Protection of Civilians at a Crossroads: An international human rights superstar’s reflections on South Sudan

30 November, 2016

Yolanda Song (3L) 

A math teacher in a Protection of Civilian site in South Sudan teaching boys and girls. Photography by Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch.

 A math teacher in a Protection of Civilian site in South Sudan teaching boys and girls. Photography by Samer Muscati/Human Rights Watch.


“What is it like to be back in Canada?” 

It was a seemingly routine question, but for Georgette Gagnon it took on a whole new meaning. We spoke just after Gagnon had spent hours guiding IHRP and Munk School students through the process of a human rights investigation in Afghanistan, where she worked for five years as the UN mission’s Director of Human Rights. More recently, the “international human rights superstar,” as Munk School Professor Carmen Cheung calls her, had just returned from a UN Independent Special Investigation in Juba, South Sudan. 

After a long, thoughtful pause, Gagnon answered me. “It sounds trite, but when you come back you realize how fortunate Canadians are to live in this country and this situation—economically, politically, socially.” By contrast, an average of 3,500 people fled South Sudan every day last month due to the violence spreading like wildfire across the country. The literacy rate remains at 27%, and most of the population are subsistence farmers or cattle herders. There is “absolutely no infrastructure,” Gagnon said. “It’s a country that’s reliant on international aid. It’s got 10 million people, many of whom have only known war their whole lives.” 


Civil war in South Sudan

For most of the last half of the 20th century, the north and south of Sudan were embroiled in bitter civil conflict, resulting in the death and displacement of millions of people. A 2005 peace agreement gave rise to the South’s independence six years later, and many believed this would lead to a new beginning. These hopes were soon dashed as the country fell back into civil war in 2013, this time between government and opposition forces within South Sudan. The conflict is organized along ethnic lines, but according to Gagnon it is mainly a contest over power and access to resources. Both sides signed a ceasefire in August 2015, yet hostilities have continued. 

One of the most horrific aspects of the war is that both sides have targeted civilians based on their ethnicity and presumed loyalties. Large-scale extra-judicial killings, massive destruction of homes, and an unprecedented level of sexual violence have forced tens of thousands of internally displaced persons to seek protection at UN peacekeeping bases. This led to the formation of the Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites, a type of settlement unique to South Sudan. “They are huge, almost like small cities,” Gagnon described, “with thousands of people living in tent-like structures.” Within the sites, humanitarian agencies and INGOs provide services, including medical care, food and water distribution, and schools. What separates PoC sites from other displacement camps is that UN peacekeeping troops are mandated to provide security. 

There are six PoC sites in South Sudan, two of which are located next to the UN base in Juba and house over 27,000 civilians. In July 2016, these sites and the neighbouring UN facilities were caught in the crossfire of intense fighting as government and opposition forces fired “indiscriminately” around them, using heavy weaponry including rocket-propelled grenades and tanks. According to the Special Investigation’s report, these clashes killed two peacekeepers and at least twenty civilians over four days, and injured dozens more. The fighting was followed by weeks of increased sexual assault committed mainly by government soldiers around the PoC sites. 

About a kilometer down the road from the UN base, at a private compound called Terrain Camp, government soldiers launched another horrifying attack on UN personnel, local staff, and humanitarian aid workers. Dozens of soldiers broke into the camp, where they murdered a local journalist, physically and sexually assaulted aid workers, and carried out mock executions for four hours. The report found that, despite being mandated to protect these individuals, UN peacekeeping troops failed to respond to their repeated calls for help.


Independent Special Investigation

The July 2016 violence in Juba was met with horror and international condemnation. In August, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established an Independent Special Investigation to examine the attacks and the response of the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan’s (UNMISS). As part of this team, Gagnon travelled to Juba in September, where she interviewed victims, witnesses, UN staff, and peacekeepers. “Our report found that the UN response was inadequate and that UN peacekeepers could have done more to protect civilians, which is their mandate,” she told me. 

The investigation raised several troubling points. One of the most disturbing findings was UNMISS’s lack of preparation despite the well-known risks of renewed fighting around the PoC sites. The report stated that the Mission did not fully address a number of foreseeable situations: watchtowers were not equipped to deal with small arms fire, let alone heavy weaponry, and no contingency plans were made to respond to significant movement restrictions imposed by government forces. Second, Gagnon highlighted the “lack of coordinated command and effective leadership once the crisis started, which contributed to an inadequate response” by UNMISS. 

The report concluded that UN peacekeepers’ “risk-averse posture” seriously impaired the fulfilment of their mandate to protect civilians. According to Gagnon, “UN peacekeeping to protect civilians is at a crossroads here. There are serious concerns about the will and skill of both peacekeepers and troop-contributing countries to fully protect civilians when required.” The report emphasized that the problem was not one of “simple underperformance,” but, as Gagnon put it, “a whole mindset.” Peacekeepers appeared reluctant to intervene in attacks against civilians because they wished to avoid putting themselves in danger. For example, the report found that when UN troops occasionally conducted patrols, they only “peer[ed] out from the tiny windows” of their armoured carriers without leaving them. At least once in the months following the initial crisis, peacekeepers saw and heard a woman being assaulted just outside a PoC site and did nothing to protect her. 

These findings led the UN peacekeeping chief to establish a task force to implement the report’s recommendations. According to Gagnon, for peacekeepers protecting civilians from conflict-related violence, the challenge moving forward is in determining an “appropriate balance between a proactive, outward-looking posture—which means doing day and night patrols, getting out of vehicles, interacting with community members and local police—and ensuring that peacekeepers aren’t unduly at risk themselves.”


