In July, armed United Nations peacekeepers stood by in South Sudan’s capital while women were raped mere meters away. Blue-helmets retreated from their positions, abandoning the civilians they were sent to protect, so concluded the UN itself. This week, the Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded to these findings by firing the commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan at the time. While a step towards increased accountability, the firing of one commander alone won’t be a panacea to the mission’s shortcomings.
Ban’s decision follows the release of a new independent inquiry, which paints a disturbing picture of the UN’s response to violent clashes in which scores of civilians were killed in the capital Juba in July. More than 200 women – including expatriate aid workers – were raped and gang raped during and after the attacks. Two peacekeepers were killed by shells fired near the base. Throughout the mayhem, UN forces did little to respond and help those in danger, despite a clear mandate allowing them to use lethal force to protect civilians.
Unfortunately, the July incident was not unique. In 2013, 20 civilians and 2 peacekeepers died in an attack by armed Lou Nuer youth on a UN base sheltering Dinka civilians in the town of Akobo. Then in 2014, peacekeepers were accused of standing by during a government attack on a UN base sheltering 5,000 internally displaced people in the eastern town of Bor where more than 50 civilians were killed. Although the UN authorized an inquiry into the incident, the results were never made public. In February 2016, government forces killed more than 30 civilians in an attack on a UN base in Malakal where people were sheltering. Peacekeepers were slow to react, allowing large segments of the camp to be burned to ash.
A UN investigation into the peacekeepers’ failings in Malakal, published in June, pointed to a lack of training, a failure of unified command, and a gap in leadership. The latest report on the mission’s failures in July repeats the same suggestions - almost verbatim.While the attackers bear the primary responsible for these crimes against civilians in Akobo, Bor, Malakal and Juba, it’s clear a risk-averse culture within the peacekeeping mission is emboldening perpetrators.
United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) peacekeepers need to exit their bases and armored vehicles to better identify threats to civilian lives and prevent rapes on their doorstep. But that alone won’t solve the problem. The mission also needs to make the most out of its civilian component to improve its early warning capacities and political engagement with the parties on the ground. The UN needs to learn from its past mistakes, reassert itself and bring the protection of civilians front and center.