South Sudan: An urgent priority for the international agenda

South Sudan: An urgent priority for the international agenda
Comment: Japan's decision to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from South Sudan came as no surprise, but as the conflict continues to escalate, civilians are left vulnerable, writes Monique Bouffé.
5 min read
23 Mar, 2017
A member of Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force at the UN peacekeeping mission, South Sudan [AFP]

Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced he would end the Japanese peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) will withdraw from the UN peacekeeping mission (UNMISS) in the country in May.

Both the Japanese prime minister and the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, were quick to reiterate that this decision was due to the infrastructure work reaching completion, and not because of the "deteriorating security situation".

The "deteriorating security situation" is a tactful way of describing a conflict which is fast developing into the most significant ethno-political conflict of the 21st century.

The violence that is being perpetrated in South Sudan, predominantly by the Nuer and Dinka forces against each other and other minority ethnic groups, has caused 3.1 million South Sudanese to leave their fledgling country and killed tens of thousands.

Around 100,000 people are currently experiencing famine, and another one million are on the brink of starvation. The people who were immensely proud to recognise their South Sudanese citizenship when the country was granted independence in 2011, have been forced to witness the birth of their nation be defined by violence.

The shift by the Japanese government feels like yet another blow to the country

A nation which is rich in culture, history, music and traditions has been reduced to a conflict zone that the international community cannot, and apparently will not, solve. 

When analysing the Japanese government's decision out of the wider context of international involvement in South Sudan, it is not difficult to understand why the prime minister has decided to pull his forces.

The atrocities committed during WWII that remain fresh in Japanese collective memory, Japan's post-WWII constitution prevents the use of force by Japanese troops overseas.

Generally speaking, Japanese society is uncomfortable with the potential reality of their troops having to shoot and kill people overseas. The deployment of Japanese peacekeepers to South Sudan was only made possible by a piece of legislation in 2015 commonly referred to as the Peace and Security legislation.

Crucially, it allowed the JSDF to use weapons to not only protect themselves, but also "those under their care". It is this that caused deep controversy in Japan.

  Read more: South Sudan rebels capture oil workers following $500mn contract

It is therefore entirely unsurprising that Japan has pulled its forces, especially given that South Sudan has now surpassed Afghanistan as the country with the highest number of attacks on civilian aid operations, and it is increasingly likely that the necessity for Japanese forces to kill South Sudanese troops becomes reality.

Given the wider international context however, and the effectiveness of the UNMISS in South Sudan, the shift by the Japanese government feels like yet another blow for the country.

Japan's post-WWII constitution prevents the use of force by Japanese troops overseas

The UNMISS' primary role is to protect civilians by keeping them in "Protection of Civilian" (POC) sites, which currently host around 200,000 civilians in various locations.

However, the UNMISS suffers from severe underfunding, which hampers its ability to sufficiently protect the people affected by both sides of the conflict.

Lack of equipment - vital in zones of conflict - means that guards at the POC sites lack basic supplies such as bulletproof vests, and are forced to flee the area if they are under attack.

In July, two Chinese peacekeepers were killed when an RPG hit their force in Juba. UNMISS had to seek the government's permission to evacuate and transport casualties, which was denied. This had a huge impact on the peacekeepers' morale and the ability to effectively protect South Sudanese people.

  Read more: Starvation kills thousands while South Sudan 'spends on weapons'

This has resulted in several disasters, including Bor in April 2014 and Malakal in February 2016, where government soldiers attacked the POC sites and massacred civilians.

Due to the UNMISS' need to respect state sovereignty, its distribution of humanitarian assistance is often seen as highly political in the current civil war.

The Mission has sheltered civilians from all ethnic groups in the civil war, however most of those welcomed are Nuer, as the Dinka government holds more territory. The Mission is therefore perceived as taking sides, giving concessions to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) to maintain the fragile relationship. 

The government has prevented food barges from reaching parts of the Upper Nile State, disproportionately affecting displaced Shilluk people, who have already been forced to move from their homes in larger towns and villages, to less developed areas on the Western bank of the Nile as a result of a Presidential decree in October 2015.

The UNMISS suffers from severe underfunding, which hampers its ability to sufficiently protect the people affected by both sides of the conflict

Consequently, the conflict has continued to escalate with no effective buffer force. The UN Security Council has focused its efforts on placing demands and sanctions on government and opposition forces, with little regard for the role of the UNMISS, the problems it has, and the role it could play, if provided with the necessary funding and resources.

These discussions also need to take place between the states, outside of Security Council meetings. Lessons must be learned from Rwanda, where the community's slow response despite the presence of UN Peacekeepers in the region lead to the massacre of 800,000 people.

The Japanese government did not consult other governments or discuss whether any other states would be willing to increase their troops in South Sudan to offset the loss of Japanese troops prior to this announcement, demonstrating an overall lack of concern for the conflict.

South Sudan needs to be an immediate priority on the international agenda, both for the benefit and safety of the people of South Sudan, and for the international staff deployed there.

Monique Bouffé is a legal scholar and advocate with a focus on Public International Law.

She has worked with asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt and is currently working with vulnerable and gang affected young people in London. Her work focuses on the impact of European immigration policy on the current refugee crisis.

Follow her on Twitter: @moniquebouffe

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.