Q&A: South Sudan's UN chief on a 'nimble, proactive' peacekeeping approach

David Shearer, United Nations special representative for South Sudan and head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. Photo by: Isaac Billy / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

JUBA, South Sudan — The world’s youngest nation is entering its fifth year of conflict, and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan has been criticized for failing to carry out its mandate: protecting civilians.

In July 2016, when fighting broke out in the capital of Juba between President Salva Kiir’s government troops and forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, the U.N. failed to respond to repeated calls at the nearby Terrain Hotel, where soldiers raped five foreigners and killed a local journalist. The mission was also unsuccessful in protecting civilians who’d taken shelter inside a “protection of civilian” site on the U.N.’s main base, which they were charged with protecting.

In light of July’s events and after an independent investigation sharply criticized the military’s response, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dismissed Lt. General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki, who led the mission at the time of the attack.

The new head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan, David Shearer, stepped into the tough position in January. Since taking on his role, Shearer says he’s well aware of “where the U.N. has failed in the past,” and is determined not to make similar mistakes.

In his 10 months as mission head, Shearer has been pushing a “robust, nimble, and proactive” approach to managing the 13,000 peacekeepers in the country. It’s about “using our assets to be out there rather than being static, sitting in a base perhaps protecting [a camp],” Shearer said.

In an exclusive interview with Devex, Shearer touches on the challenges of carrying out the U.N.’s mandate in one of the most volatile countries in which to operate, as well as the changes implemented since he took over the mission and how he sees the future of the seven “unprecedented” internally displaced persons camps around the country.

In a conflict where “so often the civilians have borne the brunt and not the belligerents,” says Shearer, the ultimate solution is for the war to finish so people can return to their land and their homes. Here’s our conversation with Shearer, edited for length and clarity.

“By being robust, we get more respect; and by getting more respect, we get entry into places we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to.”

— David Shearer, head of the U.N. mission in South Sudan

What does taking a “nimble and proactive” approach look like?

One example is in the town of Aburoc in Upper Nile: 30,000 people suddenly fled into an area with no clean water and were facing a real issue of cholera. We flew in about 70 peacekeepers, put them up temporarily in tents — and we did that within two days of being asked by humanitarians and others. We did that because we believed there was a real risk of an outbreak. The humanitarians went in two to three days after that, when they felt there was a greater degree of security, and they set up amazingly quickly. We had an outbreak of cholera as anticipated and eleven people died. But frankly if we hadn’t done what we did, it would have been in the hundreds that people would have died.

We really need to be pushing our patrols out both on the ground but also using helicopter assets as well. We just sent a patrol to Maridi because we felt that was an area that was likely to encounter conflict — it’s a very vulnerable population there. By doing that, we can get to a place before the problem starts rather than having to follow up afterwards.

Is this a change in approach from previous U.N. missions in South Sudan?

It’s something I’ve pushed quite hard. We want our peacekeepers to be robust and we’ve had several cocking of weapons quite frequently between our peacekeepers and others in the last few months. I think you’re asking guys to put themselves into pretty difficult situations. But I think by being robust, we get more respect; and by getting more respect, we get entry into places we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to. It’s paying off, and oddly enough in some ways it makes us safer — so long as we’re careful about what we do — because we’re seen and we’re respected. In South Sudan it’s such a big area that we have to cover, we can’t just be a company of 160 odd soldiers sitting in a base. Otherwise it’s not doing its job.

What is the biggest challenge in operating here?

The biggest challenge is the logistics. They’re unbelievable. I’ve never been in a place where it’s been as undeveloped as here. To travel from Juba to Bentiu, it’s 1000 km from the capital to the northern town, and that’ll take a truck two and a half weeks to travel. But we have to use that road and we can only use it in the dry season. In the rainy season it’s completely cut off, so we can’t use it six months out of the year.

It’s a country the size of France with about 250 km of tarmac road; the rest of it is dirt and it turns into mud in the rainy season. That’s one of the biggest challenges. Effectively, it’s been compounded by war, obviously on the government side and also on the opposition side. We can’t get into places some of the time or we get turned down.

We do get into a remarkably large number of locations across South Sudan. But on occasion, often when it’s an acute need, we can’t. So we have to negotiate, particularly with the government. We have to have a relationship with them and push them and we have to be doing things and saying things that sometimes the government doesn’t agree with or like. But that’s the nature of the relationship.

How uncharacteristic is it for a United Nations peacekeeping mission to have “protection of civilian” sites?

“We have to keep in mind this is not a permanent solution for people to be sitting under plastic sheeting and be fed by the international community.”

As far as I know, on this scale I think it’s unprecedented that this has ever happened before. The difference is that when people were terrified for their lives, they ran to us and we effectively opened our gates and our bases and people just streamed into our bases. We’ve seen in other places where that hasn’t happened and the U.N. hasn’t done that.

The question then became what now? Because they didn’t feel ok going home, they were managed into a site beside us rather than being on top of us. They’ve been there for four years, coming in and going out — and under international law, we have a moral responsibility to look after them.

