Tag Archives: UNMISS

Rights Up Front and Civilian Protection: An Uneven First Year

This November marks one year since Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the momentous “Rights Up Front” action plan to put the protection of civilians and their human rights at the forefront of the UN agenda.

Born out of the tragedy witnessed in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and the “systemic failure” that characterized the United Nation’s response, the initiative is meant to ensure that the inaction seen in Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and Srebrenica is never repeated.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Mr. Charles Petrie, Assistant Secretary-General, Independent Review Panel on Sri Lanka.UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

By emphasizing timely reporting and early warning, Rights Up Front seeks to prevent human rights abuses before they rise to the level of mass atrocities.  Where prevention fails, the UN’s main priority will be the protection of civilians. In many ways, this is simply a reiteration of the core purpose of the UN. However, Rights Up Front is unique in that it offers a six-point plan directed at the UN Secretariat, funds, and agencies to institute changes that will lead to tangible improvements in prevention and response.

According to the Secretary-General’s summary of Rights Up Front, the six points are as follows:

1: Integrating human rights into the lifeblood of the UN so all staff understand their own and the Organization’s human rights obligations.

2: Providing Member States with candid information with respect to peoples at risk of, or subject to, serious violations of human rights or humanitarian law.

3: Ensuring coherent strategies of action on the ground and leveraging the UN System’s capacities to respond in a concerted manner.

4: Clarifying and streamlining procedures at Headquarters to enhance communication with the field and facilitate early, coordinated action.

5: Strengthening the UN’s human rights capacity, particularly through better coordination of its human rights entities.

6: Developing a common UN system for information management on serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Given the focus on the protection of civilians and prevention of mass atrocities, the initiative has clear potential for reinforcing the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). Indeed, RtoP was directly referenced in the Deputy Secretary-General’s informal remarks on Rights up Front to the General Assembly in December 2013. One year later, there have been some positive signs that Rights Up Front is starting to take hold, including the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)’s unprecedented ‘open-gate’ policy to protect civilians in South Sudan. However, the recently revealed controversies surrounding the United Nations/African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) suggest that the UN could once again be repeating the very mistakes that the initiative was designed to prevent.

 

Rights Up Front in South Sudan: An Imperfect Success Story

The record on Rights Up Front’s implementation has been mixed. While a system-wide plan such as this is bound to take time to run its course, there are some early examples of qualified successes, as well as some unacceptable failures.

The ‘success ledger’ includes the decision of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to open its gates to tens of thousands of civilians fleeing inter-ethnic violence between the Dinka and Nuer after the outbreak of civil war in December 2013.  The former Special Representative to the Secretary General reflected on the decision, confirming its adherence to Rights Up Front and stating “The fact that we opened our gates actually has saved very many thousands of people’s lives… There will be incredible challenges going forward with this decision, but it was the right one. It remains the right one.”

UNMISS provides water to civilians seeking shelter in one of its bases in Juba after outbreak of violence in December 2013. UN Photo/UNMISS.

Likewise, Oxfam’s head of humanitarian policy and campaigns, Maya Mailer, opined on how this development demonstrates progress in the mission’s policy towards the protection of civilians. She reflected on the mission, and its heavy state-building focus, as it was back in 2009, recalling that “…while the UN mission had a mandate from the UN Security Council to protect civilians, that came way down a long list of other priorities.” Mailer mentions both RtoP and Rights Up Front as potential influential factors in this shift.

Although the long-term safety of civilians seeking shelter in what are now being called Protection of Civilian sites is far from assured, this impromptu decision made in the face of an imminent massacre provides hope that the protection of civilians is indeed being prioritized among UN missions.

 

Darfur Controversy Risks Repeating the Mistakes of the Past

Nevertheless, it is easy to have one’s optimism dashed when observing recent events in the Darfur region of Sudan. Back in April, Foreign Policy broke a story alleging that through chronic underreporting, UNAMID had systematically covered up attacks on civilians and UN peacekeepers carried out by forces acting on behalf of the Government of Sudan (GoS).

One example among the many includes a brazen attack by Sudanese troops and pro-government militias on a UN base in Muhajeria in April 2013. Though this particular violation occurred before Rights Up Front was initiated, to date, no one has been held accountable for the attack that left one Nigerian peacekeeper dead, and several more injured. Indeed, UNAMID still refuses to even acknowledge the government’s involvement, instead blaming “unidentified armed assailants.”

