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Implementing and operationalizing protection of civilians with the


									    Implementing and operationalizing protection of civilians with the United
                 Nations Mission in Sudan: the case of Abyei


“The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the
views of the United Nations.”

This paper reviews the protection of civilians’ mandate of the United Nations Mission in
Sudan (UNMIS) and how it has been made operational in the specific context of the disputed
region of Abyei, central Sudan. Protection of civilians (PoC) is an encompassing topic within
the United Nations, but the concept has a narrower meaning when it comes to the mandate of a
peacekeeping operation which looks at a mission’s activities and resources, mainly military
but also political or humanitarian, that can ensure civilians in area of responsibility live in a
safe environment and can enjoy and exercise their rights.

In 2006, a protection of civilians section was created within UNMIS for the first time in a
peacekeeping operation, to guide and advise the mission on the implementation of its PoC
mandate and responsibilities. In parallel, the new PoC section was also given a humanitarian
protection coordination mandate within the UN Country Team that has applied in Southern
Sudan, Transitional Areas 1 but also in Darfur 2 . For most of its existence, given its limited
resources against expected outputs, with poor policy support or guidance, and no formal policy
or communication channels with DPKO in New York, the PoC section navigated in unclear
waters, very often against local current. Nevertheless, positive achievements were reached in
terms of operationalizing a PoC mandate misunderstood in many spheres. This paper examines
how some concrete answers were found in the specific case of Abyei, between September
2008 and July 2009. The innovative character of these activities also laid in the fact that they
prioritized preventive initiatives rather than reactive ones, i.e. doing what could be done to
minimize exposure to violence and situations where civilians could be at risk of violence.

     1- UNMIS and Protection of Civilians

1.1 The protection of civilians mandate of UNMIS

UNMIS was created in 2005 with the UN Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1590 to monitor
the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) 3 that put an end to more
than twenty years of war between Northern and Southern Sudan. UNMIS was established
under the chapter VI of the UN Charter (pacific settlement of disputes), and was essentially set
up to support the parties to the peace agreement to implement their CPA commitments within
an interim period of six years, after which the South will vote in a referendum on its
independence. SCR 1590 says that UNMIS shall “contribute towards international efforts

  The three Transitional Areas benefit of specific Protocols within the CPA with power and wealth sharing
arrangements. Abyei Area is one of them, and its residents will be called to vote in a referendum in 2011 on
whether they want to remain with Northern Sudan or join Southern Sudan, if the latter secedes.
  The UNMIS PoC section implemented a protection coordination mandate in Northern and Southern Darfur prior
to UNAMID and until June 2008; the coordination mandate was handed over to UNHCR.
3 All the Security Council resolutions on UNMIS, as well as the Comprehensive
Peace Agreement and subsequent agreements can be found on this website.

18/09/09                                  Nelly Sabarthes                                                 1
towards the protection of civilians with particular attention to vulnerable groups including
internally displaced persons, returning refugees, and women and children, within capabilities
and in close cooperation with [others]….” (para 4. d).

Part of the mandate is a chapter VII clause relating to the protection of civilians saying that
acting under Chapter VII, “UNMIS is authorized to take the necessary action, in the areas of
deployment of its forces … within its capabilities, to protect UN personnel, facilities […] and
without prejudice to the responsibility of the Government of Sudan, to protect civilians under
imminent threat of physical violence” (para 16). This clause was translated into the UNMIS
Rules of Engagement with an authorization to use force beyond self defense to protect
civilians under imminent threat of physical violence, without prejudice to the Government of
Sudan, and within capabilities.

Subsequent SCR reiterated the responsibility of UNMIS to protect civilians with specific
references to LRA activities in Southern Sudan (1653- January 2006 and 1663- March 2006).
In April 2009, SCR 1870 extended UNMIS mandate for another year and used a stronger and
unequivocal language translating views of Member States for a more pro-active engagement
of the mission for the protection of civilians. Three paragraphs of the new resolution stressed
and called for the “appropriate and flexible deployment of UNMIS in order to address the
most likely points of conflict, in particular in areas where civilians are under threat of
violence” (para 3 & 15) and requested UNMIS “to make the full use of its current mandate and
capabilities to provide security to the civilian population …” (para 14). In addition, SCR 1674
(2006) generically included PoC in the mandate of peacekeeping missions stating that they
could expect the Security Council back up in implementing that clause of their mandate.

Diverging interpretations of the PoC mandate of UNMIS at different levels of HQ, mission
and troop contributing countries contributed to a slow awareness of PoC responsibilities, and
therefore late implementation of the PoC clause of the mandate. The clash between the two
CPA armed forces in Abyei in May 2008 4 , and the subsequent destruction of the town and
displacement of some estimated 50 000 civilians, acted as a wake up call for the mission
falling under strong criticism for allegedly having failed to fill its protection responsibilities.

1.2 The Development of a PoC mission’s strategy: the PoC Security concept

2008 marked a turn in the interpretation and awareness of UNMIS PoC mandate with an
increasing interest in protection issues from within the mission. Things started to move. The
military component, under the auspices of the military Chief of Staff, took the lead in
developing a mission-wide PoC strategy to clarify conceptual references, mandate, rules of
engagement and roles & responsibilities for each and everyone in UNMIS. Navigating in
unknown waters with little guidance from the Secretariat, it took nearly several months to
come up with a draft paper that highlighted the security dimensions of PoC, and was called the
PoC Security Concept. The objective of the document was to clarify and render operational
mandated responsibilities; but it continued to encounter disagreements in definitions,
interpretations and over implementation. In addition, the political context of Sudan added to
the challenge of having open discussions on implementing a chapter VII clause that required
the use of UNMIS military force in specific circumstances.

Developing a PoC mission’s strategy was certainly a premiere for UNMIS, and a long and
strenuous exercise that highlighted divergences in interpretation and interest within the same
mission. Policy guidance from the Secretariat would have been critical to help overcome

    Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

18/09/09                                  Nelly Sabarthes                                        2
mission-based differences: too much room was left open for subjectivity, ambiguity and
personal interpretations from the political or legal side to troop contributing countries, equally
not necessarily willing to raise up a PoC profile. Generally speaking, a more streamlined
policy with concrete implementation guidelines needs to come through from DPKO in New
York, so as to address discrepancies between the Security Council, the Secretariat and field

Nevertheless, the PoC Security Concept tried to clarify definitions of “imminent threat”,
“within capabilities” and “without prejudice”, but still left much of disagreement that underlie
the difficulty of deciding in concrete and tangible ways what these three terms actually mean.
However, a conceptual framework was developed with a four phase approach (assurance, pre-
emption, intervention, consolidation), and specific activities identified at every stage of a
developing situation. In addition, the PoC Security Concept set as a threshold for active
UNMIS intervention, the likelihood of the two CPA regular armies, SAF and SPLA, to enter
into armed conflict. The lower threshold is one of banditry and tribal violence, unless the latter
has to potential to derail the CPA. The Security Concept was recently endorsed and has now
value of mission’s policy. While the internal dissemination and implementation of the PoC
Security Concept is still work in progress, it was used as a conceptual framework and practical
guidance in Abyei for the development of a PoC centered preparedness plan, in June and July

      2- Operationalizing the PoC concept in Abyei

2.1 Context of Abyei

Abyei is an oil rich region disputed between Northern and Southern Sudan, which benefits
from its own Protocol with power and wealth sharing arrangements under the CPA.
Communities on the ground have coexisted as best as possible but political games and
interests as well as the manipulation of tribal fears and tensions by political parties has
increasingly challenged the capacity for peaceful coexistence and dispute resolution. The
polarization around Abyei culminated with an armed conflict between the SAF and SPLA and
their affiliated militias in May 2008, and the destruction of the town. An estimated 50 000
people fled their homes, some for the third time, within a couple of days. An unknown number
of civilians died during the hostilities and looting and destruction of properties occurred. The
town still bears the scars of that short but destructive clash. After that episode, tensions
between the two local tribes, divided along political affiliations, were high - and continue to be
so. After long and difficult negotiations, a peace agreement, known as the Abyei Roadmap
Agreement, was finally made on June 8th 2008 5 . The area was progressively demilitarized in
accordance with the Security Arrangements but the task proved difficult and many deadlines
were passed before it was finally achieved. Negotiations around the appointment of a Civil
Administration were also difficult but by November 2008, a government appointed
administration finally established a presence on the ground. However, it has had no budget and
thus little ability to actually deliver on anything. In July 2009, the Hague based Permanent
Court of Arbitration (PCA) rendered its judgment on the boundaries of Abyei area, in
accordance with the Abyei Roadmap. But despite formal commitment by the two main
political parties to respect the decision, the findings left a mixture of feelings among local
communities and the actual implementation of the decision is still a challenge ahead.

