Humanitarian Intervention in South Sudan (UNSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in May 2014. Rival South Sudanese factions have fought a civil war since the end of 2013, causing mass displacements, tens of thousands of deaths, and widespread hunger. Negotiations between the leaders of these factions—President Salva Kiir and rebel commander and former Vice President Riek Machar—are stalled, and South Sudan’s dry season approaches, signaling intensified fighting and a humanitarian crisis of potentially historic proportions. Already, about two million South Sudanese have been driven from their homes, and food shortages and health needs have grown acute. Observers fear an eventual famine. Although a United Nations peacekeeping mission is present in South Sudan, the response to the crisis has been criticized as being ineffective. Meanwhile, South Sudanese civilians are suffering. Accordingly, the president of the UN Security Council has called a meeting to address the ongoing situation: to consider how to bolster existing peacekeeping operations, what additional steps to take to establish peace, and whether to authorize unilateral or multilateral humanitarian interventions by UN member states.

Decision Point

South Sudan is in its fifth month of civil war. So far, all attempts to reach a ceasefire have quickly failed. Recent reports suggest the war reached a new level of violence after South Sudanese opposition forces took control of the northern city of Bentiu and killed hundreds of civilians there. It seems likely that fighting will continue to escalate, subjecting civilians to more violence and possibly even leading to genocide. At the same time, drought, destruction, and the loss of the agricultural workforce will reduce South Sudan’s already scarce food supplies. The result is predicted to be a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions. 

In this context, the United Nations faces significant pressure to act. Although the Security Council has passed a number of resolutions concerning the civil war and reinforced existing UN peacekeeping forces on the ground in South Sudan, analysts are questioning whether the UN response is sufficient to bring peace. Meanwhile, South Sudanese civilians are suffering. Accordingly, the president of the Security Council has called a meeting to address the ongoing situation: to consider how to further bolster existing peacekeeping operations, what additional steps to take to establish peace, and whether to authorize unilateral or multilateral humanitarian interventions by UN member states.

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the UN Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the history of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.
  • Students will consider if the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Doctrine should apply to the situation in South Sudan and, if so, the extent to which it requires a response from the UN Security Council.
  • Students will evaluate the options available to the UN Security Council to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in South Sudan.

Concepts and Issues


  • Humanitarian intervention
  • Responsibility to protect
  • Weak states
  • Peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and peacemaking
  • Civil war
  • Multilateralism
  • Peace negotiations


  • Costs, benefits, and risks of humanitarian interventions
  • Debates surrounding R2P
  • Underdevelopment and its effects
  • Impact of the resource curse
  • U.S. role in South Sudanese independence and corresponding U.S. interests

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

The United Nations has maintained a significant presence in Sudan and South Sudan throughout the twenty-first century. Shortly after the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, the UN Security Council authorized a peacekeeping mission to support the implementation of the agreement and provide humanitarian assistance. After South Sudan gained independence in 2011, the United Nations established the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to support the new country in establishing peace and security. When civil war broke out in 2013, UNMISS shifted its focus to prioritizing the protection of civilians. 

The UNMISS mandate has been extended through March 2020 and will include a troop ceiling of seventeen thousand and a police ceiling of 2,101 personnel. In a resolution issued in March 2019, the UN Security Council stated that the mandate of UNMISS was 

  • protecting civilians under threat of physical violence, 
  • creating conditions conducive to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, 
  • monitoring and investigating human rights, and 
  • supporting the implementation of the peace process. 

Since its establishment, the mission has faced harsh criticism for failing to implement its mandate; one report detailed several instances of peacekeepers abandoning their posts and failing to protect civilians from danger. In response to some of these criticisms, the UNMISS commander was fired in November 2016. 