More recently, ICRtoP member, The African Centre for Peace and Justice Studies has documented a “brutal campaign of counter-insurgency” led by the pro-government Rapid Support Forces throughout Darfur. The campaign of violence has been marked by aerial bombardments and ground assaults that have targeted civilians with increasing intensity since earlier this year. In spite of this, UNAMID continues to afford minimal priority to reporting on and ensuring accountability for such acts. This is evident in the most recent UNAMID controversy, in which allegations that the mission improperly investigated a mass rape in the town of Tabit has led to further accusations that it is covering-up the government’s transgressions.

Ostensibly, UNAMID has made the decision to omit mention of GoS involvement in attacks due to a lack of concrete first-hand evidence.  However, observers have pointed out that it is more likely that UNAMID’s lack of reporting was done to appease Khartoum, a government that is renowned for its obstruction of international peacekeeping efforts and the quest to achieve accountability for past atrocities committed by its leaders. Most notable among them is President Omar Al Bashir, who is wanted for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

UNAMID leadership visit victims of ambush

Tanzanian UNAMID soldiers listen solemnly to a debriefing after an ambush by “unidentified assailants” that left 7 peacekeepers dead. UN Photo/ Albert González Farran.

If, as Human Rights Watch has suggested, Darfur represents a test-case for implementation of Rights Up Front, then it exposes some key areas in which it has been lacking. The incomplete reporting of GoS attacks indicates that UNAMID staff might not fully understand their human rights obligations or how to properly uphold them, as demanded in the first action point. Furthermore, it leads to a breakdown in the candid reporting to member states required for proactive and strategic engagement, as specified in point number two.  The fact that the mission has not issued a public report on human rights since 2009 reinforces this narrative. As ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda chided “UN reports are an important and increasingly unique source of public information about the situation in Darfur, and must be held to the highest standard for the sake of the victims…” 

This is especially important as improper reporting can also hamper the ability of the Secretary-General to carry out his ‘Article 99’ responsibilities to accurately pass information to the Security Council to inform their decisions on matters related to international peace and security. This in turn affects the ability of the Council to adjust mandates in a way that reflects the reality on the ground, depriving the mission of necessary resources and additional Chapter VII measures that may be required to protect civilians. Thus, the ability to leverage the UN System’s capacities to respond in a concerted manner, as specified in the third action point, is also compromised.

The Secretary-General has since responded to allegations with an internal investigation, and recently stated that he will take “all necessary steps to ensure full and accurate reporting by [the joint mission],” adding that “keeping silent or under-reporting on incidents involving human rights violations and threats or attacks on UN peacekeepers cannot be condoned under any circumstances.”

These developments are troubling, as they are a repeat of the patterns that led to the UN’s ineffectiveness in Sri Lanka. In spite of the positive progress in South Sudan, the case of Darfur suggests that the UN has yet to “fully learn the lessons of the past”, as instructed by Ban Ki-moon upon his announcement of Rights Up Front.

 

Strengthening Rights Up Front Implementation

For the potential of Rights Up Front to be realized, the UN will have to address the lingering deficiencies that jeopardize efforts to protect civilians. In August 2014, Daniel Bekele of HRW urged that:

“With the surge in Sudanese government-led attacks on civilians, credible public reporting on the situation in Darfur is more important than ever…The UN should not allow this core aspect of its work to be degraded, especially when the Secretary-General has pledged to put ‘Rights up Front’ in the UN’s work.”

Philippe Bolopion bluntly warned that the example of Darfur “should be a wake-up call to other U.N. missions, whether in Mali, CAR [the Central African Republic], Libya, or South Sudan, that proactive and transparent reporting on human rights violations, regardless of the perpetrators, is a core function of the mission…”

However, while it is important to ensure that timely and accurate information is reported, for example, through regular ‘horizon-scanning’ exercises, the political will to act on this information is also essential. In September 2014, the International Peace Institute held its annual Trygve Lie Symposium, this year focusing on Rights Up Front. As was mentioned by Helen Clark, action on the initiative depends on “speaking truth to power to the Security Council,” but also on the willingness of member states to act.

In this sense, it will also be necessary to build, “a broad coalition” involving a “range of regional groups,” so as to catalyze momentum among member states, urge the Security Council to take action, and garner support for funding and logistical contributions to UN missions. Panelists at the IPI symposium lamented such action as becoming increasingly difficult, though it underpins the viability of all UN efforts.