2.2 Migration Strategy


18/09/09                              Nelly Sabarthes                                           3
In a tense political and tribal post May 2008 context, characterized by mass displacement and
popular disillusion including towards itself, UNMIS stepped up into a more pro-active profile
aimed at preventing renewed conflict and minimizing the exposure of civilians to new security
risks. In order to do this, UNMIS, led by the PoC section, developed a multi-layered Security
and Protection Strategy, later referred as the Migration Strategy, to create an environment
conducive to the protection of civilians during the seasonal migration of the Misseriya across
Dinka land 6 . After initial skepticism, the strategy was subsequently developed along four main
and complementary aspects: (1) enhance the safety and security of local communities, (2)
address competition over natural resources, (3) support inter-tribal dialogue and (4) manage
rumors and the spreading of false information. The link between the upcoming migration
season and the risk it represented to peace and security in Abyei area, convinced UNMIS, and
the military component in particular, to engage into more pro-active activities such as
patrolling. The strategy was pragmatic and identified anticipated tension areas where
communities could potentially be at risk, and triggers for conflict, so that prevention efforts
could concentrate on localized ‘flashpoint areas’. The objective was to prevent any minor
incident from spiraling up into something bigger – something that could easily happen in a
context of political and tribal tension.

The first aspect of the strategy was to enhance the security of the environment so that people
could feel safe. UNMIS tried to support as much as possible local military and police
counterparts, respectively the Joint Integrated Unit and Joint Integrated Police Unit 7 , to
provide protection to their own people. Support was given to the prompt deployment of the
JIU to strategic locations to monitor movements in and out of the area and be in an optimal
geographical position to respond in case of a security incident. In parallel, UNMIS worked
with the JIPU to establish police posts built in local materials in the six villages where
incidents were the more likely to happen so as to provide a protective presence. UNMIS also
worked with the police to develop a joint patrol program to cover pre-identified sensitive
areas, in order to show a presence. In addition, the June 2008 Road Map Agreement created a
momentum for UNMIS to extend its geographical coverage within the ‘Road Map Area’, after
having seen its access beyond the North of the town denied by SAF and National Security
until that moment. This momentum allowed UNMIS to upgrade its monitoring activities with
more pro-active military patrols and civilian field visits. This show of UN presence definitely
sent a positive message to local communities who were living in fear of chronic insecurity.

The second aspect of the strategy was to address root causes of seasonal tribal tensions -
essentially around access to water - by working closely with UN and INGO partners and local
government to ensure adequate supply of water along the migration corridors. Water points
along the migration corridors were regularly monitored, checked and repaired if necessary, to
alleviate the burden of extra seasonal demand on existing facilities, due to the presence of
thousands of nomads and their cattle, and therefore lower the risk of tension around water.

Thirdly, upon UNMIS request and support, representatives from the local government and
legislative council were prompt to react and physically intervene on the scene of local disputes
to support inter-tribal dialogue and their pacific resolution. They also and certainly contributed
to calm down heated spirits and avoided little incidents to become bigger. Also, in two
occasions and according to tradition, the tribal chiefs met in the form of conferences,

  The Dinka Ngok , Southerners, and the Misseryia, Northerners are the two predominant tribes in the area. The
2009 PCA decision defined the boundaries of Abyei area as the land of the Dinka Ngok.
  The Joint Integrated Unit, JIU, is part of the CPA Security Arrangements and composed of SAF and SPLA
forces in equal numbers. JIU are the only authorized military force in Abyei area as per the CPA. Similarly, the
Joint Integrated Police Unit, JIPU, was created as part of the Road Map Agreement of June 2008, and is
composed of Northern and Southern police forces.

18/09/09                                   Nelly Sabarthes                                                    4
sponsored by the UN, to discuss grievances and agree on practical modalities to ease the
migration. Particularly, resolutions agreed by the Chiefs, a sort of ‘code of conduct’ came out
from the first meeting in December 2008, and were disseminated to local communities and
nomads. They became a reference at local level in what could and could not be done during
the migration season. A breach of one of the resolutions led to the intervention of chiefs and/or
local authorities to rectify a situation and promote good behavior.

Fourthly and finally, as the spread of false information and rumors has been regrettably
common and damaging in the past, UNMIS worked in partnership with local counterparts,
including military and police, to verify, cross-check and correct information, establish the facts
and communicate them to people. In cases of a rumor indicating a security-related or an
incident with civilians at risk, UNMIS deployed reactive military or integrated teams 8 to
verify and/or collect information. In purely security situations, UNMIS involved the SAF and
SPLA local representatives in order to get them included in the solution rather than giving
them an opportunity for division.

