UN in South Sudan: The ghosts of Rwanda and Srebrenica

Originally posted at The Interpreter.


As the last of the reinforcements arrive for the newly mandated UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), questions remain over its ability to protect civilians and put South Sudan on a road to peace and stability.

South Sudan became independent in 2011, following a referendum held under the conditions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that brought to an end the 22-year Sudanese civil war. The birth of the new nation was a significant achievement for the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), which deployed in 2005 to support the implementation of the CPA. However, UNMIS was not very effective at disarming and demobilising the myriad armed groups prior to independence, nor did it make much headway with the transformation of the post-war security sector.

Following independence, the UN’s role was re-conceived as a peacebuilding endeavour, with the newly-named UNMISS mandated to build the institutional capacity needed to govern the nascent state of South Sudan. Despite early optimism, UNMISS was unable to address the maladies of a bloated security sector, and despite an explicit mandate to ‘protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence’, was incapable of responding to brutal attacks on civilians once political violence flared in December 2013.

The violence, sparked by a dispute between President Salva Kiir and his Vice President Riek Machar, led to civil war, with widespread attacks on civilians instigated along ethnic lines.Since December, over 10,000 people have been killed and over 1.5 million displaced. Having opened their gates to fleeing civilians, UN peacekeepers now face the task of looking after over 100,000 civilians seeking refuge in impromptu protection sites inside ten UN bases across the country, a situation that Secretary-General Ban says is taking UNMISS into ‘uncharted territory.’

In addition to the direct effects of fighting, South Sudanese are threatened by impending famine, particularly in the conflict-affected states where farmers were unable to plant seeds before the arrival of the rainy season. While the fighting has claimed many victims, these numbers may pale into insignificance against the numbers now likely to starve to death.

In late June 2014, the UN Security Council passed a resolution reconfiguring and re-prioritising UNMISS. Troop strength went from 7000 to 12,500 and the UN police force was strengthened from 900 to 1323, with the addition of several helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. This fortified force is to abandon the previously mandated task of state building and embrace the new priorities of protecting civilians and securing the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Yet UNMISS finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The mission is deployed in the midst of a lethal civil war. As matters now stand, there is no way the Council can extricate the mission without compromising the safety of thousands of UN personnel and hundreds of thousands of civilians. Instead of liquidating a peacebuilding mission, the Security Council has resuscitated the notion of maintaining safe havens protected by peacekeepers.

The practice of establishing UN-protected areas is not exactly uncharted territory, as suggested by Ban; it was in fact discredited in the 1990s because of the UN’s failure to protect against the Srebrenica massacre of 1993 and the Rwandan genocide of 1994. However, in addition to protection against armed attack, the UN is now also accepting responsibility for protecting South Sudanese against disease and famine. For example, UNMISS has expressed concern about the situation in Bentiu, where 100-200 displaced people continue to arrive daily, many of them malnourished. The UN-protected areas are likely to be in increasing demand as feeding centres regardless of the conflict situation.

Serious questions therefore remain about the ability of UNMISS to fulfill its ‘close protection’ and broader protection mandate.

As Secretary-General Ban has said: ‘the strengthening of UNMISS’s protection capabilities will not happen overnight. Even with additional capabilities, we will not be able to protect every civilian in need in South Sudan.’ In addition to risks associated with deteriorating health and sanitation, the task of protecting and feeding more than 100,000 civilians within UN bases presents serious challenges for the Formed Police Units which are for the first time being asked to protect vulnerable populations from external threats as well as hostile elements in the camps.

Given these challenges, UNMISS peacekeepers cannot be expected to hold the line indefinitely, so South Sudan’s political process needs impetus. Although a cessation of hostilities agreement was signed on 23 January 2014, there has been little tangible progress towards a political settlement that would contain the power struggles and usher in a transitional government.

The interests and support of regional powers need to be carefully managed during any diplomatic offensive. The conflict is already regionalised through the presence of Ugandan troops, the central mediating role of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the standing-up of an IGAD monitoring and verification mechanism. While the support of regional powers remains essential to settling the conflict, there is also potential for the interests and meddling of those same regional powers to exacerbate the conflict.

