By Charles Hunt, Lecturer in International Security at the University of Queensland, and Mark Malan, Senior Lecturer in Peacekeeping at Massey University in New Zealand.

UNMISS peacekeepers in Juba, South Sudan. (UN Photo.)

As the last of the reinforcements arrive for the newly mandated UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), questions remain over its ability to protect civilians and put South Sudan on a road to peace and stability.

South Sudan became independent in 2011, following a referendum held under the conditions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought to an end the 22-year Sudanese civil war. The birth of the new nation was a significant achievement for the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which deployed in 2005 to support the implementation of the CPA. However, UNMIS was not very effective at disarming and demobilising the myriad armed groups prior to independence, nor did it make much headway with the transformation of the post-war security sector.

Following independence, the UN's role was re-conceived as a peacebuilding endeavour, with the newly-named UNMISS mandated to build the institutional capacity needed to govern the nascent state of South Sudan. Despite early optimism, UNMISS was unable to address the maladies of a bloated security sector, and despite an explicit mandate to 'protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence', was incapable of responding to brutal attacks on civilians once political violence flared in December 2013. 

The violence, sparked by a dispute between President Salva Kiir and his Vice President Riek Machar, led to civil war, with widespread attacks on civilians instigated along ethnic lines. Since December, over 10,000 people have been killed and over 1.5 million displaced. Having opened their gates to fleeing civilians, UN peacekeepers now face the task of looking after over 100,000 civilians seeking refuge in impromptu protection sites inside ten UN bases across the country, a situation that Secretary-General Ban says is taking UNMISS into 'uncharted territory.' 

In addition to the direct effects of fighting, South Sudanese are threatened by impending famine, particularly in the conflict-affected states where farmers were unable to plant seeds before the arrival of the rainy season. While the fighting has claimed many victims, these numbers may pale into insignificance against the numbers now likely to starve to death

In late June 2014, the UN Security Council passed a resolution reconfiguring and re-prioritising UNMISS. Troop strength went from 7000 to 12,500 and the UN police force was strengthened from 900 to 1323, with the addition of several helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. This fortified force is to abandon the previously mandated task of state building and embrace the new priorities of protecting civilians and securing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Yet UNMISS finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The mission is deployed in the midst of a lethal civil war. As matters now stand, there is no way the Council can extricate the mission without compromising the safety of thousands of UN personnel and hundreds of thousands of civilians. Instead of liquidating a peacebuilding mission, the Security Council has resuscitated the notion of maintaining safe havens protected by peacekeepers.

The practice of establishing UN-protected areas is not exactly uncharted territory, as suggested by Ban; it was in fact discredited in the 1990s because of the UN's failure to protect against the Srebrenica massacre of 1993 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. However, in addition to protection against armed attack, the UN is now also accepting responsibility for protecting South Sudanese against disease and famine. For example, UNMISS has expressed concern about the situation in Bentiu, where 100-200 displaced people continue to arrive daily, many of them malnourished. The UN-protected areas are likely to be in increasing demand as feeding centres regardless of the conflict situation.

Serious questions therefore remain about the ability of UNMISS to fulfill its 'close protection' and broader protection mandate.

As Secretary-General Ban has said: 'the strengthening of UNMISS's protection capabilities will not happen overnight. Even with additional capabilities, we will not be able to protect every civilian in need in South Sudan.' In addition to risks associated with deteriorating health and sanitation, the task of protecting and feeding more than 100,000 civilians within UN bases presents serious challenges for the Formed Police Units which are for the first time being asked to protect vulnerable populations from external threats as well as hostile elements in the camps.

Given these challenges, UNMISS peacekeepers cannot be expected to hold the line indefinitely, so South Sudan's political process needs impetus. Although a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed on 23 January 2014, there has been little tangible progress towards a political settlement that would contain the power struggles and usher in a transitional government.

The interests and support of regional powers need to be carefully managed during any diplomatic offensive. The conflict is already regionalised through the presence of Ugandan troops, the central mediating role of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the standing-up of an IGAD monitoring and verification mechanism. While the support of regional powers remains essential to settling the conflict, there is also potential for the interests and meddling of those same regional powers to exacerbate the conflict

The UN Security Council and some of it more powerful members, though at the moment seized with other pressing issues of global and regional security, need to bring much more pressure to bear instead of abdicating their responsibility to IGAD and the African Union in the hope that they will find 'African solutions to African problems'. If the UN is to support the transition to peace, then the Security Council, the Secretariat, and UNMISS leadership need to help shape a transitional strategy that results in a stable settlement and ends the de facto impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the worst atrocities.