The UN prepares its post-independence presence in Southern Sudan

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council announced that it would extend its current peacekeeping mission in Southern Sudan until July 9, the date the oil-rich territory wil become the world’s newest nation. The council also unanimously adopted a resolution committing to establish a “successor mission” in the new Republic of South Sudan, where more than 150 people have been killed in the past week in fighting between the southern army and a host of rebel movements, some of whom have publicly declared their intent to overthrow the Juba-based government.

This news comes as no surprise to Sudan-watchers and to advocacy and aid groups like Oxfam and the Stimson Center. These groups have been involved in lobbying the council to endorse a mandate for the new mission which could enable it to more effectively protect civilians than the current six-year old peacekeeping effort.

The billion-dollar-per-year and 10,000 peacekeeper-strong United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) has repeatedly come under fire for failing to live up to its Protection of Civlians (“PoC” in Turtle Bay jargon) mandate, which was bolstered in 2009 with the aim of enabling peacekeepers to intervene when Southern Sudanese civilians were facing “imminent threat.” Some 2,500-plus civilians were killed in deadly cattle raids and intercommunal violence in 2009, and analysts and everyday citizens broadly agreed at that time that UNMIS generally did not succeed in preventing mass loss of life.

Last month, I reported on the latest failure-to-protect problem facing UNMIS, using mission security reports to show that it had conceded to the southern army’s demands to steer clear of certain areas where the army was carrying out campaigns against one of the rebel insurgencies. This concession meant that the mission had effectively blocked its own ability to protect civilians caught in the crossfire of the rebel-army fire. Indeed, in mid-February, when more than 240 people, many of them civilians, were killed in a remote village in the southern state of Jonglei, the U.N. mission did not intervene, much less visit the site of the brutal fighting, until several days after it ended.

The new peacekeeping mission in the independent south will indeed face similar challenges as its predecessor, given that the current nature of insecurity in the south is unlikely to change dramatically in the coming months. However, I was personally heartened to see the dedication of some of the best U.N. minds on peacekeeping and mission planning on the ground in Juba last month, consulting with local stakeholders and knocking heads together to devise new strategies, map out contingencies, and provide sound options for the Security Council as it considers the mandate for the new mission.