The UN Security Council and some of it more powerful members, though at the moment seized with other pressing issues of global and regional security, need to bring much more pressure to bear instead of abdicating their responsibility to IGAD and the African Union in the hope that they will find ‘African solutions to African problems’. If the UN is to support the transition to peace, then the Security Council, the Secretariat, and UNMISS leadership need to help shape a transitional strategy that results in a stable settlement and ends the de facto impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of the worst atrocities.

By Charles Hunt, Lecturer in International Security at the University of Queensland, and Mark Malan, Senior Lecturer in Peacekeeping at Massey University in New Zealand.

Opening the Door to Humanitarian Aid in Syria: Significance, Challenges and Prospects

Originally posted at the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory


In a rare moment of unanimity on Syria, earlier this week the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2165, authorizing UN agencies and their humanitarian partners to use routes across conflict lines and four specific border crossings (Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha) to “ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes.”

By opening humanitarian access to the approximately 10.8 million Syrians in need of assistance, the resolution has the potential to make a tangible difference to the lives of those most affected by Syria’s conflict. This is no small feat: humanitarian assistance can sometimes be the difference between life and death. Politically, while the Council has reached points of consensus on Syria before, this is the first time it has authorized operational measures without the consent of the Syrian government.

To what extent, though, does this represent a departure from past practice, and what impact can we expect Resolution 2165 to have on the ground?

A New Departure?

This is not the first time that the Security Council has issued demands or authorized actions with respect to humanitarian access. Rarely, if ever, however, has the Council expressly authorized the crossing of international borders by UN agencies and their humanitarian partners, bypassing host state consent and circumventing national prerogatives on border control and immigration.

Typically, in the past, the Security Council has demanded that the parties to a conflict comply with obligations to grant unimpeded humanitarian access prescribed by International Humanitarian Law. This was the approach taken with respect to Libya in Resolution 1973 (2011), for example. While the Council’s demands are legally binding, they do not permit other actors to take actions otherwise prohibited by national or international law in order to give them effect. Thus, the Council’s demand in Resolution 1769 (2007) that all parties to the conflict in Darfur cooperate with humanitarian organizations did nothing to prevent theSudanese government expelling agencies in 2009. In practice, humanitarian agencies sometimes take advantage of a government’s loss of control over a particular territory to operate on that territory without its consent, but these actions are not protected by international law, and those agencies may be expelled or subjected to legal action should the government retake control of the territory concerned.

The Security Council has provided stronger support for humanitarian access in the context of peacekeeping operations with protection of civilians mandates. It is increasingly common for the Council to mandate peacekeeping operations the use of “all necessary means” to, among other things, “ensure the security and freedom of movement of…humanitarian workers” (Resolution 1706 (2006) on UNMIS in Sudan) or “contribute to the creation of a secure environment for the safe, civilian-led delivery of humanitarian assistance” (Resolution 2100 (2013) on MINUSMA in Mali). While this signals a clear trend towards more robust support for humanitarian access within peacekeeping operations, these resolutions relate to operations predicated on host state consent and refer to humanitarian freedom of movementwithin the country of operations; they do nothing to limit the host state’s right to control movement in and out of the country, as experience in Sudan and elsewhere attests only too well.

There is no doubt that the overriding political imperative behind Resolution 2165 was the search for the small piece of common ground between the Council’s permanent members on Syria. But as so often happens with the Security Council, the need for creative diplomacy in the face of sharp political divisions may have produced an innovative response to the problem of humanitarian access.

A Precedent?

It is impossible at this stage to know whether Resolution 2165 sets a new precedent in relation to humanitarian access. Naturally, some have been quick to point to the exceptional nature of the situation in Syria and to suggest that no precedent was intended. Interestingly, though, while the Council has sometimes signaled its intent to avoid creating a precedent by stressing a situation’s exceptional characteristics, Resolution 2165 contains no such reference. Read in the context of the dozens of past resolutions, both thematic and substantive, in which the Council has demanded that parties grant unimpeded humanitarian access, the implication would seem to be that the Council now recognizes a norm of humanitarian access in situations of armed conflict such that it can, indeed should, authorize access in situations where it is not freely given. This view is further reinforced by the Council’s practice of authorizing peacekeeping operations to protect humanitarians and take action to ensure their freedom of movement.

Rather than an entirely new precedent, therefore, Resolution 2165 might be better understood as an extension of the Council’s evolving practice in support of humanitarian access. This is a practice that can be traced back at least as far as Resolution 688 (1991) on northern Iraq, but which has become an almost standard part of its response to humanitarian crises caused by armed conflict. The extension, in this case, is the granting of access without state consent.

Things get more complicated, though, when it comes to figuring out what this means for the broader question of whether there exists a customary legal right of humanitarian access without host state consent. On the one hand, optimists might argue that Resolution 2165 adds further weight to the view that such a right is emerging if not yet fully recognized. On the other hand, however, the more conservative-minded (this author included) would suggest that the facts that the Council made no mention of such a right and that the right of access in this case required specific authorization mean that it is, at best, premature to speak of a more generalized norm of humanitarian access absent host state consent or Security Council authorization. This sentiment is reinforced by the fact that the authorization contained in Resolution 2165 expires after 180 days. By this reading, state consent remains the norm, with humanitarian access in other situations requiring Security Council authorization.

In the longer term, much hinges on how the resolution is implemented. If it proves successful, then Resolution 2165 may well go down as a landmark in furthering norms of humanitarian access. If, however, the positive effects are marginal or non-existent, or if the delivery of aid creates more problems than it solves, then this might well become one innovation from which the Council will look to distance itself. Three factors will be especially important here.

Impact on Syria

First, the cooperation of the parties. It is one thing for the Security Council to authorize the delivery of aid and demand that the parties cooperate with UN agencies and their humanitarian partners; it is quite another to secure and maintain that cooperation in practice. Experience has taught that there are many ways by which armed groups can delay and misdirect humanitarian assistance. It cannot be stressed enough that effective implementation rests squarely on the goodwill and cooperation of the parties to the conflict. But these are qualities that have been in short supply. Much will hinge over the coming weeks and months on the Secretary-General’s assessment of the state of cooperation and the Council’s willingness to ensure that its demands are complied with. Its track record here is not good with respect to Syria. But Resolution 2165 commits the Council to adopting further measures in the event of non-compliance by any of the parties.

Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin was quick to point out, quite correctly, that the resolution contained no automaticity, leaving it for the Council to determine the appropriate response at a later stage. Australia’s Permanent Representative Gary Quinlan was equally correct to point to the significance of the fact that the Council promised further measures in the event of non-compliance as distinct from promising to consider further measures as it has done in other cases. Much will depend on how the Council responds to the all-too-likely non-compliance of one or more of the parties.

Second, the adequate provision of resources by UN member states. For all the noise generated about the humanitarian crisis in Syria, UN member states have not been overly generous in their support for humanitarian efforts there. Funding for the UN-ledSyrian Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) has consistently fallen well short of what was requested. In 2012, SHARP funding fell short some $130 million; in 2013, the shortfall ballooned to around $600 million; and in 2014, the shortfall stands at over $1.4 billion. More than halfway through the year, only a little over a quarter of the requested funds have been delivered. It is imperative that member states step up their support for the UN’s humanitarian efforts in Syria if the goal of providing aid to the 10.8 million people who need it is to come anywhere close to being achieved.

Third, the effective management of downside risks. Humanitarian action is not without downside risks, and it will be important that these are managed effectively. Politically, there is a danger that Resolution 2165 will only reinforce the tendency to treat a political and protection crisis as a mainly humanitarian problem. It is important that the Council not be lulled into thinking that it has discharged its responsibility by adopting this resolution. On the ground, armed groups will try to control and manipulate assistance and redirect it towards supporting their goals; these same groups will also try to make direct use of humanitarian assistance to help them prosecute their war, potentially extending the armed conflict by helping them sustain themselves and relieving them of responsibilities to care for the civilian population in the territories they hold; the screening of humanitarian deliveries as provided for in the resolution will likely become politicized; and the security of humanitarian workers and those they care for may itself become a strategic pawn in the hands of the armed groups. All these, and other, potential downside risks will have to be carefully monitored and managed. Above all, though, the UN will need to guard against the temptation of trading human rights and protection for humanitarian access–a trap it fell into in Sri Lanka, with tragic consequences.

