The Centre for Security Governance is pleased to announce a new blog series which explores the security sector reform (SSR) dimension of Canada’s planned re-engagement with peacekeeping and peace operations. This four-part series focuses on the main options being speculated upon for troop deployment: Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
A history of conflict and peacekeeping efforts in South Sudan
Despite massive effort by the UN and international community in South Sudan, in recent years the situation in the world’s newest state has gone from bad to worse. Frustration and failure seem to have set in on the part of international actors. The conclusion of a tenuous peace agreement after war erupted in December 2013 has seen efforts by many to find a new way forward to support peace, with the US in particular pushing for intervention, some even positing some forms of neo-trusteeship should be applied. Facing the apparent failure of UN and international peace and security efforts to date, South Sudan is a case in need of innovation but with major risks of failure.
With a reported 1.6 million internally displaced and over 50, 000 killed since 2013 and 200,000 seeking refuge in UN protection sites, the conflict has reached most regions of the country and is regional in scope with global implications. There is urgency for the UN to find new players in the mission, but for any new contributing country it is a mission with high risks of failure.
South Sudan like the other cases considered in this series is a complex emergency with a deeply complicated social and political reality: more than 60 different tribal groups, elaborate social and patronage networks, significantly different norms and approaches to warfare than the West, an extremely harsh physical environment. War has been the norm for the place and people since 1956 (Sudan’s independence), with peace being the exception. Even during the two main peace periods, 1972-1983 and 2005-2013, rebellions, significant violence, border skirmishes and other types of conflict like cattle raiding were commonplace. As a result it is difficult to distinguish between periods of peace and war. It is actually better to understand the situation in South Sudan as a fluid one, with a lasting sense of continuity rather than clear points of departure between peace and war.
This is also a conflict where loyalty dies hard, with various armed groups and their leaders switching allegiances several times. The tools to try and build peace such as integrating armed groups as part of peace agreements have contributed to cycles of violence and incentivizing rebellion and threat of force rather than peace. The disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program in the country has been seen to be a wholesale failure, with most armed groups continuing to recruit while the program was running for some years. Most conventional security sector reform (SSR) activities have been ineffective and new ideas are in short supply.
If the Canadian government were to choose to focus on South Sudan, Canada would be faced with as complicated a crisis as it has ever faced in its history of peacekeeping.
A Broken UN Mission?
The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is in desperate need of reorientation and redesign. It faces major criticism and deep resentment on the part of many in South Sudan, including the general public but especially the government. Illustrative of this situation, the UN Secretary General has launched an investigation of the UNMISS’s failure to protect humanitarians and others in a hotel compound that was adjacent to their own compounds, where in July amidst an escalation of fighting, a band of armed fighters ransacked and accosted civilians there. This case is also sparking a wider reflection on the efficacy of UN peace and stabilization efforts.
A mixture of tragic lethargy and outright ineptitude, driven by a string of scandals and political intrigue has left UNMISS, and international action writ large, facing skepticism if not outright resistance. (Remember few South Sudanese make distinctions between international organizations and their mandates, westerners in the country are westerners in the country. The UN and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) efforts for example tend to be conflated despite many humanitarians’ efforts to distinguish themselves from the UN.)
Linked to these issues with the UN mission, a dangerous anti-western sentiment has been building. Despite the acceptance by the government of the UN’s deployment of a 4,000 strong protection force, any action linked to the recent UN escalation has been framed as invasion, which government, opposition and wider public seem to agree on.
So powerful is resistance to local identities, many of the heroic figures, stories and songs of the various communities are focused on this theme. The trauma and anger built over more than a hundred years of oppression, suffering and resistance, is palpable, and manifest in public opinion and action. This as much as anything has the potential to derail any effort at action by the UN no matter where the peacekeepers are from.
The potential impact of a Canadian contribution
Canada has the potential to bring skilled management and leadership skills to the mission in South Sudan. Clarity and efficient communication has been a problem for UNMISS. More effective public relations and management of relations with government and opposition leaders are areas where Canada could contribute.
UNMISS has also struggled with its capability to conduct effective information, investigation and intelligence activities. A small group in the Joint Mission Analysis Centre (JMAC) provide situational awareness to the mission. Political Affairs in the mission have maintained significant information analysis ability but the mission has been limited in its ability to develop and maintain clear and authoritative information and reporting about the conflict. There are also apparent problems with information sharing between components of the mission, with a clear gulf between the mission and other parts of the UN, let alone the wider international community.
Canada could bolster the UN’s capacity to produce more effective knowledge and reporting about the conflict. Canada could also bring new technological solutions to situational awareness for force protection as well as conflict management, such as social media analysis or surveillance drones.
UNMISS currently relies upon a number of Ukrainian or Russian helicopters for much of its mobility and surveillance. The mission has faced major shortages of lift capacity, especially since it relies on Russian contributions, which are often politicized and have been pulled in the past. With frequent disagreement between the United States and Russia in the Security Council over action in South Sudan, an alternate and reliable source of lift is critical for effective expansion of the mission. Canada is well positioned to provide such a capacity.
Most importantly though Canada could bring to the South Sudan mission a dynamic and creative planning capacity, something the mission is in desperate need.
If Canada chose to be involved it would have to find a way to counter the problems facing the UN mission and re-establish it as a trusted broker, that achieves the essential goals of providing protection to civilians, separating various armed groups that might trigger a return to war, and providing reliable and authoritative information on the situation. This would however not be a quick-win for the Trudeau government’s return to peacekeeping agenda.
There is indeed a major need for someone to take up the mantel of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan as it is in desperate need of renewal. If Canada chooses to embrace new approaches and ideas and provide renewed leadership to UNMISS, there is an opportunity for Canada to positively contribute to the security and peace of the world’s youngest nation.
Matthew LeRiche is a lecturer in international politics, conflict, security & development and a Centre for Security Governance Senior Fellow. He is an expert in political and conflict risk analysis, initially specializing in the political and security dynamics of South Sudan where he has worked since 2006. Whilst studying for a PhD at King’s College London, he undertook extensive field research in South Sudan and East Africa on humanitarianism and its impact on the conduct of war. More recently, as Visiting Assistant Professor at Memorial University and Post-Doctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics, Matthew has been involved in research on the history of norms and war in Sudan, peacebuilding and East African security, among other topics. Furthermore, he has been engaged as a Security Sector Reform consultant and adviser on Defence education institutions.