The United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan — known by its acronym UNMISS — has perhaps been most known for providing security to civilians inside protection of civilians (POC) sites in and around its bases. In October 2020, UNMISS began the process of re-designating the POC sites into camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). This shift was more than a technical name change — it transferred control of the sites from UNMISS to government authorities, many of whom have been implicated in abuses and atrocities committed throughout the country’s civil war.

The sites were created when, eight years ago this month, South Sudan descended into a violent civil war, and hundreds of thousands of civilians across the country fled to UNMISS bases to escape ethnic and politically motivated killings. For years afterward, civilians resided in the sites, which served as a refuge while repeated attempts to broker peace in the country faltered. At their peak, the sites held more than 200,000 civilians, and before the start of re-designations in October 2020, more than 165,000 individuals were still living in the sites. In 2018, a revitalized peace agreement was signed. Although implementation of the agreement has been achingly slow — nearly every deadline in the agreement has been missed — it has created a framework for moving the country forward.

UNMISS has now re-designated four of its five POC sites and this has so far led to only a small increase in reported human rights violations, but the looming contest for presidential elections tentatively due in 2023 threatens a deterioration in an already precarious security environment. UNMISS should remain focused on protecting civilians amid competing demands, including by preparing to physically protect civilians in re-designated POC sites in case of renewed violence. UNMISS’s mandate from the U.N. Security Council and a status of forces agreement with the South Sudanese authorities allow it to do so. And as UNMISS considers whether or how to re-designate the last POC site remaining under its control, it should learn lessons from past re-designations and work with other U.N. agencies, non-governmental organizations, and national authorities to address protection and housing concerns of the site’s residents.

UNMISS’s protection of civilians in the POC sites is viewed by many as one of the mission’s most concrete accomplishments. However, the mission’s mandate has included a laundry list of other important and complex tasks at a time when peacekeeping budgets have been contracting. UNMISS’s current mandate, for example, tasks it not only with protecting civilians in the remaining POC site in the country, but also with deterring violence against civilians in other areas throughout the country; supporting rule of law and justice reform; creating conditions for the safe delivery of humanitarian assistance; monitoring human rights violations; and supporting implementation of the revitalized peace agreement. To accomplish these tasks, the mission currently has deployed just under 18,000 personnel divided between its military, police, and civilian components — a number that might seem large at first glance, but is dwarfed by the 36,000 police officers and the 19,000 civilian employees that, for example, the United States employs to protect just New York City.

A Push for Transfer of Control, Despite Warnings

Given this history of competing demands on the mission, it is unsurprising that the top UNMISS official in South Sudan from 2017 to mid-2021, David Shearer, argued repeatedly that the POC sites should be closed in order to shift resources elsewhere. He pushed for the re-designation of four of the sites before his departure from the mission, even as many humanitarians, conflict analysts, civil society leaders, and civilians living in the sites raised concerns about turning control back over to national authorities before any meaningful security sector reform had taken place.

Few residents of the re-designated POC sites have chosen to leave. This is partly because South Sudan has experienced extreme flooding in 2021, worse than any time in the last half century, rendering huge swaths of the country uninhabitable. It is also partly because property and land rights remain deeply contested and politicized in the country.

Life for civilians in most of the re-designated POC sites has not changed drastically under the control of government authorities. But for civilians in Bentiu, the largest of the re-designated sites, insecurity has been on the rise. Civilians are reporting more cases of robbery and sexual violence, as well as the destruction of lights and hygiene facilities in the camp and a growing presence of weapons. According to site residents interviewed by my organization, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), a joint police force comprised of government and opposition police officers that was hastily stood up to replace UNMISS as the lead protection and rule of law actor in the site is partly responsible for these incidents, and has extorted money and food from site residents in exchange for protection. Speaking about the joint police force in October, a displaced man in the site said, “There are a lot of issues. The police shot a civilian recently. They take people’s phones, rations … They attack at night. We repeat in the day [what they did], but they deny it.” A woman living in the site raised fears of being raped by the police at night.