The future of South Sudan

As the UN’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide warns of “the potential for genocide” in South Sudan, the country’s future appears uncertain at best. Gagnon identifies the greatest continuing challenge for the UN as the South Sudanese government and opposition forces, who have “massively let down their communities.” “They are supposed to be implementing a peace agreement with huge international pressure and support, and they’re not doing it,” she said. Currently, the Security Council is attempting to put greater political pressure on the factions to implement the agreement and prevent another return to violence. “UNMISS taking a more proactive role is part of that effort,” Gagnon said.

As we spoke, I could hear the frustration and disappointment in her voice. Gagnon has worked on Sudan since 1999, when the South was still a long way from independence. “The most difficult thing is seeing that even with independence and huge amounts of international support, the government and opposition leadership are bent on fighting each other. They are more concerned with expanding their power and resource base than with the 10 million South Sudanese people trying to make a life in their own country after decades of war.” 

And yet she has not lost hope. Gagnon draws inspiration from the many South Sudanese who are “committed to making the government perform and serve the people as it should.” Seeing their efforts and the efforts of local and international NGOs in pushing back on ethnic-based violence, corruption, and abuse of power, “you really want to be supporting all of that,” she reflected. 

Back in economically, politically, socially fortunate Canada, “it’s a real struggle to get Canadians and others who may have some influence to pay attention to the political and human rights issues in places like South Sudan.” But such obstacles have never stopped Gagnon, who is constantly thinking of the people on the ground. If they haven’t given up, she said, how can we?


Interview with Georgette Gagnon

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Georgette Gagnon in a media scrum with local journalists in Kunar, Afghanistan. Photography by Fardin Waezi/United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.


Georgette Gagnon in a media scrum with local journalists in Kunar, Afghanistan. Photography by Fardin Waezi/United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.


YS: What brought you to do international human rights work?

GG: I’d been practicing at a law firm in Toronto for a few years, and I got an opportunity to go to South Africa to observe the first all-race elections in 1994. Those were the elections that saw the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as the president of South Africa. The experience was really the eye-opener. I was in South Africa for two months, witnessing people voting for the first time and seeing what a system like apartheid did to people. I decided I wanted to work to end such systems and on behalf of people who had lived through and were living through such oppression. It was transformative.


YS: You spent several years working for Human Rights Watch before you worked for the UN. How would you compare your experiences?

GG: The issues worked on are the same, whether it’s torture, attacks on civilians, civilian casualties during armed conflict, violence against women, sexual violence, or grave rights violations against children. But the institution or structure within which you’re documenting and advocating on those issues is quite different. Both structures are absolutely needed and complementary in the global fight for human rights. Human Rights Watch is an independent non-governmental research and advocacy organization. Its job is to document, highlight, expose human rights violations committed by whoever, put forward recommendations, and advocate for changes in policy or practice. HRW is not the organization trying to practically institute change on the ground with local actors day in and day out. HRW is calling for change and may have initiated change but is not generally making the change actually happen on the ground.

The UN is both documenting human rights abuses and making recommendations, and working with national counterparts and others to make change happen on the ground. The UN is there day in and day out, assisting the government, for example, to set up a national preventive mechanism on torture, or to enforce the law on elimination of violence against women. With the UN it’s often a longer-term, deeper engagement on a human rights issue over several years undertaken in a wider political and multilateral context.


YS: Given recent criticisms about international human rights work—concerns about replicating structures of colonialism and dependence, and about the imposition of Western culture—how do you see the role of an international human rights lawyer and advocate?

GG: The work is to provide, if requested and even if not requested sometimes, support to the local actors—victims, survivors, civil society, human rights activists. In some cases, they may not be able to get access to the types of information or people that the international may get, and may not be able to make public statements about human rights for security or other reasons. 

I’ve found through my work that many people in different countries and situations accept the universality of basic human rights and state obligations to respect and protect those rights. Maybe they don’t use the language of human rights as outlined in article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—“all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”—but they agree with the principles of, for example, equality among all people, equal opportunity, no discrimination, equal access to justice and equality under the law, and the prohibition of torture, whether it’s couched in a different type of language or legal structure.


YS: In your line of work, progress doesn’t always happen as fast as we’d like or even in the direction that we’d like. How do you stay motivated to do this work when you’re up against these challenges?

GG: My way of staying motivated and encouraged is to focus on the children, women and men—the victims and survivors—who are there, experiencing a daily life of war, inhumane detention, human rights abuses, lack of security, who are really struggling to survive. The international attention your human rights work might bring to them, the exposure, is very critical. It may provide some hope that the situation could change, prompt or force action to end and prevent the abuses, and keep the situation on the radar screen. The answer is in asking a person who has fled conflict or a situation of human rights abuse, why haven’t they given up?


YS: Do you have any advice for students who are interested in this field of work?

GG: If you are interested, the most important thing is to do it. Not just think about it, but to give it a try somewhere. For example, students could consider working as a UN volunteer, which you can do when you’re 26. It’s a good way to get into a UN environment for three or six months somewhere. Internships through the university or with an NGO are also good—wherever you can go—a refugee camp, developing country, conflict-affected area.  The point is you need to try it to see if you can do it. Don’t just sit in university and think, “Oh, I’d like to do that.” There are many forms of doing human rights work. But in my experience, the real field work is where it’s at and it’s to be tried. And then you can see if human rights work is for you.