The Politics of Peacekeeping: It is a Long Way from London to Juba

Main Image Credit UN peacekeepers in South Sudan have been criticised for failing to protect civilians. Courtesy of UN Photo/Isaac Billy.

The quest for a more robust approach to ensuring successful UN peacekeeping operations has claimed its first scalp in South Sudan. The sacking of the force commander there comes barely two months after London hosted a summit of the world’s defence ministers on the challenges of UN peacekeeping 

After a highly critical investigation of the conduct of UN soldiers and police into the fighting in Juba, South Sudan, in July 2016, Kenya’s Lieutenant General Johnson Ondieki, who had served as Force Commander for less than six months, was sacked.

At first glance, this appears to be a positive reinforcement of the commitment made at the UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial meeting in London this September to improve peacekeeping and remove those who fail to live up to expected standards. ‘Performance’, along with ‘pledges’ and ‘planning’ are the alliterative three Ps of the improving peacekeeping agenda. However, since Ondieki’s sacking has resulted in Kenya’s decision to withdraw its troop contingent from the UN Mission in South Sudan, should the UN peacekeeping agenda factor in a fourth ‘P’ – politics?

The ministerial meeting was the latest in a series of efforts to invigorate and improve peacekeeping, starting with US President Barack Obama’s Leaders’ Summit in September 2015. Reformers recognised the need to increase the pool of peacekeepers available, both in sheer numbers but also in terms of the range of capabilities as they sought to address the failure to protect civilians or allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. They also realised that perennial shortages of equipment and training needed to be resolved too.

Enhanced performance is also directly linked to successful mission planning, something that is increasingly challenging in the complex and hostile environments in which contemporary peacekeeping takes place. Thus, the three ‘Ps’ – pledges, planning and performance – are an interlocking set of approaches. In addition, there is a focus on increasing the vital contribution of women to peacekeeping.

Significant progress has been made. Even before the latest meeting in London, more than 50 countries had pledged to commit  troops, police and specialist capabilities – including a field hospital from the UK to South Sudan – to UN peacekeeping missions. The processes of ensuring that contingents are appropriately equipped and prepared for peace operations have been revitalised, and measures have been taken to increase the number of women on missions.

Still, as the London meeting heard from Lieutenant General Maqsood Ahmed of Pakistan, the Military Adviser to the UN Secretary General, for peacekeepers to be effective they need the capability to perform, the will to perform and strong leadership.

The lack of will to be robust in delivering mission mandates, such as protecting civilians, reflects differing perspectives on the nature of peacekeeping and the need for neutrality and impartiality. This leads to contingents operating under national caveats that undermine the ability of the force commander to utilise assets to best effect. Where weak leadership coincides with reluctant contingents, the ability to deliver the mandate is likely to be significantly undermined.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has been beset by challenges since before civil war erupted in 2013. A recalcitrant host government along with a dysfunctional relationship between the mission’s civilian and military parts, in addition to significant challenges in mobility, were already reflected in questions being asked about its effectiveness by embassies in Juba. During the civil war, many contingents and individuals behaved heroically and the rapid establishment of temporary Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites undoubtedly saved many lives. However, there continued to be allegations that peacekeepers stood by while civilians were raped and murdered.

These were repeated this summer when conflict broke out once again in Juba when, as well as civilians in POC sites being targeted during the fighting, there was an attack on a facility used by both South Sudanese and international NGOs close to UN mission facilities. In both cases, peacekeepers were alleged to have failed to respond as civilians were murdered and raped

The UN Secretary-General’s report into the events, released last week, was highly critical of mission leadership, accusing it of failures in preparedness, posture and performance. While criticising many officials, it appears that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon felt the need to be seen to act, and General Ondieki was sacked.

The Kenyan government denied that it had been consulted on this and announced the withdrawal of its substantial contingent from UNMISS as well as from the soon-to-be-deployed Regional Protection Force. It could be argued that General Ondieki was a scapegoat for what are broader failings. Indeed, he had effectively only been in command for a month when these incidents occurred, which is no time in which to change things. Be that as it may, the incident is a reminder of the basic need to factor politics into any effort to improve peacekeeping. 

There are three ways in which politics needs to be considered in the case of South Sudan. First, peacekeeping can be truly effective only if there is some form of political process to support. The UNMISS mandate was originally to support the South Sudan government as the country took its first independent steps. Having acted impartially during the worst of the conflict (and, in doing so, incurring the wrath of both warring parties), the peace agreement that brought opposition leader Riek Machar back to Juba in 2016 with a significant number of his troops was fraught with risk and was a political compromise rather than a clear path to peace.

Second, there is the politics of the UN dealing with a host government that seems committed to obstructing the operations of the mission. The  UN Security Council must be prepared to play a political role in engaging with a host state, if it is going to issue robust mandates.

Finally, there is the politics of dealing with troop and police contributing countries. While the sacking of General Ondieki might have been the correct decision, it could clearly have been handled in a way that kept a significant troop contributor engaged in peacekeeping.

The events of the last week  in New York, Juba and Nairobi feel a long way from the self-congratulatory reforming agenda heard in London two months ago.


Ewan Lawson

Associate Fellow

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