Can a New Peacekeeping Force Stabilize South Sudan?

There is an important vote at the Security Council today to extend and expand the mandate of the beleaguered UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.  The resolution will likely pass. But the weeks that follow will be a key test of the international community’s commitment to peace and stability in South Sudan.

It has been clear for months that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, known as UNMISS, was not living up to the expectations of the people of South Sudan, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled to UN bases across the country in an effort to seek protection from fighting. The most recent flareup of the conflict occurred last month, in the capitol of Juba, when clashes erupted between government soldiers and forces loyal to the country’s ex-vice president. That fighting was brief, but intense. And once again, UN Peacekeepers were overwhelmed. 30,000 people fled to UN bases in the capitol.

Peacekeepers were unable or incapable of protecting all in need. There were reports of rampant sexual violence outside the perimeter of these camps, and the mission has once again come under criticism for its inability to protect civilians from conflict.  In all, some 70,000 people have fled to Uganda in the last month alone.

Now, the Security Council intends to send re-enforcements.

The vote today includes increasing the troop levels from 12,000 peacekeepers to 17,000. Crucially, this includes a 4,000 strong  “regional protection force” that will deploy mostly to Juba.  This force will operate under a distinct mandate than UNMISS and be empowered to “promptly and effectively engage any actor that is credibly found to be preparing attacks, or engages in attacks, against United Nations protection of civilians sites, other United Nations premises, United Nations personnel, international and national humanitarian actors, or civilians.” In other words, this new force is not merely a defensive peacekeeping force, but can pro-actively engage militants who are threatening civilians.

These sorts of auxiliary forces have been used in troubled peacekeeping missions in the past, often with success. In 2013 a “force intervention brigade” composed mostly of South African and Tanzanian troops was given a robust mandate to pro-actively engage a cadre of rebels that were undermining peace efforts in eastern Congo. The rebel group was swiftly defeated.

The difference this time around is that one of the belligerents to the conflict are government forces. That is, troops loyal to president Salva Kiir are alleged to be among the worst abusers of civilians who are huddled around these UN camps in Juba. This is probably why the South Sudanese government, just yesterday, vowed to oppose the deployment of this new force.  (This, after having agreed a week earlier to the new force.)

The non-consent of a host government to the deployment of a peacekeeping operation makes the success of that operation virtually impossible. Peacekeepers are not war fighters. Even contingents with a robust and aggressive mandate like the proposed Regional Response Force cannot mount an invasion of a sovereign country. Rather, they need the consent and cooperation of the government to move in troops and equipment; this includes things like authorizing visa requests, freedom of movement, and a general status of forces agreement. Without consent, a peacekeeping mission can hardly get off the ground. The logistics are impossible.

This means that the real success of this new resolution will be in the diplomatic space. That is, the success or failure of this new mission is contingent on the ability of the international community to compel South Sudan’s compliance with the resolution. This can include threatening sanctions or other punitive measures if it does not comply. Or, it can entail behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering by governments that wield some influence with Salva Kiir. Whatever the case, this new resolution will be only a fig leaf of a solution unless diplomatic pressure is brought to bear on the government of South Sudan sufficient to convince it to cooperate with this new force.