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How effective is policing in protecting civilians in peace operations?
5 Mar 2024
Research Report
By: Meressa Kahsu Dessu, Dawit Yohannes and Charles T Hunt

How effective is policing in protecting civilians in peace operations?
Lessons from the UN Mission in South Sudan

Most contemporary multidimensional peace operations prioritise the protection of civilians (PoC) as one of their primary mandates. This is expected as current conflicts and crises are increasingly marked by high civilian casualties, emanating not least from the deliberate targeting of civilians and the blurred distinction between combatants and non-combatants.

As a key element of multidimensional peace operations, the United Nations (UN) Police have assumed diverse roles in implementing the mandate of such missions. Key decision-making entities such as the UN Security Council (UNSC) have increasingly acknowledged such roles. This can be illustrated by the UNSC’s resolution that recognises the police’s ‘invaluable contribution to peacekeeping, post-conflict peacebuilding, security, the rule of law, and the creation of a basis for development.’1 However, the evolving roles of the police have not matched with studies on its effectiveness in mandate implementation, particularly in PoC.

This monograph contributes to debates around the role and effectiveness of  policing in PoC based on the lessons from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The study combines two overarching debates: the effectiveness of peace operations and the role of policing in PoC. While the mission was established in 2011, this monograph pays particular attention since 2014, following the prioritisation of the PoC mandate. The analysis broadly focuses on the effectiveness of different structures of mission headquarters and Field Offices, with a special emphasis on policing at PoC Sites.

As one of its key findings, the study recognises the mixed record of the UNMISS police in fulfilling the mission’s PoC mandate. The police component played key roles in supporting the mission to prevent protection challenges from worsening in the face of recurrent crime, violence and conflicts.

Policing at PoC Sites has been a key mechanism of enabling shelter for over 200 000 civilians fleeing from physical attacks by providing them with protection and ensuring their safety. Other contributions include monitoring and reporting human rights violations, and influencing and working more proactively in the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). They also include providing technical and logistical support to the South Sudan National Police Service (SSNPS) to play its statutory roles in protecting civilians in the country, especially since 2019.

The study observes that the mission’s overall effectiveness has been undermined by critical constraints such as the complex and dynamic political and security environment, capacity limitations, and coordination challenges.

The monograph analyses the effectiveness of the UN Police in UNMISS following the three-tiered operational concept for PoC relating to: protection through engagement and dialogue; providing physical protection; and, creating a protective environment. Key criteria applied to assess effectiveness include capacity or ability to implement its protection mandate, inclusion of gender perspective, and the overall outcome or results within the framework of the three-tiered PoC approach.

Protection through engagement and dialogue

There was a dire need to protect civilians against threats and human rights abuses in South Sudan following the outbreak of civil war in late 2013. One mechanism to address the problems related to the PoC has been engagement and dialogue. This has happened particularly through information gathering and analysis, frequent engagements with the SSNPS and the local communities, and collaborating with other mission components to provide regular monitoring and reporting of human rights violations. The UN Police have also applied a gender-responsive approach of policing and established a special SGBV team to foster protection. This has helped prevent the worsening of key protection problems in the face of South Sudan’s unresolved sources of insecurity. The UN Police’s effectiveness has been constrained in this regard due to political and security dynamics emerging from ongoing security issues and capacity constraints to fulfil the mission’s mandates, such as adequately supporting the SSNPS. These include human, financial, and logistical challenges.

Providing physical protection

The provision of physical protection is another key mechanism that has helped save hundreds of thousands of civilians’ lives. Following the outbreak of civil war in late 2013, UNMISS established PoC Sites in seven locations within or close to the mission’s bases and provided sanctuary to vulnerable civilians facing imminent threats of physical violence. The PoC Sites have sheltered as many as 200 000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) at times.

The UN Police were responsible for policing the PoC Sites in attempts to prevent, deter and respond to crimes and violence, for example. As part of providing physical protection and engagement, the UN Police made efforts to play a proactive role in deterring violent acts by armed criminal groups through gathering and analysing crime intelligence, community policing engagements, and regular cordon and search operations.

The UN Police used their comparative advantages, emanating from their legal jurisdiction in the PoC Sites and given their non-military character, to partner and engage with the IDPs and local law enforcement institutions, such as the SSNPS. The fairly good representation of female police officers was another comparative advantage of the UN Police in South Sudan in providing civilians with physical protection.

There was a dire need to protect civilians against threats and human rights abuses in South Sudan following the outbreak of civil war in 2013 At the same time, the mission was criticised for failing to protect civilians from armed attacks, including at the PoC Sites between 2014 and 2016. This showed the limited effectiveness of the police due to capacity limitations, including not enough formed police units, and blurred distinction between civilians and combatants at the PoC Sites.

Creating a protective environment

The UN Police in South Sudan played essential but temporally variable roles in creating a protective environment for civilians. They increased high-visibility confidence- and trust-building patrols that better protect IDPs through a more secure environment, prevent crime, deter violence, and restore confidence. They expanded daily colocation at various police stations and posts, which included mentoring and advising SSNPS officers. They also demonstrated some level of effectiveness in building and developing the capacities of the SSNPS, including with respect to gender mainstreaming throughout the organisation. The SSNPS’s structural and institutional limitations and the broader security environment affected the UN Police’s efforts to create a protective environment for civilians.


Aiming to address some of the challenges and enhance the effectiveness of the UN Police in meeting their mandated PoC functions, the study offers recommendations to be considered by the UNSC, UN Police, UNMISS, and other concerned actors.

These include:

  • Including security sector reform in the UN Police mandate;
  • Establishing a mission-wide integrated information- and intelligence-gathering and analysis system;
  • Improving coordination between the UN mission and external stakeholders and partners supporting the SSNPS;
  • Increasing the ceiling for the UN Police officers in the mission;
  • Improving organisational learning and building a repository of institutional memory; and
  • Enhancing the training and capacity-building and development modality.

Publication Information

Author: Meressa Kahsu Dessu, Dawit Yohannes and Charles T Hunt
Partner: ISS
Year: 2024

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