The top priority for the UN Security Council in this situation is preventing atrocities and reducing the violence and loss of life in South Sudan. Many observers have criticized the United Nations for its responses to past humanitarian crises, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide or the 1995 genocide in Bosnia, arguing that the peacekeeping forces in those areas were mismanaged and should have done more to prevent atrocities. In response, the United Nations adopted the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P), which established a norm for robust international intervention in cases of crimes against humanity or genocides that a national government cannot or will not stop. The norm is nonbinding—meaning that member states are not legally required to abide by it—and its application to specific situations is often disputed

Policy Options

As the Security Council deliberates how to respond to the recent resurgence of violence in South Sudan, member states will need to balance the desire for a timely response to a crisis with the need to secure support from as many council members as possible, especially permanent members. The Security Council has three main options to consider as it formulates a response to the crisis.

Call for Negotiations

The Security Council could call on the South Sudanese government and rebel leaders to restart peace negotiations. They could restart with the help of UN mediators or through the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, which has facilitated past negotiations. A call for negotiations offers a way to respond quickly to the situation at hand, perhaps while the United Nations continues to debate other measures. However, there is no guarantee that the warring parties will respond to such a call, and if they do, Security Council members will need to consider what, if any, measures they can take to prevent the negotiations from breaking down as previous ones have. This is the least ambitious option—essentially a continuation of the status quo. It is also the most likely to garner consensus among member states. Should calling for negotiations be ineffective, however, the United Nations could be criticized for inaction and negligence.

Strengthen the Existing Peacekeeping Mission 

Member states could decide to bolster the effectiveness of existing peacekeeping operations by requesting that member states provide additional troops and resources—heavy military materiel such as helicopters and armored tanks—to UNMISS. This option would entail adopting a resolution raising the UNMISS force levels beyond the existing ceiling, possibly improving the capability of forces to protect civilians and establish reliable access to humanitarian aid. 

The Security Council could also seek to expand the mandate of UNMISS beyond the protection of civilians, perhaps by authorizing peacekeepers to use force to ensure access to humanitarian aid entering the country or to facilitate the voluntary return of displaced persons. Expanding the mandate would allow UNMISS to address the conflict while helping to relieve human suffering. Moreover, this option falls under the umbrella of existing operations and is therefore more likely to pass if voted on by Security Council member states.

Deploying additional peacekeepers or expanding the mission mandate could increase UNMISS’s abilities to improve conditions in South Sudan, but the option comes with significant costs and risks. UN member states could be reluctant to put their military personnel at risk by contributing additional forces to the mission. Moreover, greater numbers do not guarantee that UNMISS will be better able to achieve its goals. Finally, the government of South Sudan may not agree to an expanded UNMISS mandate; many South Sudanese leaders are adamantly opposed to it.

Call for Military Intervention

In the most extreme option, the Security Council could issue a resolution declaring an immediate cease-fire and calling for military intervention, either by multinational forces such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or by regional organizations such as the African Union. Such an intervention would be considered legitimate under the Security Council resolution. The resolution would be issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and presumably under the auspices of the R2P doctrine.
Similar to Resolution 1973, which established the legal basis for intervention in Libya in 2011, this option would authorize UN member states to use all means necessary short of foreign occupation to establish a no-fly zone and protect civilians. The resolution could also impose additional stipulations, such as an arms embargo, travel bans on South Sudanese nationals, and a freezing of assets owned by South Sudanese authorities. Such an intervention would avoid the risks and costs of strengthening UNMISS forces while promising better-trained and better-supplied forces that can establish peace and ensure access to humanitarian aid more effectively. If Security Council members choose this option, they will also have to consider the end goals of any military action: will the intervention be considered a success if it leads to the cessation of hostilities, or is the intent to establish a new government or an international trusteeship

This option could be the most effective at changing conditions on the ground in South Sudan but would also be the most difficult to implement. First, for such an operation to be successful, several countries would need to express willingness to intervene in South Sudan. Even if countries were willing, such a measure would need to go through the Security Council, each of whose veto-wielding permanent members has blocked similar resolutions in the past. Finally, there is no guarantee that a military intervention will be successful or popular. The 2011 intervention by NATO-led forces in Libya was widely considered a failure and drew significant criticisms from UN member states, including assertions that the UN mandate was vague, the military planning incoherent, and the underlying motivations sinister. As of 2019—eight years after the intervention—Libya is ruled by competing governments, overrun with armed groups, and home to more than seven hundred thousand internally displaced people.