Hopes were high when South Sudan gained independence following a referendum in 2011. Conflict over territory and oil reserves sparked a war with Sudan soon after, however, and in 2013 a civil war erupted following a political power struggle. Inter-ethnic clashes have created over 1,500,000 reugees of which around 400,000 have sought shelter in neighbouring Kenya, Sudan and Uganda.
Immediately following South Sudan’s indepence, the UN Security Council established a peacekeeping mission, UNMISS, whose goal was to consolidate peace and help the country develop.
But the civil war has laid waste to the nascent country’s political system, making state building an impossibility. In May the UN responded to the worsening situation and altered UNMISS’s mandate to include the protection of civilians, monitoring human rights and supporting the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Veteran Danish diplomat Ellen Margrethe Løj is now leading the mission, following her appintment in July. Løj has served as the Danish ambassador to the UN, Israel and the Czech Republic and led the UN mission in Liberia between 2008 and 2011.
“Liberia was very different,” Løj says over the phone from northern Jutland where she is holidaying with her family. “The fighting was over and a peace agreement was in place. But we had to respond to the impact of the 200,000 refugees that had fled to the country following fighting in neighbouring Ivory Coast, bringing with them weapons.”
She added that the 2011 elections in Liberia were also particularly challenging.
“If the mission has a mandate to promote nation and state building then you become closely involved with the government, but you have to remain impartial when it comes to the different political parties. It’s a difficult balancing act,” Løj says.
UNMISS is composed of around 12,500 military personell and 1,300 civilian police and technical specialists. Their job is to help maintain peace and provide relief to the five million people who are dependent on international aid.
“South Sudan is experiencing a dire humanitarian situation. Millions of people risk starvation and there are thousands of internally displaced people,” says Løj, adding that she isn’t an expert on the country’s political situation – yet.
“I will have to learn about it when I arrive. For peace-keeping missions to succeed we need to make sure we have our own house in order first. Peace-keeping missions have military, civilian and police components, and they all need to pull together.”
Despite her experience, Løj is realistic about UNMISS’s chances of securing peace in the region.
“The mission in South Sudan is very complex and difficult. When people congratulate me on the new position I tell them not to. It will be tough. Next to impossible. The best I can do is try.” M