International Order & Conflict

Kerry should use first African visit to shore up support for peacekeeping missions

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By Alison Giffen: 

BUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip to sub-Saharan Africa is underway, and there is no better time to focus world attention on halting atrocities in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo through more effective UN peacekeeping.

The UN Security Council has deployed operations to protect civilians in each of these crises, yet the violence will continue unless member states and donor nations – in particular the United States – continue to reform the UN’s peacekeeping bureaucracy, apply coordinated pressure on perpetrators, and enhance the ability of African nations to contribute troops and assets to peacekeeping operations.

One of the starkest examples of the urgent need for reform is in South Sudan, where a political crisis marked by atrocities has been underway since December 15, 2013. Mass graves, extrajudicial executions, attacks on UN personnel and bases, sexual violence, and the targeting of individuals have been reported since the first weeks of fighting. In the first month and a half, close to 1 million people were displaced.

Within two weeks of the outbreak of violence, the Security Council ordered the UN peacekeeping force in South Sudan, UNMISS, to protect civilians. They authorized 5,500 troops, nearly doubling UNMISS’s size. The UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous suggested that the reinforcements could be deployed within one to three weeks.

Seemingly, the Security Council had done its job and help was on the way. There was an assumption that the reinforcements could help protect 80,000 people who had sought protection inside ten UNMISS bases across South Sudan, creating what could be argued as the greatest UN peacekeeping challenge since Rwanda and Srebrenica in the 1990s.

But the promise of reinforcements quickly faded. Within two weeks, Ladsous said it would take up to two months to send the needed reinforcements. Then in March, the UN Secretary General announced that the forces would instead be deployed in three phases through the end of 2014.

There are at least three contributing factors to such a serious delay in peacekeeping deployment. First, UN member states have often proven unwilling or unable to commit sufficient troops and materiel as called for by human rights and humanitarian advocates and authorized by the Security Council.

In the case of South Sudan, the UN tried to address the shortage by moving reinforcements from other peacekeeping missions through a system called “intermission cooperation,” rather than generate new ones. This requires renegotiating agreements with contributing nations and mobilizing airlift and other resources to move those reinforcements, challenges that may have taken member states and the UN bureaucracy by surprise.

Second, the goals, size, and configuration of such missions are often based on inadequate assessment and planning. There are unconfirmed reports that the 5,500 troop request from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations was based not on any assessment of what was needed on the ground but on political calculations of what the UN system could bear.

Third, the relationship between the Government of South Sudan and UNMISS quickly soured. The government began to deny the entry of certain UN troops and to hinder their movements. While there is little the UN can do on its own to gain consent of the parties to a conflict to allow access to people vulnerable to violence, Security Council members, troop contributing countries, bilateral donors, and investors all need to apply high-level and consistent pressure on the parties to facilitate UN intervention.

The cost of such shortcomings is high, counted in lost lives and livelihoods. In mid-April — three months after the UN’s initial statements that it could deploy the authorized reinforcements — South Sudan opposition forces attacked the strategic town of Bentui where an UNMISS base is located. The opposition sought out individuals based on identity and perceived loyalties. Hundreds were killed, including individuals seeking refuge in a mosque and a hospital. The UN has charged that the perpetrators used hate speech, sexual violence, and targeted killings in the attack. The forces also attacked the UNMISS base with rockets, killing a child. During these attacks, the number of civilians seeking refuge in the UNMISS base in Bentui swelled from 4,500 to 22,000 people, making them extremely vulnerable targets in bases that need further reinforcements.

During his trip, which runs through May 3, Secretary Kerry should send strong messages to perpetrators in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, that sanctions and prosecutions will be tied to attacks on civilians and other protected persons including aid workers, medical facilities, and UN personnel and facilities.

He should also press the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to base its requests for peacekeeping missions on realistic assessments of the violence on the ground, including worst-case scenarios such as the likelihood of intransigence from parties to the conflict. And he should inform African nations that contribute troops and assets that the United States will continue to assist them in delivering those reinforcements.

These messages can and should be regularly delivered in person by high-level diplomats such as Secretary Kerry. The time is right as the UN is assessing the needs and plans for the next evolution of the peace operations in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Without pressure from diplomats such as Secretary Kerry, the cycles of violence will continue to affect millions of lives and destabilize the African continent.

Photo credit: United Nations Photo via flickr

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