OPINION – In 2013, thousands of people from different ethnic groups fled to United Nations bases in fear for their lives when violence erupted across South Sudan. Others followed during further violence in 2016. The UN opened its gates to give them sanctuary in what are now known as Protection of Civilian (POC) sites. Many lives were saved as a result.
Seven years later, the situation has changed significantly. There is a peace agreement and ceasefire. Political violence has reduced significantly, although, sadly, there is still intercommunal violence in some places. A new Government has been formed and includes the opposition leader Dr. Riek Machar as the country’s First Vice President. POC site residents now move freely between the camps and towns to go to school and work, and to shop in the market. While they initially sought protection, most POC residents tell us today that they stay to access food, education, and health care.
In light of this, the UN began careful planning almost a year ago, after formally reporting to the UN Security Council, to transition POC sites under UN protection to conventional camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Security assessments found that the external threat to POCs that existed seven years ago no longer exists today. As a result, UNMISS began withdrawing its troops and police from the Bor and Wau POC sites, and this process will likely continue at other camps in the weeks ahead.
Importantly, freeing up troops that were occupied at the POCs means they can be deployed to hotspots where people’s lives are in immediate danger. So, when communities in Jonglei, Romich, Tonj, or Lobonok tell us they are afraid for their lives, we will have peacekeepers available to set up temporary bases in these areas to deter violence. Our responsibility is to protect those who need us most, not to maintain troops patrolling camps where there is no threat.
The POC transition process involves two steps. First is the gradual withdrawal of our forces from the sites. Second is re-designating the sites so they come under the sovereign control of South Sudan, not the UN. Nobody will be pushed out or asked to leave when this transition occurs. Humanitarian services will continue. The sites will just be normal IDP camps like dozens of others across the country.
The South Sudan National Police Service will be responsible for law and order, like everywhere else in the country. UN police officers work closely with the SSNPS to help build their capacity, often sharing premises. Criminal activity in the POCs will be reported to local police for investigation. The government will be primarily responsible to help residents in the new IDP camps gradually return to their homes, find them land to settle, or return houses that illegal squatters are occupying.
As you know, the Transitional Government of South Sudan has primary responsibility for protecting all civilians, including those in the new IDP sites. Where this protection is missing, UNMISS has a clear mandate to protect civilians and intervene. It is important to stress that the newly named IDP camps will not be closed, nor will people be forced to leave. Instead, it’s my expectation that, over time, genuine planning between the government supported by humanitarian partners will lead to the safe and voluntary return or relocation of many civilians living in the former POC sites.
In a new report to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General António Guterres endorses the efforts of UNMISS to adjust its approach to POCs. He says it allows UNMISS to be more efficient and provide protection to communities beyond POC sites by redeploying forces and expanding its patrols to places in real need through a more mobile and nimble posture.
POC sites are not a long-term solution. They are crowded, unhygienic places for raising children. There is no doubt many families would prefer to go back to their own homes if schools and clinics were available there. UNMISS has a clear mandate to protect those threatened by violence and in real need. We must deploy to where the risks to people are greatest. If we don’t, we are not fulfilling our mandate.
The author is the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for South Sudan and head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
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