Skip to main content

U.N. facing unprecedented challenge in South Sudan

By Alison Giffen
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Martha Nyarueni carries one of her children outside her home near the town of Leer, South Sudan, on July 5, 2014.
Martha Nyarueni carries one of her children outside her home near the town of Leer, South Sudan, on July 5, 2014.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Sudan has been embroiled in 8-month civil war
  • Almost 100,000 people seeking refuge from the conflict
  • Alison Giffen says crisis facing U.N. is unprecedented

Editor's note: Alison Giffen is co-director of the Future of Peace Operations program at the Stimson Center. She recently returned from South Sudan and has worked on the protection of civilians and peacekeeping in South Sudan since 2007. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN) -- The U.N. Security Council delegation visiting South Sudan last week came face-to-face with a troubling reality: The country has been seized by an eight-month civil war between parties that have committed violence against civilians on a devastating scale.

The result is an unprecedented challenge for the organization, which now finds itself protecting almost 100,000 people seeking refuge from the conflict in peacekeeping bases across South Sudan. Yet despite the high cost and risk, the U.N. should be prepared to host and protect them for months, if not years, to come.

This crisis ignited on December 15, when fighting broke out between the President of South Sudan Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar along with other opposition leaders. The army split, militias chose sides and others took up arms. This political and military conflict took on a strong ethnic dimension when the protagonists used ethnicity to pit soldiers and police against each other and then against civilians.

In the first days and weeks of the conflict, tens of thousands of people ran to bases of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in South Sudan (called UNMISS). The numbers inside the bases have continued to rise, in part because UNMISS and humanitarians have worked hard to protect the bases, and have deterred attempts by parties to the conflict to force entry into some bases and prevented large outbreaks of diseases such as cholera.

Still, the civilians inside UNMISS bases are living in a kind of purgatory. And despite the good intentions and efforts of the peacekeeping operation and the humanitarian community, the conditions at these sites are deplorable, some flooding with rain. Residents say they aren't receiving adequate essential services needed to survive and to live in dignity.

At the same time, if residents leave these bases they risk rape, detention, torture or death. Those seeking shelter are being deliberately targeted because of their ethnicity or political allegiance. Some report that they have not left the bases in eight months. Others take tremendous risks to leave the base during the day in search of food, medical care not provided on site and opportunities to earn money.

The reality is that the U.N. bases weren't designed or funded to house and protect such a vast number of people for such a long time. The situation has put UNMISS, which is mandated to protect civilians from physical violence, in an incredibly difficult position. UNMISS has three choices: Allow those under threat to remain in the bases, try to create conditions outside of the current protection sites that provide enough security to make people feel safe enough to relocate or go home, or force the people seeking shelter to leave.

The third option would open the peacekeeping operation to strong and well-deserved criticism, as it violates international principles that forbid forcibly resettling people to locations where they are at risk for their lives, safety, liberty or health.

The second option is beyond the scope of the U.N. peacekeeping operation to implement. In one site, residents insisted that only a change in the current government would guarantee their security. As one woman told me in an interview, "If President Kiir is in power for the next 20 or 30 years, we will stay in the site for those same years."

But the government and opposition forces have just missed a deadline to agree on a transitional government, and it is clear that even if a political resolution is reached between the main parties, years of inter-communal and intra-communal peace and reconciliation will be needed. UNMISS doesn't have the leverage to play a principal role in the negotiation between the parties and doesn't have the capability to undertake subnational-level reconciliation at the scale needed.

Other residents were insistent that they wouldn't feel safe going home or to new sites without the same level of protection that they receive at UNMISS bases. UNMISS doesn't have -- and likely will not have -- the resources to protect people's homes or a number of new sites outside its bases.

At the start of the crisis, the U.N. Security Council authorized an increase in troops from 7,000 to 12,500, but even with its newly expanded numbers UNMISS won't be able to provide adequate area security to ensure safe and voluntary relocation for the majority of people inside its bases. The U.N. Security Council is unlikely to increase UNMISS's troop levels again. It has already struggled to find 12,500 properly trained and equipped troops for the mission. Moreover, in the current fiscal climate, U.N. donor countries have little appetite to fund an ever-increasing number of large peacekeeping operations.

This leaves UNMISS with the first option: It must prepare itself to continue to protect those within and adjacent to its bases and keep the gates open for more to arrive. U.N. donor states will need to approve a new budget in the coming months that accommodates the cost of this protection.

Humanitarian donors need to step up their funding not only to provide services to those inside the bases, but to give urgent assistance to the millions outside the protection sites who continue to face targeted violence and massive food insecurity. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as of August 1, there was a $916 million gap in humanitarian funding needed to avert a drastic deterioration of the already dire humanitarian crisis.

As one woman in a protection site said, "Initially, we hoped that this war would only last two days or one week. But now it's taken almost half a year, so what is the plan for UNMISS? Is it ready to protect us? When are we going to be outside? Will they protect us for the next 10 years?"

Despite the logistical, financial and political challenges such a scenario would pose, the U.N. Security Council and donors must prepare to answer in the affirmative.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT