Civilian Protection in South Sudan
02 April 2019

Understanding Protection of Civilians in South Sudan

In her PhD thesis, “International Organizations in the Crosshairs: Protecting Civilians in South Sudan”, Hannah Dönges aims to understand the protection of civilians in the rather understudied setting of the armed conflicts in South Sudan and generate a policy-relevant framework that grasps the agency of international organisations.

How did you come to choose your research topic?
Since the end of the Cold War, the number of UN peacekeeping operations has sharply risen, and since 1999 they have been tasked to fulfil mandates for the protection of civilians in armed conflict (POC). Having previously researched humanitarian interventions and the responsibility to protect, I was interested in what this more practical-oriented mandate meant and how it differed. In autumn 2012, I was working with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and there I asked several staff members how POC was defined. Answers, however, varied and were much less straightforward than I had imagined. I was pointed to a book commissioned by DPKO and the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). On the first pages, despite the outlined prominence of POC in UN peacekeeping mandates, the DPKO’s “POC bible” – as peacekeeping staff referred to it – finds that the “chain of events to support protection of civilians – from the earliest planning, to Security Council mandates, to the implementation of mandates by peacekeeping missions in the field – is broken”. Later, working in Nairobi for an organisation with humanitarian roots, I was tasked to write up a POC component for a dialogue process. My boss was furious that I had included references to protection of civilians with military means and by armed forces – but the notion of protection from an imminent physical threat is at the core of the peacekeeping notions of POC. I then knew I was onto a very interesting subject, and decided to pursue my PhD aiming to understand the tensions at the core of defining POC. 

Can you describe your thesis and its major findings? 
My thesis studies POC by focusing on international organisations (IOs) in South Sudan. The newest UN member state is home to one of the biggest UN peacekeeping operations and humanitarian aid interventions facing a man-made protection crisis and the first country where POC sites (UN peacekeeping bases, where hundreds of thousands of people are seeking protection from armed violence) provide uniquely suited microcosms for the study of protection across actors. While POC mandates are now one of the main goals of the international community, little research addresses IOs’ protection logics aiming to fulfil this mandate.

Building on 132 interviews I conducted at headquarter and field level in South Sudan, I argue that POC is structured along two main arenas of political struggle: firstly, IOs compete in an issue area field of protection for authority and resources, and, secondly, IO staff fight to determine “good” and “bad” protection efforts according to their respective professional fields (humanitarian, military, civilian UN and police).

Based on a multi-actor and multi-level perspective, my thesis is divided in three analytical parts. First, in “Macrocosms of Violence and Protection” it describes the historical roots of the protection field up to the current contestation of using force to protect. The “mesocosm” zooms in on the particular protection dynamics in South Sudan and examines the organisational logics of protection of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Missions in South Sudan and UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Microcosms”, finally, focuses on the four main POC sites in South Sudan and shows that protection outcomes on the ground are contingent on the ability to work across the different organisational protection logics. This makes an understanding across professional fields crucial to protection outcomes.

Through this cosmos framework, the thesis offers both a methodological and theoretical contribution to the IR literature and presents a fine-grained analysis of IO agency.

What is the policy relevance of your thesis beyond the case of South Sudan? 
The chapters on South Sudan – and the repeating interdependence between aid and war – continue to be ever more relevant with the ongoing dynamics of armed violence in South Sudan, and do provide a lens that also contextualises the current peace negotiations. Novel in my research is the academic comparison of POC sites. The study of POC sites as microcosms shows that individual leadership and agency are important factors in determining protection outcomes, and hence the choice of personnel that is responsible for traversing between the different field lines is crucial. In staff recruiting, this means that these positions should be carefully filled, ideally with personnel experienced across professional fields. This is important both at the mission head level, but also at the field level and at the working level within clusters/communication focal points for the organisations. While part of the different outcomes I observed may be attributed to the different personalities as well as different troop-contributing countries on the bases, my interview research as well as reports strongly suggest that the communication between the different fields is one of the most essential factors to protection outcomes. Here, individual agency matters significantly in terms of translating between the different fields. The contrast between two of my subnational case studies (Bentiu and Malakal) shows the use of individuals “literate” in the different professional fields and IO organisational logics of protection. The microcosm findings may be overshadowed by the larger conflict dynamics in South Sudan and not lend themselves to determining peacekeeping successes and failures, but they do give important insights for ways coordination works and can be ameliorated.

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Hannah Elena Dönges defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in October 2018. Professor Stephanie Hofmann presided the committee, which included Professor Keith Krause, thesis director, and Professor Michael Barnett, from the Department of Political Science at Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, The George Washington University, USA.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Dönges, Hannah Elena. “International Organizations in the Crosshairs: Protecting Civilians in South Sudan.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2019.

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Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Illustration: Women on the brim on the POC site in Bentiu, South Sudan, May 2016. © Hannah Elena Dönges.