Hannah Bryce
Assistant Head, International Security
Pledging additional troops only makes sense if the UK is prepared to leverage that contribution to meaningfully change peacekeeping operations.
UN peacekeeper on the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, on 27 March, in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by Getty Images.The key issue in South Sudan has not been that peacekeepers aren’t present, but that peacekeepers don’t act. Photo by Getty Images.

The UK has pledged to send a further 100 troops to South Sudan as part of the UN’s peacekeeping mission there, increasing its total contribution to 400. This will likely have little benefit for the South Sudanese caught up in the conflict but may have significant implications for the UK military.  Contributing further to what some would consider an already failing mission will make the UK military complicit in that failure − it needs to consider the reputational damage increased deployment of troops may bring and the positive influence it could instead exert on these missions.

The decision by the UN to increase the total number of peacekeeping troops to 17,000 following a recent spike in violence in South Sudan seems to be premised on a flawed idea that more peacekeepers will bring more peace. But the key issue in South Sudan has not been that peacekeepers aren’t present, but that peacekeepers don’t act.

For example, during several days of fighting in Juba around the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence in July, many civilians were killed, raped and injured both in and outside of UN camps, and often reportedly within sight of peacekeepers. Peacekeepers are reported not to have left their bases to protect civilians under immediate threat of attack, including during an attack on a hotel compound where the UN failed to respond to direct calls for protection from aid workers.  According to US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power, ‘peacekeepers were apparently either incapable or unwilling to respond to calls for help’. 

This calls into questions whether contributing to this mission, albeit with a relatively small troop contingent, is the best way to demonstrate how the UK is stepping up its global commitments, as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon suggests.

The reasons given for the UK’s increased troop contribution are unconvincing. According to Fallon the troops are part of the UK’s approach to tackle instability that leads to mass migration and terrorism. Yet UNHCR report that 975,801 registered South Sudanese refugees are all being hosted in the region rather than making their way to Europe, and the nature of the conflict in South Sudan does not fit the UK’s counter terrorism priority of targeting Islamic terrorist groups. 

The additional UK troops will, according to the Ministry of Defence, enable the provision of a field hospital, supporting deployed UK and other UN peacekeepers. There is certainly a need to provide logistical and engineering support to enable other peacekeepers to take more active protection roles. But providing troops to support the needs of other troops, not the needs of the civilian population, does question whether this deployment operationalizes the provisions of the most recent UN resolution, which ‘emphasizes that protection of civilians must be given priority in decisions about the use of available capacity and resources within the mission'.

Instead the additional troops seem to be more of a gesture of support, the kind of gesture that might increase in significance given the UK’s impending departure from the EU. The debate over the UK’s role and contribution within the UN Security Council may well become even more significant, and that debate will need to consider whether the political goodwill generated by troop contributions outweighs the potential political fallout that failing UN missions may generate. Indeed, unless the UK and other member states take the failings of peacekeeping missions more seriously and proactively work to address their root causes, supplying additional troops or other support to missions is merely acquiescing to these shortcomings.

Peacekeeping operations are facing continued criticism for both their operational failures and their inability to effectively address internal failures, such as the reported sexual abuse claims by its own soldiers in the Central African Republic.  For many, one blue helmet on the ground is indistinguishable from another so it is in the interest of everyone involved in peacekeeping missions to make sure that the missions themselves are providing the right response to the problems on the ground. If the UK does want to make a meaningful contribution to peace and stability in South Sudan, then they need to use the political leverage earned from sending troops to join UN peacekeeping missions to make those missions powerful and effective tools that succeed in fulfilling their purpose to protect citizens.

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