Should we look at the PoCs as a natural progression from U.N. failings in the past, such as Rwanda and Srebrenica?

I think it was more done from the point of view that these people were terrified and it was the right thing to do. I’m really proud that the United Nations did that; it took a lot of guts for them to open the gates and let thousands of people pour in, because amongst some of them it wasn’t only women and children. It could well be armed elements and we didn’t really have any control over who came in, we just allowed them to come in.

The peacekeeping mission has been criticized for not providing security for its residents. There are still reports of women being raped outside the camps and people being killed inside. What’s being done to increase security?

We have a really low tolerance for any criminality. If anyone commits a crime, we disarm and eject them and they can’t come back. Since a year ago, we’ve put in place a lot of different changes. In the PoC here in Juba, we put in a 200 meter weapons free zone and we’ve negotiated with the authorities of South Sudan that we’ll patrol that and it’ll effectively become our responsibility that weapons are kept out. It gives us a huge buffer zone and we cut the grass and vegetation around there so it enables us to see people and they can move along the paths from the PoCs without people jumping out of the bush.

The number of incidents went from something like 45 a month down to two or three. Two or three is too many, but you’ve got 30,000 people and you’re always going to have some element of criminality like you’d have in a town anywhere in the world. We also patrol more, do more foot patrols and weapons searches then in the past, and we’ve got a better intelligence network and local volunteers who live in the PoC and work with us.

At the end of the day, they’re camps where people have been for the last four years and if you’re a young person growing up there — particularly males because they get involved with more crime than females do — there’s this whole: “What am I doing with the rest of my life? I’ve been in this camp, I can’t move around much. Where’s the hope? Where’s the future?” In some ways that’s the biggest worry we have for the existence of these camps.

You’ve said you want to take a new approach to the camps and make them more balanced. What are future plans and do you see people leaving before the end of the war?

The sort of thing that needs to happen has to take place on at least three different levels. Ultimately if the government is serious about being the sovereign state and people’s security, they have to provide safety for people to go back to their homes again. Linked to that is that many of the houses that these people have left have been occupied by armed forces, and those people need to be taken out as well. We can help stabilize and move into areas where people have come from to help provide a level of confidence in support of what’s already there. We can’t guarantee people’s safety, but we can help with the security if need be and also do much more patrolling in those areas.

“Every country has individual interests, but if those interests can be put aside or dampened down for the interests of a collective peace agreement, I think everybody gets to benefit.”

The third thing is that the people in the PoCs receive food, health care, and education. Outside many of those things aren’t available and we can’t have a situation where the PoCs are at one level and the outlying environment where they came from doesn’t have that.

We’re doing all we can to help people get back and they have to make that determination themselves. What I don’t want to have is any hindrances or any obstacles in their way, like for example, they don't have education for their kids, they don’t have access to health care, they don’t have security.

How realistic is it that people will leave the camp?

Everybody wants to leave — there’s nobody that wants to stay. They’re scared to leave; they’re frustrated from being there. They’ll be often critical of the services of the things we provide. If I’d been living there for four years, I’d be at the front of the cue complaining about how they live, quite frankly. The PoC camps are 100 meters away from my bedroom. I lie awake at night hearing the rain come down and I think about those poor people living under plastic sheeting with open drains and thinking that it’s a miserable way to live. They’re alive and I think most of them would recognize that it’s a result of the action we’ve taken.

Does the international community need to do more?

The international community to some degree is focused on the services we’re providing inside the PoCs, and we’re looking at this as temporary environments not permanent ones. So we need to start shifting our thinking about where to go from here. It might not be this week or next month or even next year, but we have to keep in mind this is not a permanent solution for people to be sitting under plastic sheeting and be fed by the international community.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development has been in charge of the high-level peace talks, which are currently underway. Some advocacy groups say that IGAD shouldn’t take the lead because of their vested interests in South Sudan and the region. Do you think they’re the appropriate body to bring peace to the country, or does the situation call for the African Union or other actors in the international community to step in?

I think IGAD is the only organization that can bring many of the parties together because they have the leverage. They also have the greatest degree of impact. They’ve been impacted more than anyone else and they have relationships with these people that they’ve had for a long time. I think it’s important that IGAD takes the lead. The AU and the U.N. have very much said that we’ll support the initiative of IGAD. Are there individual interests? Of course there are. Every country has individual interests, but if those interests can be put aside or dampened down for the interests of a collective peace agreement, I think everybody gets to benefit. I’m of the view that we should give it as much support as we possibly can.

At the sub-regional level inside the country, there needs to be a lot of reconciliation that happens. We need to do both, and the reconciliation at the ground level will always help, but it can always be overturned if the next level up isn’t at peace as well. So you can work really hard at the grassroots level and it can be undone like that. My own feeling about the national dialogue is I don’t think it’s an oppositional type of relationship. It should be a very complementary relationship. It’s not yet because they’re not linked, but we do need to be doing some talking at the grassroots level.

Read more Devex coverage on peacekeeping.

About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.