 

The Role of RtoP in Rights Up Front

With their many shared objectives, it is also essential to discuss the role of RtoP in strengthening Rights Up Front implementation. In her assessment of Rights Up Front for Opinio Juris, Kristen Boon made an important point regarding this relationship. While RtoP has indeed been cited as an important precursor, and the two are often mentioned in the same context, there has been little attempt to elaborate on specific measures under the RtoP toolkit that can reinforce the initiative. The same can be said about the ability of Rights Up Front to ensure more consistent application of the norm.

Pillay visits UNMISS

Former High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay and Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng give a joint-press conference on South Sudan. UN Photo/Isaac Billy.

The 2014 Secretary-General report on RtoP focused on international assistance to states to uphold RtoP (aka Pillar II), and provides the most direct linkage to Rights Up Front. The report welcomed Rights Up Front as an avenue for improving the UN’s ability to fulfill its second pillar responsibilities by improving early action and emphasizing the collective responsibility of the UN. In a separate section, the report identifies a role for the Human Rights Council (HRC), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and other relevant organs in encouraging states to uphold their primary responsibility by addressing human rights concerns.

Still, the report stops short of identifying particular aspects of each initiative that could serve to strengthen implementation of the other, or how relevant UN bodies, such as the HRC and the Office of the Special Representative to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide (OSAPG) can complement one another in fulfilling RtoP or Rights Up Front.

A clearer articulation of this relationship could perhaps build on the recommendations for improved coordination made by the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng at the HRC’s High-Level Panel on the Prevention of Genocide in March 2014. For example, Dieng recommended that the HRC adopt the OSAPG’s Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes to further guide its work. Such changes could help mainstream an atrocities lens throughout the UN system, and ensure that human rights abuses do not rise to the level of atrocity crimes.

 

One Year On, Critical Assessment Needed

While Rights Up Front is a promising initiative, noteworthy for rallying the efforts of the UN behind the human rights cause, implementation has been checkered so far. UNMISS’ open-gate policy in South Sudan is a positive example of a flexible response that prioritized the imminent protection needs of civilians. On the other hand, the debacle in Darfur has exposed weaknesses in human rights reporting, and an overall lack of transparency that runs counter to the noble intentions of Rights Up Front. To truly learn the lessons of the past and maximize civilian protection, an honest and more in-depth assessment of the initiative and its implementation is needed as its one-year anniversary arrives.

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Filed under African Union, Human Rights, Peacekeeping, Prevention, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, UNMISS

As South Sudan Marks One-Year Anniversary, RtoP Remains Essential As Country Confronts Challenges Moving Forward

South Sudan marked the one-year anniversary of its independence from Sudan on 9 July, with the official Twitter account of the Government of South Sudan (GRSS) sharing its optimism for the future, and President Salva Kiir vowing to work towards a more complete independence for the country at the celebrations in Juba.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also extended his congratulations to the people of South Sudan for “realizing their long-held aspirations” of independent nationhood.

One year on, however, the world’s newest nation has endured a number of challenges that have wracked its first year of independence, and will continue to threaten its stability as it enters its second year of nationhood.

Border Clashes, Oil Dispute with Sudan

To begin, the split with Sudan has not brought about a peace dividend between the two countries. An oil dispute over pipeline fees with Sudan led the South to halt the production and export of oil in January, which has amounted to an apparent economic disaster in South Sudan.  Protracted skirmishes over natural resources and contested border areas have also nearly led to open war between the two nations, with civilians often caught in the crossfire.

In April, South Sudanese forces captured Heglig, an oil-town in Sudan, which was met with immediate condemnation from the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), as well as threats from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to overthrow what he called the “insect” government in South Sudan. In the aftermath, Sudan has been charged with conducting cross-border aerial bombardments on South Sudanese territory on 23 April and 9 May, in direct violation of the UNSC Resolution 2046 of 2 May, which called for an immediate end to hostilities between the two countries.

While an uncertain verbal agreement struck on 8 July between the two countries currently holds a fragile peace in place, a number of outstanding provisions of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the decades-long Sudanese civil wars and led to the creation of the independent state of South Sudan, remain unresolved, including the status of disputed border areas in Abyei, issues of citizenship, and the sharing of oil revenues.

Amnesty International charged in an 8 July press release that a failure of leadership in Juba and Khartoum has led to increased tensions and conflict between the two countries, The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect reiterated this message, stating that the failure by both Sudan and South Sudan to resolve outstanding issues has resulted in the commission of mass atrocities in both countries. With the UN-imposed deadline of 2 August to resolve outstanding CPA issues fast approaching, the threat of a return to violence between these two countries, along with it the commission of mass atrocities, remains. In response to this, a global campaign backed by over 150 human rights activists, civil society organizations and faith leaders called We Choose Peace urged the UN, the African Union, and the League of Arab States to persuade the governments of South Sudan and Sudan to resolve the remaining CPA issues and cease all hostilities.