Besides uniting all components of UNMIS around a common strategy and giving an
illustration of how integration could work around a common project, the Abyei seasonal
migration was acknowledged by the local authorities, chiefs and communities to be the
calmest and most peaceful migration in Sudan in 2008/09. Although difficult to assess in
concrete terms the actual impact of UNMIS Migration Strategy in making the seasonal
migration smooth and peaceful, the UNMIS pro-activity at the local level probably contributed
towards it, and at least minimized the exposure of civilians to security and related risks.

2.3 Abyei PoC Contingency Planning

Given the importance of the boundary decision to the political future of the area and the
distribution of oil revenues, the reaction of the military and the political parties to the July
2009 PCA decision was unpredictable. UNMIS therefore engaged in developing a contingency
planning to mitigate the potential negative effects that the boundary decision could have on the
local situation, and prevent the resumption of armed conflict between SAF and SPLA and
affiliated militias. The contingency planning had three main aspects: political and good
offices, security and the protection of civilians, and humanitarian preparedness. This paper
only looks at the PoC part.

The contingency planning called for due, unequivocal and consensual interpretation of the
three conditions contained in the mission’s mandate and rules of engagement, in the local
context. What did ‘civilians under imminent threat’ mean in Abyei? What did ‘within military
capabilities’ mean? What did ‘without prejudice to the government of Sudan’ mean? What
was the threshold at which UNMIS will engage military? In the absence of clear DPKO policy
and guidelines, UNMIS in Abyei tried to answer these questions so as to best interpret and
implement its PoC responsibilities.

2.3.1 “Civilians under imminent threat of physical violence”

What constitutes an imminent threat of physical violence? What is the time frame in which
‘imminent’ could be anticipated? What was the threat?
The ultimate anticipated threat was a resumption of armed conflict between SAF and SPLA
with the support of or substituted by their affiliated proxies. As seen with the PoC Security
Concept, the likelihood of conflict between the two CPA parties is the highest threshold at
  Integrated teams were composed of representatives of the military, police and civilian components of UNMIS
including the Protection Officer.

18/09/09                                   Nelly Sabarthes                                                     5
which UNMIS will decide to intervene militarily to protect civilians. “Imminent” was
interpreted against a general state of tension and political & tribal polarization in which Abyei
area was prior to the PCA decision which could have easily escalated into armed conflict at
the very specific time of the decision being public. A three to four weeks period before and
after the date the public announcement, was used as time reference. Finally, ‘physical
violence’ was generally interpreted as any type of violence civilians could have been exposed
to, be generalized or individual (fighting between armed forces, violence or intimidation by
militias, isolated incidents, targeted against individuals or tribal violence): from the moment
there was a threat to life and security for civilians and/or likely displacement to be anticipated
as a consequence, the sparkle for broader conflict was considered to be there.

2.3.2 “Within capabilities”

Assessing UNMIS military capabilities was the most challenging part of the preparedness plan
with the feeling of an irreconcilable gap between actual capability on the ground and PoC
mandated responsibilities (SCR 1870). This could have easily limited the level of commitment
and engagement of the mission, and justified inaction. Generally speaking, a peacekeeping
operation rarely has adequate military capacity to uphold its protection responsibilities.
“Military capabilities” is a caveat that perfectly illustrates the gap between Security Council
mandated expectations and operational capacity on the ground, notwithstanding the lack of
willingness of troop contributing countries for military intervention and their reluctance to
permit flexibility of their deployed troops. The same applied to UNMIS. In the specific case of
Abyei, military capability at that time was extremely low and certainly inadequate compared
to the anticipated risk for renewed armed conflict between the two CPA parties. It shall be
acknowledged that a high level policy commitment from UNMIS did make the difference at a
time when international attention on Abyei was growing. Additional troops, including
manpower and artillery were negotiated with troop contributing countries and re-deployed
from other sites in Sudan, to reinforce military presence on the ground, show a preventive
display of combat power and build a credible deterrence force. The Security Council’s call for
“flexible deployment” (SCR 1870) was thus applied.

