This blog was written by Noah Gottschalk, Senior policy advisor for humanitarian response.
The Republic of South Sudan will become the world’s newest country on July 9, just over three weeks from today. Casting a shadow over the celebrations that should mark South Sudan’s first independence day will be the situation along the new country’s border with the north.
Since I last wrote about the contested area of Abyei, from which the United Nations now estimates over 100,000 people have been displaced, the situation has deteriorated, with fighting spreading to neighboring South Kordofan. Latest reports indicate 6,000 people are seeking safe haven around the UN compound in the state capital Kadugli, with estimates of nearly 60,000 more displaced and unknown numbers seeking refuge in the Nuba Mountains, their exact whereabouts and condition unknown. To further complicate matters, ongoing violence and serious fuel shortages are making it harder for people to flee fighting and for aid groups to reach people in need. Higher fuel costs also mean higher commodity prices, a serious problem in a place where 90% of people live on less than one dollar a day.
While aid efforts are underway to assist people who have fled Abyei, the UN has been investigating why its peacekeepers were unable to prevent the crisis from escalating in the first place. Last week, General Babacar Gaye, the former commander of UN troops in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and currently the top adviser to the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) visited Sudan to find out for himself. His conclusions were damning. A spokesman said the peacekeepers “could have and should have had more visibility to deter any violence against civilians” and insisted that they would learn from these mistakes.
Discussions in New York over the coming weeks will have a big role in determining if this will actually happen. South Sudan will get a new UN Peacekeeping mission when it becomes a new country. At issue is whether the new mission prioritizes the protection of civilians from violence with a mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to physically intervene – with force if necessary – when civilians’ lives – including aid workers – are under threat. Some within the US government are reluctant to give the new mission the mandate to do so, worrying that it might be seen as undermining the new government of South Sudan. The reality, however, is that the new government, despite its laudable public commitments to protecting its people from violence, still needs support from the international community. The new government continues to work to transform its fighting forces into a professional army and to develop a civilian police service, and faces significant challenges in protecting southern Sudanese against the wide array of threats they face. North-South tensions are not the only such threats: civilians are also increasingly put at risk by violence between the SPLA and other armed groups, large scale clashes between communities, and the ongoing threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
As one of my colleagues working in Juba recently said, “Protection of civilians is an extremely complex, resource-intensive and politically sensitive task, one which arguably UNMIS was not set up to effectively do.” We can change that if the new mission gets it right from the start. It should have a mandate both to protect civilians from violence and to work with the new government to make it better able to protect its own people in the longer term, so in the future it can do so without a peacekeeping force.
In January, President Obama described the relatively peaceful referendum in which southern Sudanese overwhelmingly voted for secession as giving “the world renewed faith in the prospect of a peaceful, prosperous future for all of the Sudanese people — a future that the American people long to see in Sudan.” That future is at risk right now. But our government can and must make the right decisions to support the world’s newest country and its people, and to restore the hope we all felt just five months ago. Supporting a Chapter VII mandate is the best way to start.