Massive Humanitarian Tragedy in Abyei (And How to Prevent it from Getting Worse)

Rebecca Hamilton travels to Abyei to survey the damage from last week’s fighting in the Washington Post:

The humanitarian crisis comes just weeks before southern Sudan formally breaks from the north. Some analysts say the invasion of the region and the seizure of the largest town in the area, also called Abyei, mark an effort by the Sudanese government to strengthen its hand in talks over how to share oil revenue and divide debt once Sudan splits July 9. Others say it is the act of a regime struggling to maintain its domestic support and seeking to unify its opponents through the call to war.

Here in Turalei, Aker Chol Deng, 20, sat under a tree, holding her leg in pain. She had fallen while running to escape the assault on Abyei, and, like many in this camp, still nurses the injury she suffered along the way.

“I was preparing food,” she recalled. “I heard gunshots, so I grabbed my children. From planes they were shooting at us.” Deng said it took her and her two children three days to reach Turalei, 70 miles from Abyei. Like many families that fled in panic, she became separated from her mother and younger sister during the journey.

Turalei is one of five towns across the northwestern states of south Sudan that have become hubs for those displaced from Abyei over the past week. The United Nations estimates that 40,000 people fled the town of Abyei, and south Sudanese officials put the total population displaced from the town and surrounding areas at more than 80,000.

The Security Council is due to meet on the Abyei situation at 3 pm today. In the meantime, BBC is reporting that an apparent deal has been struck for a “De-militarized Zone” along the north-south border, but details are still sketchy. (It’s unknown if that would include Abyei.)

Whatever deal is in place will need to provide for the protection of civilians caught in the conflict. Since both sides seem to be incapable or unwilling to do so, the responsibility will likely fall to the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Sudan, known as UNMIS.

Our own Maggie Fick recently sat down with Oxfam’s Policy Adviser on South Sudan, Igor Hodson to discuss the challenge of protecting civilians in harms way in Abyei and the rest of South Sudan.

1. Given the challenges the current U.N. Mission in Sudan has encountered in fulfilling its civilian protection mandate in Southern Sudan, what is realistically possible to expect in terms of Protection of Civilians capabilities in the new mission?

Firstly, it is important to recognise the immense contribution UNMIS has made to supporting peace and stability in Sudan over the last six years: many would have not believed it realistic for the CPA to have held as it has, nor that the momentous achievement of such a peaceful, orderly and credible referendum on secession was possible. Despite this, the sad reality is that throughout the CPA period civilians in southern Sudan have suffered significant violence, a trend which has increased in recent months. It is estimated that in 2009 over 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 displaced by armed violence in southern Sudan, and approximately 1,000 killed and over 220,000 forced from their homes in 2010. Worryingly, in the first 4 months of this year alone, over 1,100 people have been killed and 116,000 displaced. The volatility of the situation is undeniable.

UNMIS has indeed faced many internal and external challenges in implementing its mandate to protect civilians, and has been criticized for failing to do more in this regard. Protection of civilians is an extremely complex, resource-intensive and politically sensitive task, one which arguably UNMIS was not set up to effectively do.

Yet protecting civilians is also a task which lies at the very heart of the concept of the United Nations, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. The challenges and shortcoming faced by UNMIS are well-known, and with six years of experience of operating in southern Sudan and many more from other countries, the UN now has the opportunity to learn from previous failures and address these within a new mission. Peacekeeping missions have a range of means and tools at their disposal to protect civilians, from armed patrols, to the use of “good offices”, to human rights monitors, many unavailable to any other international organisation.

The task now is therefore to establish a new mission mandated, designed, deployed and resourced to protect civilians as effectively as possible from the diversity of threats they face. These include violence between the SPLA and other armed groups, large scale clashes between communities, the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the specific threats faced by women. The design of a new mission must be driven by an in-depth understanding of the threats and the added value and comparative advantages a UN mission has, rather than global financial pressures and competing international priorities.

