Despite the recent signing of a peace agreement to end more than a year and a half of civil war, South Sudan remains plagued by insecurity. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is protecting about 200,000 displaced people at its bases. Many U.N. peacekeeping missions have briefly sheltered civilians at their bases at one time or another, but the creation of Protection of Civilians (POC) sites on such a large scale is unprecedented. In order to provide for the safety of civilians seeking protection at its bases, UNMISS must address criminal activity taking place within these POC sites. However, the sites present complex questions of jurisdiction and responsibility that have no easy answers under international law.
A new policy brief by the Stimson Center – Establishing Safety and Security at Protection of Civilians Sites: Lessons from the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan – suggests that the United Nations must plan ahead for situations where civilians fleeing violence seek protection at U.N. peacekeeping bases. The situation in South Sudan has sparked concern that people may seek long-term refuge in U.N. bases again, in South Sudan or elsewhere. Formal guidance should be developed by the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the U.N. Department of Field Support (DFS) in consultation with the Global Protection Cluster (GPC). Guidance on maintaining civilian safety and security within POC sites, or other documents reflecting lessons learned from UNMISS, would help both UNMISS and other peacekeeping operations reduce threats to civilians seeking protection at its bases.
In any environment where large numbers of people are housed together in a relatively small geographic area, criminal activity becomes a concern – and this may be particularly true within displaced communities that have experienced violence or trauma. Instances of theft, intercommunal fighting, substance abuse, and sexual violence are known to occur in camps for both internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, where displaced people from different backgrounds are living in congested quarters, with limited ability to provide for themselves. UNMISS’s POC sites are no exception. Criminal activity, including physical assault and gender-based violence, are known to be perpetrated within the sites. However, it is extremely challenging for UNMISS to respond to this criminal activity. The complexity of the situation stems from the fact that the government of South Sudan does not have the ability or will to fairly prosecute alleged criminals within the sites, and the U.N. Security Council has not adjusted UNMISS’s mandate to directly address law enforcement issues on the premises.
The POC sites have presented numerous challenges for peacekeepers trying to maintain internal safety and security. First, the U.N. lacks judicial authority within the UNMISS POC sites. POC sites are on UNMISS bases, and thus under the control and authority of the U.N. rather than the South Sudanese government. However, UNMISS does not have the legal authority to prosecute criminals; that remains the legal responsibility of the host state. The government of South Sudan has been accused of violating the human rights of its citizens and has targeted groups based on ethnicity. Moreover, even if the safety and human rights of the alleged criminals were not at risk, South Sudan’s criminal justice institutions are weak in some areas and nonexistent in others.
Second, the U.N. has encountered problems associated with indefinite detention. Standard U.N. procedure requires U.N. police (UNPOL) to hold suspects for no more than 72 hours, until a determination can be made as to whether it is feasible to hand them over to the national authorities. A determination of feasibility is made by a “handover risk assessment committee” of UNMISS personnel and community leaders. If the committee determines the detainee may be subject to the death penalty or vulnerable to human rights abuses, UNMISS is not authorized to hand the detainee over to national authorities. This has left the mission with no choice but to detain some individuals indefinitely.
Third, maintaining the civilian character of the POC site has been difficult. Before entering mission compounds, all civilians and ex-combatants seeking protection must undergo UNPOL security checks, and are forced to surrender all weapons in their possession. However, weapons, often smuggled in through porous perimeters, continue to be found and confiscated in POC sites, including hand grenades and assault rifles.
Fourth, community watch groups play an important role in maintaining security and safety, especially given the small numbers of UNPOL personnel deployed to manage such large numbers of people. However, some are known or suspected to have engaged in abuses of authority, ranging in severity from relatively minor (such as demanding payment from the community for services that are supposed to be freely available) to quite serious (such as detaining individuals in dangerous conditions or inflicting physical punishment for violations of traditional laws and norms).
Fifth, violence against women, including rape, beatings, harassment, and domestic violence, exist in all of the larger protection sites. In order to make POC sites safer for women, UNMISS has worked to identify areas of concern within the POC sites and increase protective forces in those areas, light communal areas after dusk, establish a women’s center where women will be comfortable seeking help, and ask the local population what additional measures are needed to reduce violence against women.
The civilians residing on U.N. bases require protection from not only external violence, but also internal criminal activity. Clearer guidance from the U.N. on maintaining civilian safety and security within POC sites would help UNMISS address these complex security problems and reduce threats to civilians seeking protection at its bases.
This policy brief is the second in a series of Stimson’s Civilians in Conflict project publications, which will explore issues relevant to this year’s high-level review of U.N. peacekeeping, with a focus on how U.N. interventions can better protect civilians.