These incidents themselves are worrying, but just as concerning is what lies ahead in the runup to the 2023 elections. While nearly all stakeholders agree that UNMISS has a critical role to play in building the capacity of an integrated national police force, it will need strong measures in place to ensure this support doesn’t empower abusive authorities.

Political tensions in South Sudan have a history of turning into politically targeted violence. The revitalized peace agreement, which was signed in 2018, outlines a process for presidential elections in South Sudan. Each step in the pre-electoral process — updating a population census, passing a new constitution, establishing national bodies to oversee elections, and registering citizens to vote, for example — has the potential to trigger political fault lines. Political appointments at the state level have already ratcheted up tensions in some areas of the country, as they have paired governors and deputy governors from competing political parties, based on the peace agreement and subsequent negotiations.

Politicized Ethnic Violence

Politicized ethnic violence has also continued to simmer throughout the country, even as large-scale political violence has declined. During the pre-electoral period, civilians in the re-designated POC sites might be targeted by the national authorities who are now charged with protecting them — as they have been in the past. During the civil war, politicians repeatedly targeted civilians along ethnic lines and the POC sites in Malakal and Bor were directly targeted. In other areas where violence ignites, civilians will undoubtedly run toward UNMISS bases.

UNMISS will almost certainly need to take on a larger political role and efforts to support electoral preparations in the coming year. It is well-placed to do so under the helm of its new head of mission, Nicholas Haysom, who has held a variety of political U.N. posts in the region and whose work has focused on constitutional and electoral reform.

UNMISS should ensure its political engagement with national authorities includes efforts to highlight and resolve protection concerns. It will also need to prepare to respond effectively to possible protection crises in the re-designated POC sites if they come under attack. After years of trying to move away from the model of protecting civilians in POC sites, there is a risk that the mission might be reticent to act if civilians gather in and around its bases in new locations. In Malakal, where one POC site remains in place because of the particularly volatile security situation, UNMISS should learn from past re-designations and support the resolution of property and land issues to address some of the vulnerabilities residents face and help resolve ethnic tensions over land, before transferring the site to the government’s control.

Some organizations working on peacekeeping have warned that the age of large peacekeeping missions may be drawing to a close. Others have suggested that UNMISS should re-focus on political engagement or rapidly scale-up capacity-building of national authorities rather than providing protection directly to South Sudanese civilians.

These views run contrary to what most South Sudanese will say if asked. UNMISS remains remarkably popular among South Sudanese civilians who often ask for more, not less, protection from UNMISS. They are eager to see their own security forces reformed and they want to trust these authorities again, but building that trust will take time. Effective security sector reform takes years, if not decades, under the best of circumstances — and with a lack of political will to move it forward in South Sudan, the process has stalled. In a recent statement on the situation, Haysom warned of reduced momentum in implementing these aspects of the agreement and called for renewed political will to avoid paralysis or even a collapse in the agreement. One man living in the Malakal POC site, whose views reflect those of many others we spoke with, explained, “If you are taken to the police, they may not see you as a South Sudanese civilian. They will ask you where you are from, your tribe. If you are not from his ethnic group, he will do something bad to you. This is what makes the police to be an enemy of the people.”

An enormous amount of evidence exists to show that peacekeeping missions are good at protecting civilians when they are given mandates and resources to do so. U.N. member States should continue to mandate and resource UNMISS to protect civilians, and UNMISS must remain focused on protection, even as it becomes more engaged politically.

IMAGE: Behind what appears to be a makeshift fence, a woman carries a sack of grain on her head as she stops to buy some local pastries at a roadside stall in Wau, South Sudan, on February 1, 2020. About 13,000 civilians were sheltered there under UN protection adjacent to the field office of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), just outside Wau town. They had fled massacres and burnings of villages during a ruinous six-year conflict between forces loyal to the government of South Sudan President Salva Kiir and those of his political rival, former Vice President Riek Machar. A string of failed truces and hollow promises has spawned distrust in the two rival leaders now facing intense pressure to uphold a permanent peace agreement. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images)