No peacekeeping mission will ever be able to protect all civilians from violence, and protecting its own people is the primary duty of the state. However, in a situation as fragile and volatile as southern Sudan is now, following over 20 years of war and where the government and security forces are being built almost from scratch, a robust and effective mission could play a unique role in helping to save lives and support peace and stability.

2. What does Oxfam believe is the single most important way in which the new U.N. mission can “actualize” a functioning civilian protection strategy? What will this require in terms of the new mandate, currently under discussion?

Because of its complexity and the scale of the challenge, there are many vital ingredients needed within a UN mission to ensure that it can effectively protect civilians. But the root of all of these is the steadfast commitment and political will to prioritise and undertake this task. This is why the new mandate is so important.

The mandate establishes the objectives, nature and authority of the mission. Given the threats to civilians in southern Sudan, any new mandate must unambiguously make protection of civilians from armed violence a major priority. Within UNMIS there have been different interpretations of what protection of civilians means, what threats this refers to, whose responsibility it is, how this should be applied, and what authority the mission has to take action. The more explicit the language in the mandate is on the importance of protecting civilians and how the mission should be undertaking this, for instance through reference to the variety of threats civilians face or the need to provide a an effective mobile military deterrent, the clearer the guidance to the designers of the mission and mission leadership on what is required and expected. Furthermore, by referencing Chapter VII of the UN Charter in relation to protection of civilians the mandate would set out the authority of the mission to use force, and indicate the importance of the role. It is also important that the mandate does not overburden a new mission or task it to undertake responsibilities which would undermine its ability to protect civilians.

Nevertheless, as UNMIS’s experience demonstrates, having protection of civilians included in the mandate is not sufficient to turn this into practice. Not only must there be a decisive commitment to protecting civilians throughout the mission, from the mandate and a strong SRSG down, but the new mission must be effectively designed, structured, deployed and resourced to undertake this: it must be fit for purpose. One of the challenges UNMIS has faced in protecting civilians has been that it was designed, resourced and deployed primarily in order to support and monitor the CPA, not to protect civilians from violence.

Therefore, from the start, any new mission must maximise all of the means and tools at its disposal. These range from civilians located at the grassroots level to gather information on possible threats, to using UN police to mentor their southern Sudanese colleagues. Crucially, the one advantage that the UN in southern Sudan has compared to any other international organisation is the presence of troops. Careful and frank consideration of how UN troops can be used to better protect civilians from violence, through both deterrence and responding to incidents, and what numbers, command structure, skills and assets are needed, is vital. A new mission must be able to get out into insecure areas more often and more quickly, to engage better with the communities they are there to protect, and take more robust and decisive action when necessary.

3. Human Rights Watch released a statement this week accusing both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and rebel forces of committing abuses against civilians in fighting last month in Upper Nile. What does the nature of the recent army-rebel violence in Southern Sudan, which looks set to continue after independence of the Republic of South Sudan on July 9, mean for future U.N. civilian protection efforts in the new country?

Tragically, across the world civilians pay the highest price in armed conflict. This was the case during the civil war in Sudan and there is increasing evidence that civilians continue to be caught in the violence between the SPLA and other armed groups that affects areas of southern Sudan today. This goes to highlight the importance of creating a new UN mission which can robustly and effectively protect civilians, whomever the perpetrators of violence might be. Since the referendum, increasing violence between to non-state armed groups and the SPLA, violence in Abyei, between communities across the Lakes and Western Equatoria State borders, and a spate of LRA attacks, have all underlined the fragility of the situation and the potential for continued violence after independence.

The violence also illustrates the need to support the Government of Southern Sudan to take greater responsibility for protecting its people. Support is greatly needed, but it must not be unconditional, and it must emphasise the need for greater oversight and accountability, respect for human rights and an end to impunity. Lastly, the increasing levels of violence and instability demonstrate the need for a strong UN presence in the immediate future, and that a drawdown of a new mission must be linked to improvement in the security situation and the capacity of the new government to protect its citizens.