After thirteen years in the country the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), deployed at the end of the country’s civil war in 2003, is preparing to leave the country and hand over full responsibility for security back to Liberia’s government by the end of next month. What is remarkable about this is not that the UN has recognised Liberia is in a position where it no longer needs a peacekeeping force but the fact that this is only happening now. This is in sharp contradiction to other situations where discussions are already either already taking place with regards to withdrawal despite not even having a small percentage of the relative calm and stability Liberia has seen for over ten years, or the missions , despite their longevity are so ineffectual that these discussions can not even be considered.
Today the world will recognise the International Day of UN Peacekeepers and this, combined with recent announcement of UNMIL’s withdrawal, seems like an opportune time to reflect on the current status of peacekeepers in countries on the other side of the continent – Sudan, Somalia and South Sudan – and the future of these missions.
The United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was deployed in 2008 to bring stability to the well-documented conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. One of the mission’s primary responsibilities was protecting civilians and whilst it is providing protection through its presence in some areas, and facilitating access for supplies, it has always been hesitant to intervene. UNAMID’s capacity to fulfil its duties fully has been the direct result of a lack of support of material support, the inability of some of the troops to even protect themselves, let alone the civilian population and the consistent undermining by the Sudanese government, through its refusal to grant the mission unrestricted access to certain areas affected by the conflict and posing other logistical challenges. In case there is any ambiguity with regards to its intentions, the government has frequently expressed its unwillingness to cooperate with the mission.
Again this month, Sudan has been upping the pressure for UNAMID to leave Darfur ahead of talks at the UN Security Council next month regarding its mandate. Just last week the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said that “It’s time to say goodbye to the UNAMID mission…This mission came to protect civilians, but now there is no danger to civilians, there is no conflict in Darfur.” The government has used a referendum held in Darfur last month – to decide whether to keep the current arrangement of states or set up a single autonomous region – as evidence that security has returned and UNAMID can end its presence. However the reality on the ground dramatically contradicts this absurd narrative. Far from being the peaceful place the Foreign Minister would like to present, Darfur is seeing levels of violence on the scale of those that provoked the peacekeepers to be deployed in the first place. This year alone, Sudan’s air force has launched numerous aerial bombardments in Darfur (and other conflict affected parts of Sudan such as Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states) and more than 138,000 people have been displaced.
There has been plenty of criticism of UNAMID and numerous examples of its failings since its deployment. However, preliminary findings from research due to be launched by IRRI next month show that despite its shortcomings the people spoken to still believe the mission is vital and needs to stay in Darfur. In the words of one man “If [UNAMID] hadn’t intervened, there would be no Kalma today.” That said, the civilians are not unaware of UNAMID’s deficiencies as succinctly expressed by one interviewee “UNAMID is an international force that is meant to keep peace and security in the whole of Darfur but they are very weak in keeping both peace and security.”
The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the UN approved peacekeeping operation currently operating in Somalia, has been present in the country since 2007. Its key strategic objectives in recent years have been continuing a military offensive against Al-Shabaab and enabling stabilisation efforts in areas recovered from the group. Its initial mandate was for six months but its continued renewal has been authorised by both the AU Peace and Security Council and the UN Security Council. However, it was only in May 2013, six years after its deployment, that the mission adopted and developed a strategy for protecting civilians. This mission is a stark departure from “traditional” peacekeeping and something that needs to be more fully thought through as a policy tool.
Despite this clear and necessary expansion to its mandate, there still remain some negative perceptions, particularly from Somalis, regarding AMISOM. These are well founded and stem from series of well documented human rights violations it has committed against civilians, which continue to this day. For example, just over a month ago, four civilians were killed in a town south of the capital, Mogadishu. In July last year, the mission was responsible for the killing of six men at a wedding in the southern port town of Marka. Even without these incidents, civilians have also questioned how AMISOM can protect the general population when it’s been unable to protect itself from Al-Shabaab attacks. In January, the armed group attacked the Kenyan army base in southern Somalia where 180 troops were reportedly killed. The Kenyan army said the figure was not accurate but they did not offer their own figure.
Earlier this year, the AU’s Peace and Security Commissioner stated that AMISOM is not an occupation force and is ready to leave once the government signals it can deal with Al-Shabaab, but it is patently clear that the moment has not yet arrived. Although according to the UN, Somalia has transitioned from a “failed” state to a “fragile” one, Al-Shabaab still retains movement in some areas and the Somali National Army is certainly not at a stage where it can take the lead in combating the group despite the additional capacity building and support AMISOM’s presence in Somalia for nearly a decade has provided. However, in order to retain its legitimacy, the mission needs to do more to ensure it is not adding itself to the list of violators and commit more robustly to holding abusers accountable.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), deployed in 2011, was originally intended to help consolidate the newly formed state of South Sudan and to deal with the remaining insecurity in some areas. Although protection of civilians was included in its mandate from the start, it did not serve as the primary focus. In 2013, when war broke out between the forces of Kir and Machar, UNMISS took the bold but crucial decision to open up its bases to civilians fleeing the conflict and undoubtedly saved thousands of lives by providing protection to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced.
Despite this innovative and positive action, the mission has had a number of failings. The findings of research undertaken by IRRI in late 2015 and published in our report “Protecting some of the people some of the time” clearly showed that civilians believed the mission was unable to prevent attacks targeting civilians and at best were providing only to those in the Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites. As one man living inside one of the PoC sites reported “They tell us they can only protect us if we stay here. They say that if you go out far from the camp, we can’t protect you.” Whilst this obviously leaves the vast majority of the population exposed, the recent attack in Malakal even calls this limited protection into doubt.
Given the extremely fragile peace that South Sudan is currently experiencing, an exit strategy or even the discussion of one are clearly not viable options for UNMISS. However it is equally as clear that improvements are no doubt needed, not just on the issue of protecting civilians from being killed, but also in other areas such as providing access to services for survivors of sexual violence as documented by Human Rights Watch.
UNMIL’s sustained presence in Liberia should be seen as model for other peacekeeping forces on the continent where conflict is ongoing to varying degrees. A hasty withdrawal to pacify a truculent authority, or before national forces are able to adequately provide the necessary protection, or when those who are supposed to provide protection are in fact the very same committing abuses undermines the missions’ very raison d’etre. Whilst these missions do have numerous shortcomings, which need to be immediately and adequately addressed, the fact remains that peacekeepers are most often the only hope for protection for civilians in conflict-affected countries.