Operational challenges for the women, peace and security agenda in South Sudan
20 Jan 2020|

Experience in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) highlights many of the operational challenges in implementing the UN’s agenda of women, peace and security (WPS). As I reflected on my recent UNMISS deployment as a military gender adviser, two critical aspects came to the fore: the UN’s credibility challenge in advocating for women’s participation in peacebuilding, and the tensions between fulfilling a mandate to protect civilians and supporting the implementation of a peace agreement that increases the risks to women and girls.

South Sudan became independent in 2011, following the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended 20 years of civil war in Sudan. UNMISS was then established to succeed the UN Mission in Sudan, but in 2013 violence quickly re-emerged between the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, led by President Salva Kiir and comprising mainly ethnic Dinka fighters, and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), led by former vice president Riek Machar and with mainly Nuer fighters. A power-sharing peace agreement was signed in August 2015 but failed when heavy fighting broke out again in July 2016 in the capital, Juba.

The 2015 agreement was revitalised in September 2018. It provided for a quota of 35% women’s participation in the implementation committees and was signed by Amer Manyok Deng as the representative of the women’s bloc. The quota reflects ‘the importance of [women’s] equal participation and full involvement’ in peacebuilding and ‘the need to increase their role in decision-making’, which was stressed in UN Security Council resolution 1325 (2000). Implementation of the quota has been slow, although Angelina Teny, for the SPLM-IO, chaired the Defence and Security Committee from late 2018.

UNMISS’s mandate gives it four main tasks: to protect civilians, to create conditions conducive to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, to monitor and investigate human rights violations, and, currently, to support the implementation of the revitalised peace agreement. In advocating for the 35% women’s participation quota in that agreement, however, the UN has created a significant credibility challenge for itself that’s apparent to local authorities and communities.

The UNMISS civilian component has 26% women, the police approximately 20%, and the military only 4%. At the leadership level, despite the appointment of Police Commissioner Unaisi Vuniwaqa (Fiji), women’s participation is lower again. Only one female military contingent commander has served in UNMISS (Lieutenant Colonel Katie Hislop, British Engineering Task Force 2017). Anecdotally, there are few military women in roles that are visible to the local population and in senior operational planning or staff roles, and their overall visibility to the local community as part of UNMISS is more limited than that of men serving in the mission.

The UN’s uniformed gender parity strategy focuses on increasing the proportion of women in missions, but its numerical approach gives insufficient weight to where and how women are employed. This negates the Security Council’s assertions that deploying more women increases community engagement and the mission’s ability to implement the WPS agenda. Rather than just percentages, emphasis also needs to be placed on deploying women into visible UNMISS decision-making roles, particularly at colonel level and above. A force leadership that normalises female participation provides a credible basis for advocacy, as well as a model for contributing militaries that don’t yet have their own senior female officer cohort.

Operationalising women’s participation is more than a practical challenge for WPS and reflects on mission credibility. A similar challenge arises for UNMISS for the protection of civilians, which is another pillar of WPS and a key mandated task.

UNMISS’s responsibility to protect civilians specifically includes the protection of women and children from conflict-related sexual violence. Campaigns of such violence have continued following the peace agreement, including a reported mass rape near Bentiu in September–December 2018. Importantly for operational planning, an investigation by UNMISS and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the risk factors for organised sexual violence in Bentiu included large numbers of fighters in ‘stand-by’ mode awaiting the implementation of the peace agreement and the presence of armed youth militias. Those risks are likely to increase further when the cantonment of forces proceeds as part of the peace implementation. Thus, the processes that were intended to facilitate peace between the main security actors have increased the risk of violence for others. Counterintuitively, as violence between some armed groups decreased with the peace agreement, the risk of sexual violence against civilians went up.

It’s difficult for UNMISS to reconcile its mandates both to protect the population from sexual violence and to support the implementation of the peace agreement. This problem has been compounded by the fact that the perpetrators include government forces that are parties to the agreement. An added level of complexity is the persistent denial of UNMISS freedom of movement by government forces, which was criticised in Security Council resolution 2459 (2019). The UN’s 2013 policy on human rights due diligence only partially addresses this problem by requiring peacekeepers to avoid supporting human rights violators in their operations.

It’s particularly difficult to strike an operational balance between these competing tasks when UNMISS’s mandate offers limited direction beyond requiring the mission to prioritise the protection of civilians in the use of resources. The risk is that the security of women and girls is subordinated to the implementation of the peace agreement on the assumption that their short- to medium-term increased risk will be reduced in the longer term if peace is achieved—but when the implementation of the gender-specific aspects of the agreement is also slow, that mitigation seems increasingly unhelpful.

While these challenges are significant, it shouldn’t be assumed that they undermine the relevance or utility of WPS, although they do call for creative approaches and an explicit balancing of mandate interests in the pursuit of peace and security for all.