Misplaced focus: a regional protection force in South Sudan is not a substitute for a political process

 The international community will be confronted with hard choices: do we move ahead with the deployment of a force that will not make a difference, that will not have the capability to defend itself and that carries the risk of humiliation of the Security Council and the United Nations and tragic failure for the people…

These words could easily have been said about the anticipated Regional Protection Force (RPF), now the international community’s primary policy prescription to address the crisis in South Sudan. Instead, they date from 2007 and Jean-Marie Guéhenno, then head of the United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations, describing the challenges of what would become the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

There are at least three important parallels between the experiences of UNAMID and the RPF. First, as in Darfur, the RPF is intended to enhance the capacity of an existing, under-performing and repeatedly outmanoeuvred peacekeeping operation. Second, the host government opposed, and then accepted with conditions, the RPF, and has and will continue to shift the goal posts on the composition and operational parameters of the force. Third, the RPF will take months to fully deploy, if indeed it ever does. Most crucially, even if this force deploys, it will not address the most crucial security and political problems in South Sudan. The greatest security risk to civilians in the city of Juba today comes from the government’s armed forces; the RPF will be outnumbered and outgunned by those same forces the government refuses to withdraw. With the bulk of SPLM/A (IO) forces having now fled Juba, the argument that the RPF is there to interposition between rival forces no longer holds; the moment at which a third party security force would have been of greatest benefit has been missed.

There are still legitimate reasons to increase the size of the current UN mission, not least to improve the ability of the UN to protect humanitarian operations and protection of civilians sites. But expectations for the force should not be overstated.

A crucial strategic error has been made by tying South Sudan’s cooperation with the RPF to the imposition of punitive measures. By resolution 2304 of August 12, the UN Security Council decided ‘…that if…the Secretary General reports political or operational impediments to operationalizing the Regional Protection Force or obstructions to UNMISS in performance of its mandate, due to the actions of the Transitional Government of National Unity, within five days of receipt of such report it shall consider appropriate measures…’, such as the imposition of a long overdue arms embargo.

Consequently, the government of South Sudan is now incentivised, for the time being, to do just enough to avoid being accused of non-cooperation and avoid further Council action. The political reality is the regime has consolidated political power and split the main political opposition. It is motivated to only attempt the most basic of reforms to ensure political and military survival, and can and will continue to pursue arms acquisitions and wage war on its people, in towns and villages beyond the capital, both near and far. Overly focusing on the RPF shifts the agenda away from the much harder conversation with South Sudan’s leadership about getting out of the mess in which the country finds itself. It is, I fear, an approach which will achieve little.

PS: For more about the challenges faced by UNAMID in its initial deployment, see this report, published by a group of NGOs in 2007. Paul Williams has also provided a useful chronology of the RPF discussion, including considerations for the RPF’s structure and relations with the rest of UNMISS.

 

 

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