Millions of civilians remain imperiled as UN peace operations in South Sudan and Darfur struggle to resolve recent renewals of violence. About 3.7 million people are currently at risk of starvation in South Sudan as the rainy season approaches, while hundreds of thousands remain displaced by fierce fighting. In Darfur, a cumulative 200,000 civilians have been displaced since February 2014 by hostilities. After having failed to prevent these outbreaks, there is growing pressure on the UN to bolster the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the African Union-UN Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) to manage the escalating hostilities. Both missions were overwhelmed by the scale of conflict and left unprepared, racing to manage each new challenge without adequate resources or holistic plans. Trying to control these resurgences may prove to be too much for the UN, risking public failures that undermine the role of these UN peace operations.
The civil war in South Sudan continues to stress UN peacekeeping capabilities and raise serious questions about the effectiveness of UNMISS. Warning signs in 2013 that President Salva Kiir was increasingly autocratic, as when he expelled a UN human rights monitor and dismissed elected officials, went largely unheeded. When Kiir dismissed his cabinet in July 2013, including Vice President Riek Machar, the rivalry between the two powerful leaders was renewed. Five months later, violence erupted between groups loyal to Kiir and Machar, leaving UNMISS scrambling to protect civilians and push for a ceasefire. Despite these early indicators of instability, the head of UNMISS admitted the mission was caught off guard.
That UNMISS was unprepared to handle the rapidity with which South Sudan fractured is now obvious. As the armed conflict took on an acute urgency, the mission resorted to housing thousands of civilians in its bases. Those bases still act as places of refuge, but the conditions are deteriorating. The current peacekeeping force is overwhelmed by the fighting, and needs additional troops to help secure the territory – a request that is likely to compete against the needs of other missions and the Security Council’s frugality. It is also struggling to work with the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GoRSS), who alleges that UNMISS armed rebel troops. More troubling, GoRSS troops assaulted UNMISS personnel and civilians, paradoxically forcing the mission to protect civilians from the government it is mandated to support. As a result, UNMISS is ineffective against the hostility, moving ad hoc between flare-ups as it struggles to square its mandate with its resources and neutralize the conflict. UNMISS’s failure to predict the crisis meant they were caught unaware, and its powerlessness to defuse the situation has constrained its ability to achieve their mandate. As the violence rages despite on-going peace negotiations, the mission will come under increasingly intense international pressure to stop the bloodshed.
As it struggles to regain control in South Sudan, the UN also struggles to effectively implement its mandate in Darfur in the wake of the recent resurgence in violence and without adequate resources to create a strong presence within the territory. Much like the situation in South Sudan, UNAMID failed to respond to warning signs that increased violence was looming. Pre-existing root causes remain prevalent, including the existence of armed groups and lack of state authority. Additionally, grievances over political marginalization have intensified, as the center-periphery rift grows. Disputes between nomadic trbies and settled communities over natural resources are also on the rise as increasing desertification and diminishing arable soil causes tension over remaining water sources and land. The peace accords signed in Abuja and Doha are inadequately implemented and have yet to create inclusive state institutions. UNAMID’s failure to proactively tackle these threats through implementing the peace agreement, disarming rebels, and establishing robust protection activities leaves civilians and peacekeepers at increasing risk: the mission lost sixteen peacekeepers in 2013, while 100,000 civilians were forced to flee in recent weeks.
As the security situation continues to deteriorate, UNAMID’s failure to use its multidimensional mandate to establish stability becomes more apparent. The mission’s reactive posture, lack of resources, including military equipment, and trouble with AU-UN coordination are partly to blame. Now, renewed clashes will further highlight the UNAMID’s capability gap as it rushes to protect civilians and preserve humanitarian corridors that are rapidly closing. And much like UNMISS, the peacekeepers will face barriers put up by the host government of Sudan, which acts as a spoiler in the peace process and a party to the conflict. The mission, which has already taken sharp criticism for its failure to respond to past violence, will continue to be put under fire as the humanitarian crisis worsens unless it undertakes a more robust and pre-emptive position.
The latest rounds of violence significantly undermined prospects for peace in South Sudan and Darfur, and looming humanitarian disasters could call into question the UN’s ability to protect civilians in times of critical need. Rushing to quell violent outbreaks after they occur – as UNMISS and UNAMID currently are – will only lead to further mission overstretch. Both missions need to assess their priorities, and redouble their efforts to assist on-going peace processes in producing a roadmap towards stable, inclusive societies. The UN missions should also respond consistently against any violations of its status of forces agreement with both governments, and make repercussions for continued misconduct explicit. The Security Council for its part should make the resource investments that are required, and apply political pressure on the governments of South Sudan and Sudan to stop impeding UN operations, including through sanctions. UNMISS and UNAMID operate in dangerous environments, and need better support if they are to succeed in implementing their mandated tasks beyond emergency response.
As highlighted by these crises, UN peacekeeping operations need to improve their capability to predict and prevent crises before they turn into deadly emergencies. The Security Council has an important role to play in this endeavor: it should assess all mission mandates and better align them with operational strategies and resource capacities. It must also ensure better cooperation among the military and civilian components of peacekeeping operations through strong support to Joint Mission Analysis Centres (known as JMACs), which will help intelligence-gathering and analysis. These changes will improve early warning mechanisms by placing the necessary people and equipment at the right location to track violence, and help the UN from being similarly caught off guard in the future.
Photo credit: United Nations
 “Medical Charity Sharply Criticizes U.N. Operation in South Sudan,” The New York Times, 9 April 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/world/africa/medical-charity-sharply-criticizes-un-operation-in-south-sudan.html?hp
 “Darfur: New Humanitarian Needs and Aid Delivery Fact Sheet” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 7 April 2014.
 “South Sudan Expels UN Human Rights Investigator” BBC News, 4 November 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-20200042
 “South Sudan: UN Calls for End to Fighting as Talks Loom,” BBC News, 1 January 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-25567250
 “UN Admits it was Caught Off-guard in South Sudan,” The East African, 27 December 2013, http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/UN-admits-it-was-caught-off-guard-in-South-Sudan/-/2558/2127000/-/w0j2cxz/-/index.html
United Nations Report of the Secretary-General on South Sudan, UN Doc. S/2014/158, 6 March 2014.
United Nations Special Report of the Secretary-General on the Review of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur, Un Doc. S/2014/138, 25 February 2014.
Amnesty International, “Sudan: We Can’t Endure Any More,” March 2014, http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR54/002/2014/en/8da5fe37-ab2b-445a-bf50-7ab84c28e5cb/afr540022014en.pdf