Soldiers killed and raped civilians and extensively looted civilian property, including humanitarian goods, during and after clashes between government and opposition forces in South Sudan’s capital, Juba …As a result of indiscriminate attacks, including shooting and shelling, shells landed in camps for displaced people inside United Nations bases, and in other densely populated areas in the city, killing and wounding civilians.
Conflict between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those loyal to former vice president Riek Machar broke out in late 2013. The violence briefly subsided in 2015, after an internationally brokered peace deal was signed.
Now, with July’s renewed fighting, the international community is hoping that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the country’s peacekeeping mission, can help restore stability. That was the message when, on Aug. 13, the United Nations Security Council adopted a new resolution reiterating UNMISS’s mandate to protect civilians and adding a controversial new 4,000-person Regional Protection Force.
Can it work? Here are some key questions being explored — and debated — in peacekeeping practice and research.
1. Peacekeeping missions can be successful at keeping peace, but they are increasingly being asked to do much more. Can they?
United Nations peacekeeping was originally intended to support peace settlements and help prevent former opponents from returning to war. Political science research shows that international peacekeepers can do this effectively. When the blue helmets deploy after warring sides have signed a peace agreement, the country or region is, on average, much less likely to return to fighting.
Since the late 1990s, however, U.N. peacekeeping missions are expected to do far more than this. The United Nations frequently sends peacekeepers into situations where peace is fragile. When conflict again erupts, and there is no longer a peace to “keep,” these missions usually remain.
At the same time, blue helmets are increasingly charged with protecting civilians. That’s a task quite different from preventing a return to war, especially in contemporary conflicts in which civilians are regularly targeted.
There is some evidence that U.N. peacekeepers can reduce attacks against civilians. But that doesn’t always work. Several high profile failures — particularly in South Sudan, the Congo, and the Central African Republic — have made the United Nations look less credible. And the U.N.’s own internal reports have acknowledged its inconsistent and weak protection of civilians.
But are these reasonable demands to place on peacekeepers in the first place? Research cautions that it’s unrealistic to expect outside military forces to prevent violence when those involved haven’t agreed to stop fighting or — more important — haven’t agreed on how to resolve the political differences that prompted violence in the first place.
The U.N.’s own High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations highlights “a widening gap between what is being asked of U.N. peace operations today and what they are able to deliver.” That report emphasizes the challenges of not enough funding or peacekeepers to carry out what’s being asked.
2. How do you ensure that peacekeepers will risk violence and harm, if need be, to keep the peace?
UNMISS currently has 12,000 troops — and that’s simply not enough people to protect every civilian in a country the size of Texas. That said, South Sudanese soldiers attacked civilians right in or near UNMISS compounds — and even there, UNMISS failed to respond.
For instance, South Sudanese forces attacked a camp that housed aid workers less than a mile from the U.N. base in Juba in July. In February, fighting erupted inside a U.N.-run “Protection of Civilians” site in the city of Malakal.
Why didn’t UNMISS protect civilians who were literally at its doorstep?
Independent observers and U.N. personnel alike say that the problem is a lack of political will. “What it boils down to,” a senior U.N. official recently told The Washington Post, “is that no one wants to die for the U.N.”
More to the point, no government wants its soldiers to risk their lives for the United Nations. And if militaries won’t put their members in harm’s way, having peacekeepers present means little.
That’s why many observers have pinned their hopes on the UNMISS’s new Regional Protection Force: The 4,000 new peacekeepers are expected to have “skin in the game.” UNMISS personnel currently hail from more than 60 different countries from all over the world, but this new regional protection force will be made up exclusively of troops from east and central Africa.
Researchers and policymakers have long debated the value and perils of “regionalization” or “hybridization,” combining U.N. troops with forces from regional bodies. A common assertion is that neighboring states have inherent interests in stopping conflicts, for fear that the chaos will spill over the border — and therefore will be more likely to risk life, safety, and resources to prevent violence. But opponents caution that regional actors may instead take sides or pursue narrow self-interests.
Here’s what recent research tells us: Different countries and international organizations take different approaches to peacekeeping. Even within the same mission, troops that come from different countries originally can behave in very different ways.
Who staffs a peacekeeping mission certainly does matter. But putting together those missions is tricky, as commitment to the goal must be balanced against the need for neutrality.
3. Peacekeepers are in a precarious spot if the host government doesn’t really want them there
The South Sudanese government initially rejected UNMISS, declaring that the proposed force represented “a clear case of disregard for [the] sovereignty of a U.N. member state,” and amounted to colonialism. The government softened its opposition, but still insists on being able to renegotiate the size, mandate and contributing countries of the force. South Sudan especially objects to soldiers sent by its neighbors, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia.
But South Sudan’s reluctance reveals a serious problem. One of the U.N.’s three guiding principles of peacekeeping is that the host government must consent to the mission. Otherwise, state sovereignty is in question, peacekeepers look more like occupiers, and their job is much harder — as it includes standing up to the government.
But the international community increasingly also values new and evolving norms like the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), or the idea that the United Nations can and should intervene to prevent genocide and war crimes when a country’s government is unable or unwilling to do so. At the extreme, R2P challenges state sovereignty and, by extension, consent. U.N. peacekeepers can end up caught in the middle of these competing international priorities.
This dilemma plays out in the text of the new U.N. resolution itself. The Regional Protection Force is ostensibly deployed “in cooperation” with the government of South Sudan. But it essentially compels this consent. A novel part of the new resolution declares that if the South Sudanese government doesn’t cooperate with the mission and its new force, the Security Council must vote on proposed sanctions.
On the one hand, this measure very pragmatically responds to South Sudan’s long pattern of obstructing the peacekeepers’ work. On the other, experts warn that this makes the idea of host government consent “ambiguous and volatile.” Or they suggest that when a mission pits its peacekeepers against host governments, the United Nations should consider pulling out.
What does this mean for South Sudan’s future?
At the start of a diplomatic tour of the region on Aug. 22, Secretary of State John F. Kerry stressed that the authorized peacekeepers should be deployed promptly. From Sept. 2 to 7, U.N. Security Council diplomats are planning to head to South Sudan, in part to resolve continued government resistance to the proposal.
But UNMISS’s revised mandate and its innovative — or controversial — Regional Protection Force are new attempts to solve old and extremely complex peacekeeping problems.
Can peacekeeping succeed when opponents aren’t willing or ready to come to an agreement? Are regional forces more likely to help or hurt in ending a neighboring country’s conflict? And can the U.N. force governments to make a commitment to peace?
Nina McMurry is a PhD candidate in MIT’s department of political science. She lived and worked in South Sudan from 2010-2013. Find her on Twitter @nmcmurry.
Laura Bosco is a PhD student in American University’s School of International Studies. She studies peacekeeping and the protection of civilians, focusing on South Sudan. Find her on Twitter @ljbosco.