaniment team was present. Although not in itself the answer to the entire spectrum of protection needs, UCP can and does have a measurable lifesaving, harm-reduction impact, even in intensely volatile situations.
Following renewed fighting in the capital Juba, the response from the UN Security Council and many others has been to push for the deployment of a regional military force. More recently, the UNMISS mandate renewal increases the ceiling of peacekeepers from 13,000 to 17,000. While there is a role to be played by force protection, alternative methods such as UCP need to be studied, developed and scaled up to address the urgent need for civilian protection.
Tiffany Easthom is Executive Director of Nonviolent Peaceforce.