Ethnic Violence in Jonglei State, Human Rights Concerns

Internal violence has also marred South Sudan’s first year as a nation, with widespread ethnic violence between the Lou Nuer and Murle tribes claiming the lives of nearly 900 in Jonglei State between December 2011 and February 2012.  In a 25 June report by the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), entitled Incidents of Intercommunal Violence in Jonglei State, the ethnic clashes were characterized as, “one of the biggest challenges for the GRSS [Government of the Republic of South Sudan] since independence in terms of testing its capacity to protect civilians and to demonstrate its capacity to impose law and order.”

The report subsequently describes how, despite warnings of an impending attack by a large number of Lou Nuer,  the GRSS was “slow to respond”, and failed to prevent or contain the violence. As the report reads, at the heart of the failure by the GRSS to uphold its primary responsibility to protect civilians was a lack of capacity:

Supported by UNMISS, the Government made efforts to contain the violence but these were constrained by the weak capacity of GRSS institutions, particularly local government, security and justice, a lack of human and logistical resources and the tenuous control that state institutions have over territories such as Jonglei, which have been marginalised and neglected over many years.

The report also reflects on the capacity gap faced by UNMISS to assist the GRSS in responding to the crisis:

While UNMISS, as part of its mandate to support the government in protecting civilians, used its resources to the maximum and the actions of both the Mission and the SPLA [Sudanese People’s Liberation Army] contributed to saving lives, it too faced serious constraints to fulfill its mandate obligation in this regard.

As we detailed in a February blog post, the ethnic violence in Jonglei State not only confronted South Sudan’s ability to uphold the first pillar of RtoP – its primary responsibility to protect civilians – but also exposed key challenges for the international community in fulfilling its second-pillar responsibilities of assistance and capacity building:

With the GRSS unable to uphold its responsibility to protect its population without international assistance, UNMISS sought to support national action through preventive deployment, fulfilling RtoP’s second pillar. At the same time, however, UNMISS itself is reeling from a capacity deficit – most importantly, in flight-ready helicopters – which has obstructed the force from effectively carrying out its civilian protection mandate during the recent outbreak of inter-ethnic violence. Thus, although the Security Council established UNMISS in a timely and decisive manner – and with a Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians by “all means necessary” – the force itself has been constrained from providing protection for the South Sudanese population.

Compounding the challenge of upholding pillars one and two has been a lack of accountability for the violence. In a 5 July news release, Coalition-member Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the GRSS to address the issue of impunity, as well as much-needed human rights reforms, ahead of independence celebrations, stating:

“The government has yet to demonstrate that it will respond to the violence appropriately by actually identifying and prosecuting those responsible,” Bekele said. “South Sudan needs justice, in addition to peace efforts, to stem the violence. The absence of justice contributes to the cycles of attacks and counterattacks across the country.”

The International Federation for Human Rights also documented concerns over the human rights situation in South Sudan in a 6 July report published to mark the first anniversary of the country’s independence, which catalogued concerns over violations of women’s rights, infringements of freedom of expression, and illegal arrests and detention.

 RtoP Essential Moving Forward as South Sudan Confronts Challenges

On top of South Sudan’s internal struggle with ethnic violence and human rights, as well as the looming threat of a return to war with their neighbours to the north and a dismal economic situation, Oxfam International has stated the country is, “facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the war in 2005.” The World Food Programme (WFP) has also reported that levels of hunger and malnutrition in South Sudan are higher now than they were one year ago, affecting nearly 4.7 million people. Tied to this is the conflict with Sudan, which, according to the WFP, “continues to produce a flow of refugees and displaced families, who put further strain on an already overstretched food supply system.”

As South Sudan begins its second year as a nation, the path ahead is fraught with an interconnected web of political, economic, and humanitarian challenges that, if left unresolved, would threaten to subvert the dream of a, “peaceful, prosperous, secure and stable South Sudan.” It is critical that lessons learned from the December 2011-February 2012 violence in Jonglei be institutionalized so as to improve the manner in which the GRSS and UNMISS confront any threatened or actual outbreaks of mass atrocity crimes in the future. In this sense, the Responsibility to Protect remains a critical framework for South Sudan and the wider international community as the world’s newest nation struggles with the extraordinary challenges it faces.

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Filed under African Union, Arab League, South Sudan, Sudan, UN