South Sudan peacekeepers overwhelmed


JUBA — As the death toll rises from South Sudan’s spiraling political and ethnic conflict, the ability of the United Nations to enforce its peacekeeping mandate in the country is coming under increased scrutiny.


Last week, UN under secretary-general for peacekeeping Hervé Ladsous told reporters that the toll well exceeded 1 000 and reiterated that “the situation in terms of violations of human rights remains terribly critical.”

The next day, the International Crisis Group released its own estimates that put the figure at up to 10 000.

Yet since the deaths of two Indian peacekeepers during a December 19 attack by Nuer militia on an UNMISS base in Jonglei State, the UN has engaged militarily neither the loose coalition of rebel forces led by former vice-president Riek Machar nor government SPLA troops fighting for President Salva Kiir.

Vastly outnumbered by combatants, peacekeepers have been directed to protect UNMISS compounds where non-governmental organisations and UN’s humanitarian agency, OCHA, have struggled to provide for upwards of 60 000 displaced South Sudanese who have sought shelter.

“We cannot protect those people from being overrun while at the same time doing patrolling in an area the size of France,” said Kieran Dwyer, chief of public affairs at the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO).

As fighting raged and the government appeared to retake the northern city of Bentiu on Friday, Mongolian peacekeepers remained near the city’s compound, where 9 000 residents had taken refuge.

“It’s not our job to stand in the way of the anti-government forces fighting the pro-government forces,” Dwyer told IPS.

Dwyer says UNMISS utilises local channels to inform combatants of the location of civilians and threatens them with accountability should they attack, but he admits peacekeepers themselves are fearful of being overwhelmed and killed and even of reprisal attacks within UNMISS camps if they were to engage one side or the other in a firefight.

That state of affairs means little stands in the way of potential human rights violators, says Cameron Hudson, director of policy at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and former director for African Affairs at the National Security Council.

“You can’t do peacekeeping with the mentality that you accept zero casualties,” Hudson told IPS. “If that’s how you enter into these missions, they will never be fully successful and carry out their mission mandates.”

Fighting began on December 15 when Nuer and Dinka factions of the SPLA skirmished in the capital. President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, immediately ordered the arrest of 11 high-profile opposition leaders and accused Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup, a charge Macher has denied. Despite international scepticism of Kiir’s account, Machar fled Juba and took command of rebels.

The rebellion has displaced 400 000 people and pushed unknown numbers into the bush where they remain unreachable by humanitarian agencies and peacekeepers.

The fate of those who fled their homes but didn’t make it to UN compounds lingers as a glaring question that neither the UN nor its critics appear capable of answering.

For purposes of negotiations in Addis Ababa, Riek Machar represents the myriad groups in open rebellion against the South Sudanese State. But many of the militias and warlords who have seized land in the past month have but loose ties to the Nuer leader.

There is a history in South Sudan of brokering ceasefires with smaller rebel groups by promising their commanders positions in government – a process that incentivises taking up arms.

While Machar’s aims remain uncertain, groups he claims to direct could have minor goals in mind. Machar’s communication channels with these groups are vague and just as they could lay down their arms before Machar’s ex-SPLA regiments, they could continue fighting after a peace agreement should the accord not meet their own ambitions.

The fighting has roots in a political battle that’s been brewing since independence in 2011 and became tenser after Machar was sacked by Kiir in July of 2013. Opposition to Kiir’s increasingly authoritarian moves cut across ethnic lines, drawing the widow and son of SPLA founder John Garang – a Dinka – to Machar’s side, at least politically.

Graft and corruption in the government and the country’s oil sector – exports account for 98% of State revenue – has been rampant since independence.

Civil society leaders decry a culture of impunity among dishonest politicians. In one of the world’s poorest countries, having a place in any government is viewed as a ticket to riches.

A ceasefire isn’t likely to address endemic roadblocks that the international community is loath to find solutions to.

The violence comes as the UN unveils Rights Up Front,” its new genocide prevention initiative – an attempt to address failures to avoid civilian deaths in past conflicts in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka.

Though it remains unclear how many civilians have perished in South Sudan, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in December reported mass graves had been found in Juba and Bentiu and cited “extrajudicial killings” and “the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity.” Observers believe more will be uncovered.

“It is irrefutable, and needs repeating, that serious human rights violations are the best early warning of impending atrocities,” said deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson, speaking before the general assembly on “Rights Up Front.”

But in South Sudan, UNMISS has been tentative.

“They don’t have that many forces on the ground,” said EJ Hogendoorn, deputy programme director for Africa at the Crisis Group. “They also obviously have significant logistic challenges in terms of moving around safely.”

Still, in a Christmas Eve letter to the UN secretary general, Crisis Group President and CEO Louise Arbour wrote that the UN needed to do more to ensure the safety of civilians.


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