In summary, Resolution 2165 marks a potentially significant milestone not just in the Security Council’s response to the crisis in Syria, but also in emerging norms and practices with respect to humanitarian access. Quite how significant, and how positive, this proves to be will depend almost entirely upon what happens next.

Alex J. Bellamy is Director (International) of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Non-Resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.


Reconsidering Safe Areas as a Means to Protect Civilians

srebrenica un


Are safe areas an effective way to protect civilians? R2P proponents such as Gareth Evans have suggested “even limited safe havens can help restore peace”[i] while the authors of the Mass Atrocity Response Operations: Military Planning Handbook argue that safe areas could provide both “rapid and direct protection for large numbers of vulnerable civilians” and would “require a relatively small force, concentrated in a few areas.”[ii] Similar arguments have been used with respect to Syria, including by the Turkish government[iii] and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.[iv] Consequently, it is likely a case of when, rather than if, the international community will authorize another safe area.

Seven safe areas were created in the 1990s. They had little in common, based on differing logics and with significantly different sizes. Open Relief Centres in Sri Lanka, negotiated by UNHCR between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers, may have contained 20,000 civilians. A safe area in Northern Iraq following the Gulf War and supported by American and British troops protected as many as 2.5 million. Yet neither their size nor the money spent determined whether or not they were successful (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: Safe Area Effectiveness

[*Includes costs for country as a whole; **Effectiveness ratio compares direct costs (in millions of US $) to civilians (in thousands) protected]

Years Country Authorization Civilians



Outcome Costs (US$ Million per year) Effecti-veness Ratio**
Military Aid Total
1990- Sri Lanka UNHCR 20 Peaceful N/A 7 7 2.85
2002   MOU (1998)          
1991 Northern Unilateral 2,500 Peaceful 1,700 1,000 2,700 0.93
  Iraq intervention            
1992- Bosnia UN Security 939 Collapse 240 290 530 1.77
1995   Council            
1992- Somalia UNHCR 708 Peaceful Indirect 12 12 59
1992- Liberia ECOWAS 1,200 Collapse 125 65 190 6.315
1996     (1994)          
1994 Rwanda UN Security 1,500 Peaceful 200 50 250 6
1994- Afghanistan Bilateral 300 Collapse N/A 106* 106 2.83
1996 (Jalalabad)   (1996)          


Rather, these safe areas faced three main problems. The first was that were developed to address competing or even incompatible objectives. It was hoped they could contain potentially destabilizing refugee flows even while protecting the civilian population.

The second was that they were built around one of two basic logics: either tactical consent by the belligerents or a credible international military presence established through the deployment of third-party military forces. Consent-based models were established through prior negotiation with the belligerents and reflected a clear doctrine of humanitarian space akin to hospital zones and demilitarized zones.The alternative logic to this was providing protection in the safe area through a credible international military presence, such as in Northern Iraq. Such zones were neither based on consent nor did they have an exclusively civilian character.

By contrast, in the two major safe area failures of the 1990s – Srebrenica and Rwanda- it was presumed that international legitimacy (particularly that of the UN) could secure the safe area in the absence of both consent and a credible international military presence. Such hybrid models were based not on state consent, but instead through an appeal to Security Council resolutions that were then used “as the source of authority.”[v]

These two problems are not disastrous in themselves however. The critical additional third problem was the goals of the belligerents. In most civil wars, tactical consent-based safe areas are effective because they allow the civilian population to remove themselves from the zone of conflict. But such consent cannot work if the belligerents are directly targeting the civilian population. Srebrenica and Rwanda represented much different situations from those in which consent-based safe areas worked: the civilians being protected were still being directly targeted.

