Nepalese peacekeepers arrive in Juba from Haiti to reinforce the military component of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Nepalese peacekeepers arrive in Juba from Haiti to reinforce the military component of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Photo credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy
The mixed record of UN peacekeeping in South Sudan
by Matt Wells January 2017

As the armed conflict in South Sudan enters its fourth year, the impact on civilians is staggering, with tens of thousands killed, widespread sexual violence, the displacement of a quarter of the population, and more than four million people facing severe food insecurity. Government and opposition forces have both consistently targeted civilians, putting pressure on the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to fulfil its mandate to protect civilians under threat of violence and to help create the conditions for delivering humanitarian assistance.

In undertaking 18 months of research on UNMISS while with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), two things were clear to me. First, UNMISS has not received the sup-port it needs to meet the challenges it faces. Second, even considering the lack of support, the Mission has often fallen well short in meeting its mandate. Given the potential for conflict-related abuses to worsen further, more proactive protection by UNMISS is essential. Everyone involved in protection work, whether from a human rights or humanitarian perspective, has a deep interest in seeing improvements in the Mission’s performance, and helping to reform UN peacekeeping more generally.

A challenging environment

UNMISS was established in July 2011, as South Sudan and the international community celebrated the country’s independence.+UNMISS is a successor to the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). Headquartered in Khartoum, UNMIS had a mandate, among other things, to support the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Despite a new name and mandate, UNMISS carries the mixed legacy and reputation of its predecessor. At the outset, its mandate focused on helping to build the new government’s capacity. But soon the situation began to deteriorate, and when conflict broke out in December 2013 the Mission was forced to shift from partnering with the government and its security forces to protecting civilians fleeing abuses by those same forces.

As violence erupted, UNMISS allowed tens of thousands of civilians into its bases, which eventually led to the establishment of Protection of Civilians (POC) sites that today shelter more than 200,000 people. But the positive initial response masked the reality that UNMISS structures and personnel were often ill-placed to deal with the new environment. A civilian unit known as Reintegration, Recovery and Peacebuilding maintained the same acronym, RRP, but changed its name to Relief, Reintegration and Protection as its portfolio went from peace-building to managing the POC sites. Troop-contributing countries (TCCs) were asked to confront state and opposition forces as they targeted civilians.

As UNMISS focused on protection, the government increasingly treated the Mission as an adversary. Although the Mission has sheltered civilians from both sides of the country’s political-ethnic divide, the government’s far greater control of territory means that the vast majority of people in the POC sites are from the Nuer ethnic group, and are perceived as opposition supporters. In often inflammatory public remarks, government officials have accused UNMISS of taking sides, and UN staff, including civilians, have faced harassment and physical violence. Even before the conflict, South Sudan’s government and security forces denied UNMISS free movement when its presence was inconvenient. As government and opposition forces sought to hide their torching of villages and killing of civilians, the restrictions ratcheted up.+Interim Report of the Panel of Experts on South Sudan Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2206 (2015), UN SC Doc. S/2016/963, 15 November 2016; Final Report of the Panel of Experts on South Sudan Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2206 (2015), UN SC Doc. S/2016/70, 22 January 2016. Despite its robust Chapter VII mandate, UNMISS in effect moves when the parties allow it to.

Movement restrictions are rooted in problems both outside and within the Mission’s control. After the downing of several UNMISS helicopters, countries involved in flying UN aircraft demanded a system of Flight Safety Assurances (FSAs).+Center for Civilians in Conflict, Within and Beyond the Gates: The Protection of Civilians by the UN Mission in South Sudan, October 2015. Without permission from the two sides of the conflict, UNMISS cannot fly. This severely hampers its ability to respond rapidly to threats against civilians; to resupply UN bases and the POC sites; and to evacuate injured peacekeepers. UNMISS has compounded these problems, in an effort to avoid confrontation with the parties, by at times seeking approval for river and ground movements as well, and by consistently acquiescing when blocked at checkpoints. A commander of one contingent in Juba said in August that, without permission from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), his peacekeepers do not leave the base to get water.

Lack of support

Faced with this environment, UNMISS has received inadequate political and material support, particularly from the Security Council. After three years of the parties using weapons, including heavy weapons, against civilians – and after the Council threatened sanctions if the government continued to impede the Mission+UN Security Council Resolution 2304, 12 August 2016.– there is no arms embargo. During the fighting in Juba in July, SPLA attack helicopters hovered over the main UNMISS base, firing rockets. Artillery fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) hit UN buildings and the POC sites, killing civilians and several peacekeepers. By failing to respond to such acts, and to the daily obstruction of UNMISS, the Council has weakened the Mission and peacekeeping as an institution.

The Mission also lacks key equipment. Guard towers around the POC sites are not reinforced with bulletproof material, so peacekeepers have to abandon them during heavy fighting. Despite successive Council resolutions, the government blocked the UN from importing military helicopters and unmanned unarmed aerial vehicles (UUAVs), which would allow the Mission to better identify and respond to protection threats.+Agence France-Press, ‘South Sudan Opposes Drones for UN Peace Mission’, 9 October 2015; Voice of America, ‘South Sudan: UN Doesn’t Need Drones, Attack Helicopters’, 18 June 2015. 6. Again, there has been no consequence for the government’s intransigence.

Perhaps most inexcusably, UNMISS troops are asked to put themselves in harm’s way without assurances that, should they be wounded, they will receive prompt care. When Chinese peacekeepers were hit by an RPG during the July fighting in Juba, there was no surgical team or blood bank on site at the Mission’s biggest base. UNMISS was neither able to secure SPLA support for evacuation, nor willing to transport the casualties without that approval. Two peacekeepers died, at least one of them probably a preventable death.+Matt Wells, ‘The UN Has Failed Its Peacekeepers in S. Sudan’, Al Jazeera, 10 September 2016. The impact on peacekeepers’ morale was devastating.

Under-performance and its impact

Even taking into account the scant support it has received, the Mission has fallen short in protecting civilians and facilitating humanitarian access. While capable early warning mechanisms have been developed, they have often not translated into effective contingency planning and preparation. In February 2016, there were signs that the situation was deteriorating in Malakal, including inside the POC site. Humanitarians asked the Mission’s office there to prepare a risk mitigation plan, but UNMISS officials demurred. When communal violence within the POC site degenerated into an attack on the camp by SPLA forces, the Mission was caught ill-prepared and responded weakly and only after a significant delay. In the UN’s backyard, at least 30 civilians were killed, and around a third of the camp was set ablaze.+Center for Civilians in Conflict, A Refuge in Flames: The February 17–18 Violence in Malakal POC, April 2016.

In addition to poor planning, the record of specific contingents is mixed. Certain units, particularly the Mongolians, are respected by aid workers and South Sudanese civilians for their willingness to deploy to high-risk environments and use force when necessary to protect civilians. Others have performed inadequately, some consistently so. As the Malakal violence unfolded, one peacekeeping contingent abandoned its posts along the perimeter, allowing SPLA soldiers to enter.+Ibid.; Executive Summary of the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry Report on the Circumstances of the Clashes that Occurred at the United Nations Protection of Civilians Site in Malakal, South Sudan on 17–18 February 2016, August 2016. In Juba, peacekeepers failed to respond even when they witnessed a woman’s abduction outside the POC site.+Executive Summary of the Independent Special Investigation into the Violence which Occurred in Juba in 2016 and UNMISS Response, November 2016; Associated Press, ‘Witnesses Say South Sudan Soldiers Raped Dozens Near UN Camp’, 27 July 2016.

Many problems stem from weak command and control, a challenge not unique to UNMISS. UN investigations into Malakal and Juba have shown a recurrence of other issues, including inadequate community engagement; porous POC site fencing; troops’ misunderstanding of UNMISS rules of engagement; and commanders’ refusal to follow orders. In early November, a task force was established to implement recommendations from the Juba investigation.+UN News Centre, ‘South Sudan: UN Peacekeeping Chief Sets Up Task Force after Probe into Mission’s Performance’, 3 November 2016.  Progress should be closely monitored.

UNMISS’s protection difficulties have affected humanitarian operations. In areas around the POC sites where UNMISS does not patrol, organisations like Nonviolent Peaceforce have had to fill the gap by accompanying women collecting firewood. More generally, the Mission’s inability to project force outside the POC sites has increased the need for civilians to seek refuge within. Humanitarian assistance has, in turn, often concentrated disproportionally on these sites, even though the vast majority of displaced people, including the most vulnerable, are elsewhere.

Humanitarian organisations’ inability to count on UNMISS was laid bare when, on 11 July, SPLA soldiers stormed the Terrain compound, which housed staff from several organisations. The soldiers proceeded to sexually and physically assault international aid workers and to execute a South Sudanese journalist. A UN-mandated investigation found that UNMISS received information about the attack shortly after it began. Orders were given directing Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) to respond, but no QRF ever left the UNMISS base, despite Terrain’s location only a kilometre away.+Executive Summary of the Independent Special Investigation into the Violence which Occurred in Juba in 2016 and UNMISS Response, November 2016. While the reluctance was initially defensible – SPLA tanks blocked the path, and the Mission’s medical care and evacuation problems had been exposed – contingents refused to respond even after UNMISS secured SPLA assistance to navigate the road.+Ibid. See also Center for Civilians in Conflict, Under Fire: The July 2016 Violence in Juba and UN Response, October 2016. Worse, UNMISS raised expectations at times that it would intervene, undermining the pursuit of alternatives. The incident deepened divisions between the Mission and humanitarians and forced organisations to overhaul contingency plans.

Key priorities

As conflict spreads to new parts of South Sudan and warnings are issued on the potential for genocide, significant efforts are needed in New York and Juba to improve UNMISS’s ability to provide robust protection. On the ground, the Mission needs to communicate better with South Sudanese civilians and humanitarians about what it can and cannot do. Systems should be established such that, when humanitarians request protection, the Mission replies rapidly and with a clear answer, so as to avoid the ambiguity that has proven more harmful than a negative response. UNMISS also needs to involve humanitarians more systematically in contingency planning, given their regular interaction with affected com-munities.

In return, humanitarians at times need to demonstrate greater sympathy for UNMISS’s challenges, which might lessen the Mission’s defensiveness and improve collaboration on protection issues. When I have described the Mission’s inability to secure prompt medical care for the Chinese peacekeeper casualties in July, many humanitarians have been unmoved; one told me that is what soldiers sign up for. It is not. Soldiers from Western militaries do not operate without reliable medical evacuation, so we should not expect peacekeepers from countries like Rwanda and Nepal to do so either.

There also needs to be a stronger push for the swift deployment of the Security Council-approved Regional Protection Force (RPF), which would add 4,000 peacekeepers. Frustration with the Mission’s performance has led many to question whether additional peacekeepers, from some of the same TCCs, would make a difference. The Mission is incredibly overextended, particularly with abuses mounting in areas like Yei, where there is little to no UNMISS presence. The RPF could help alleviate that, if deployed with the necessary equipment and without the restrictions South Sudan’s government has tried to impose.+Radio Tamazuj, ‘UN Has Not Received RPF Details, Denies Lomuro Letter’, 28 November 2016. See also Center for Civilians in Conflict, Challenges and Conditions for Deploying an Effective Regional Protection Force to South Sudan, October 2016. It will not resolve the conflict, but that is no reason to avoid providing civilians with even slightly improved protection options.

More generally, the human rights and humanitarian com-munities should demand greater transparency and account-ability around peacekeeping performance – two issues that the new Secretary-General, António Guterres, and the new UNMISS head, David Shearer, should prioritise. The UN investigations into the protection failures in Malakal and Juba led to the publication of executive summaries and recommendations, an improvement from past investigations that tended to be buried within UN headquarters. But a far more open accounting of why failures happen, who is responsible and what needs to change is essential.

On accountability, the UN has taken positive steps, including the repatriation of several commanders deemed to have underperformed in Malakal or Juba. But accountability needs to be far more ingrained across peacekeeping, and include entire units who grossly or consistently underperform. While the Kenyan government was wrong to pull its troops out after UNMISS’s Force Commander, a Kenyan general, was sacked over the Juba violence, it was right that problems ran much deeper than him – and that he should not have taken the blame alone.+Al-Jazeera, ‘Kenya Withdraws Troops from UN Mission in South Sudan’, 3 November 2016. Accountability also needs to look at underperformance among UNMISS’s civilian leadership, rather than focusing solely on the military’s failures.


UNMISS has come under deserved criticism for its performance, but it has too often been a scapegoat as the parties to the conflict, South Sudan’s regional neighbours and the Security Council have been unwilling or unable to halt atrocities or hold accountable those responsible. The Juba violence, and UNMISS’s inability to move outside its bases during that period, understandably led to deep concern within the humanitarian community about UN peacekeeping. But many civilians in South Sudan would be in a much worse position without the Mission’s presence. With ongoing violence against civilians and the potential for further deterioration, the Mission will need both to receive more support and to transparently address its weaknesses.

Matt Wells is a Senior Crisis Adviser at Amnesty International, where he undertakes human rights investigations in situations of armed conflict and major crisis. He was previously Senior Adviser on Peacekeeping at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, where he focused in particular on the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.