2.3.3 “Without prejudice to the Government of Sudan”

This caveat is certainly tricky and subject to several interpretations ranging from respect of
strict sovereignty and therefore a no-intervention position, to acceptance of military
intervention to either support or ultimately substitute to the Government. Protection is the
primary responsibility of the State which should take all necessary measures to ensure the
safety and security of its citizens and be the guarantor of their rights. But where is the border
line between respect of sovereignty and implementation of PoC mandate when local
authorities are weak and unable or unwilling to undertake the PoC task? For the sake of the
Abyei contingency planning, “without prejudice” was interpreted by engaging local civil,
police and military counterparts in the preparedness exercise. The police forces developed
their own contingency planning with increased security measures and so did the JIU; better
coordination and communication between the JIU and JIPU was sought, including for example
sharing radio frequency. And similarly, UNMIS encouraged the revitalization of the Civil
Administration chaired Abyei Security Committee to oversee security developments and
decide on the course of action. However, aware of limitations in capacity, resources or will to
actually implement the plans and of a highly politicized security committee, UNMIS moved
ahead by deploying a parallel robust presence on the ground in support of local capacity.
Consequently, in discussion with local government counterparts, UNMIS appeared as
supporting rather than leading, whereas in fact, UNMIS was perfectly aware of the local

18/09/09                              Nelly Sabarthes                                           6
limitations for the civil and military authorities to uphold their protection responsibilities
towards civilians and prepared in accordance.

2.3.4 PoC activities

PoC activities were classified in two categories: prevention and intervention. As a first step,
the need for comprehensive and cross- checked information was acknowledged as crucial to
identify potential triggers for conflict. A PoC Committee was established to address the
problematic and damaging spreading of rumors or false information, verify and triangulate
information, and develop a common understanding of the trends and patterns of the situation;
membership included representatives of all military, police and civilian components as well as
of the UN agencies

The pre-emptive phase of the contingency planning was initiated by identifying potential
flashpoint areas where communities could potentially be at risk, according to different
scenarios (conventional military clash, militias or tribal violence). These flashpoints were then
targeted for regular, sometimes daily, robust patrolling in order to show UN presence of force
and enhance confidence of local communities. Robust patrolling meant the display of artillery,
armed APCs and forces. Overall, the increased presence of UN military was a move welcomed
by local communities, who were in fear of renewed violence. It also sent the signal to the CPA
parties, their political and military branches that the situation was taken seriously by the UN;
the possibility for the Chapter VII clause to be activated was for the first time acknowledged
in public by the Special Representative of the Secretary General and Head of UNMIS.

The second phase was one of taking measures to protect civilians subject to violence or caught
in crossfire. Three main activities were identified and extraordinarily endorsed by UNMIS
military authorities. First, the creation of a ‘safe haven’ adjacent to UNMIS compound where
civilians unable to flee the area could be protected by peacekeepers. The haven was visibly
delimited as a weapon-free UN zone and humanitarian assistance was pre-positioned in case
civilians did seek shelter in the UN ‘safe haven’. Secondly, UNMIS was planning to ensure a
’safe corridor’ along the only North- South road to enable civilians to flee in safety. A
combination of negotiation for temporary ceasefire, patrolling and static stations along the
road was foreseen, despite awareness of a possible rupture in the chain of command of warring
forces. Thirdly and finally, the extraction of civilians caught in crossfire in town was also
foreseen for the most extreme cases upon negotiation of temporary ceasefire with parties in
conflict and access to the in-need civilians.

Fortunately, the contingency planning did not have to be activated as the PCA test passed
peacefully. However, it is worth noting that such contingency planning centered on PoC was
certainly a premiere in UNMIS history, and marked a point of no-return in the interpretation
and implementation of the chapter VII clause of the mandate.


UNMIS is coming from far in terms of implementing its PoC mandated responsibilities but
after lengthy discussions, the mission came to an agreement on the security interpretation of
these responsibilities. Abyei was certainly an interesting case to translate these responsibilities
into concrete and operational terms. However, the threshold for intervention is important to
keep in mind, and protection remains the ultimate responsibility of the State. At moment when
the situation in Southern Sudan is perilous with increasing tribal violence, UNMIS cannot
simply intervene everywhere, nor has it the capability to do so. Meanwhile, conflict prevention
must be the focus rather than ‘reaction’ to a situation: more acute situation analysis, better

18/09/09                              Nelly Sabarthes                                            7
flow of information and improved coordination within the mission should lead to a better
anticipation of situations of concern. As revolutionary as it may sound, the peacekeeping
mindset should shift from reactive to preventive.
In the meantime, with upcoming national elections in April 2010, the 2011 referendum, the
expected mass return of Dinka Ngok IDPs in 2010 and the upcoming Misseryia seasonal
migration, Abyei area continues to brew all the ingredients for potential crisis. The protection
of civilians is not a static discipline and is continuously challenged by developing situations of
concern. And the PoC history of UNMIS does not end here, and is likely to continue evolving
until at least 2011.

18/09/09                              Nelly Sabarthes                                           8

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