It was with the 2000 Brahimi Report that an alternative idea was introduced: that peacekeepers “who witness violence against civilians should be presumed to be authorised to stop it, within their means, in support of basic United Nations principles.”[vi] But peacekeepers with Protection of Civilians (PoC) mandates continued to be limited both by the need for consent and by an informal territorial logic – their presence suggests a higher level of protection to the local population. At the extreme, this may lead to civilians sheltering within peacekeeping bases as is occurring right now in South Sudan, where some 77,000 civilians have sought safety at UN Mission in South Sudan bases.[vii]

The recent creation of the intervention brigade within the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) represents one way to address these issues when civilians are being targeted and the state lacks the capacity to protect them. In this case, a PoC peacekeeping mission could be deployed in a designated area with a direct civilian protection mandate and with formal state consent to operate, but without tactical consent by the belligerents.

In many mass atrocity situations, however, neither tactical nor formal state consent is likely to be forthcoming. An alternative model safe area would see the Security Council invoking the R2P doctrine to either alter the mandate of an existing peacekeeping mission or to trigger a new deployment.[viii] It is here that the safe area concept is supported as a more limited alternative to regime change.

History suggests any new safe area will lack either tactical consent or both that and formal state consent. Therefore, they face three core problems. The first is that any international military force needs to have a credible presence. As the US and UK led intervention in northern Iraq in 1991 demonstrated, in the best case scenario a safe area defended by such a force can lead to negotiations rather than conflict. But this cannot be assumed, which means the international community must be willing to support action, including a military force capable of holding the safe area, and ensure continued delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The second is that a safe area does not provide a solution to conflict or to mass atrocities. As a project independent from either regime change or negotiations, establishing a safe area offers only temporary safety to its inhabitants. Safe area proponents therefore must be prepared to accept significant long-term costs, including both ongoing military support and humanitarian assistance, and to also support alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.

The third is that a safe area will likely trigger significant displacement as civilians from within the country flee into the area for protection. While previous safe areas may not have worked as containment devices, linking future safe areas to a clear means of exit through asylum will help reduce costs and increase sustainability. A successful safe area may lead to reduced refugee flows and, over the longer term, may provide an alternative for returning refugees.


Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland, and a Senior Researcher and Program Leader, Doctrine, Concepts, and Inter-Agency Cooperation Research with the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He is the author of A Right to Flee: Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation (Cambridge University Press, 2014). He tweets @p_orchard.


[i]Gareth Evans, The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), p. 125.

[ii] Sarah Sewell, Dwight Raymond, and Sally Chin, Mass Atrocity Response Operations: Military Planning Handbook (Cambridge: Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy; Carlisle, PA: US Army Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, 2010), p. 78.

[iii]Michael Weiss, “Snapshot: What It Will Take to Intervene in Syria: First Get the Opposition to Work Together,” Foreign Affairs, 6 January 2012; Ty McCormick, “Turkey Mulls Buffer Zone on Syrian Border,” Foreign Policy, 17 June 2011, 2011/06/17/turkey_mulls_buffer_zone_on_syrian_border, accessed 18 June 2011.

[iv]Rick Gladstone and Neil MacFarquhar, “Rebel-held Land Could Be Safe Haven in Syria, Clinton Says,” New York Times, 24 July 2012.

[v] Yamashita, Humanitarian Space and International Politics, p. 187.

[vi] UN, “Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, ,” UN Doc. A/55/305, S/2000/809 (21 August 2000), p. x.

[vii]UN News Centre, “UN peacekeeping chief urges South Sudan parties to respect ceasefire amid fresh clashes,” 18 Mar 2014, #.U6oi8LGJofM.

[viii]Hugh Breakey, Angus Francis, Vesselin Popovski, Charles Sampford, Michael G. Smith, and Ramesh Thakur, Enhancing Protection Capacity: A Policy Guide to the Responsibility to Protect and the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflicts (Brisbane, Queensland: Institute for Ethics, Governance and Law, 2012), p. xxvii.



global vaccine ethics and policy

.....from the Center for Vaccine Ethics and Policy


anthropology, politics and human security


From innovation to Revolution


Migration by sea from Africa to or towards Europe.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 509 other followers

%d bloggers like this: