Following the outbreak of violence in December 2013, tens of thousands—and eventually hundreds of thousands—of internally displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge at UN bases in South Sudan. These sites came to be referred to as Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites, guarded by forces from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) under a robust PoC mandate. In response, many international humanitarian actors, ranging from UN agencies to NGOs, sought to live and work ‘inside the wire’ of the PoC sites as well. They wanted to be close to the war-affected populations they serve, and were also seeking to protect their own staff from violent attacks. As a general rule, global civil-military guidance dissuades humanitarian actors from co-locating with military actors in conflict settings. In recognition of the exceptional circumstances, however, the UN Humanitarian Country Team in South Sudan approved the temporary use of military force protection by humanitarian actors; this has enabled them to reside in the sites.
South Sudan’s PoC sites have generated considerable interest from policymakers and scholars alike, some of whom have drawn attention (pp. 39-40) to the complex relationships of diverse international actors operating in the sites. What is missing at this juncture, from a legal perspective, is a robust account of the challenges that co-location in the sites poses for the civilian-combatant distinction in international humanitarian law (IHL). Drawing on field research conducted in South Sudan in 2015, this article highlights one slice of the international community where interactions are shaped by struggles over ‘distinction’: the humanitarian-peacekeeper relationship.
As one UN civilian actor notes, the PoC sites in South Sudan are spaces where the UN mission ‘comes closest’ to humanitarian actors. Another civilian member of UNMISS surmises, ‘I’ve never seen another example where humanitarians and UNMISS work so closely’. This issue of physical proximity is also flagged by a humanitarian NGO actor living in one of the PoC sites. He is concerned that the mere fact of his presence in the site undermines any efforts his organization might make with regard to distinction from UNMISS. An individual working for a different humanitarian NGO picks up this thread. He explains that co-locating with UN military forces leads ‘fiercely independent’ humanitarian NGOs to fear that they are compromising the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, and impartiality. It is adhering to these principles, he explains, that helps humanitarian actors to demonstrate they are distinct.
It is apparent that the attempt to safeguard distinction from UN military actors is not always, or only, about compliance with international law. Much of the time, humanitarian NGOs are also hoping to influence local perceptions. One component of this perceptions work involves the attempt to secure the trust and acceptance of the war-affected populations they seek to serve. As one humanitarian actor explains, it is local beneficiaries who matter most; the ‘element of distinction is purely from their perspective’. Continue reading