UN says response to violence in its South Sudan camp marred by confusion

South Suda

The Protection of Civilians site in Malakal, pictured on 26 February, after the attack in which 30 people were killed. A large part of the site was burned to the ground. Photograph: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty

UN presents findings of investigation into attack on Malakal base to the security council, as an MSF report strongly condemns peacekeepers’ response

Confusion about the rules of engagement marred the ability of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) to protect civilians at its compound earlier this year, it has emerged.

In a note to correspondents, the UN said on Tuesday evening that it had completed its investigation into an attack on its protection of civilians site (PoC) in Malakal on 17-18 February, which claimed the lives of at least 30 displaced people and injured a further 123.

The findings are to be presented to the security council on Wednesday, but it is unclear whether they will be made public.

The UN’s announcement comes as the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) released the findings of its own investigation, strongly condemning Unmiss for its response to the incident.

“By not ensuring that adequate preventive measures were taken, failing to act to stop the violence in a timely manner and actively blocking the IDPs [internally displaced people] from reaching safety during a large part of the emergency, Unmiss effectively failed to protect the civilians it is mandated by the UN security council to protect,” said the MSF report.

Unmiss first opened its gates to people fleeing when conflict erupted in South Sudan in December 2013. After almost two years of often ethnically motivated fighting, a peace deal was signed in August 2015, but many PoC residents have not been confident that it is safe to return home amid regular ceasefire violations and mounting food insecurity across the country. By January, six Unmiss bases around the country were sheltering more than 200,000 IDPs.

The incident has raised broader questions about the feasibility of the PoCs, an unprecedented concept in peacekeeping operations. Over the years, the sites have come to resemble semi-permanent settlements, complete with markets, clinics and rising criminality.

While UN officials say the PoCs have helped save many thousands of lives, members of the humanitarian community fear they have turned into pockets of insecurity and easy targets for armed groups, who may have become emboldened by the UN’s reluctance to use force.

“The attack on Malakal PoC again raises concerns about armed actors’ respect for the camps’ sanctity and about Unmiss’s ability to provide robust protection,” said Matt Wells, senior advisor on peacekeeping at Center for Civilians in Conflict, an organisation that conducted its own investigation into the incident.

“How much can we be expected to protect 200,000 people in a country that is at war?” asked one UN official in South Sudan, who didn’t want to be named. There was a fear, the official said, that use of force against the government’s own soldiers could quickly escalate.

UN security officials and humanitarian agencies in Malakal claimed that the 1,200 soldiers based there – from India, Rwanda and Ethiopia – could have done more. Members of the Indian battalion refused to deploy troops or heavy armour to the area of fighting, while Rwandan peacekeepers insisted on written approval before acting. Once the Rwandans deployed, the attackers were repelled within a matter of minutes. The Ethiopians, one security official claimed, slept through the entire incident.

“The Rwandans were good when led, the Ethiopians were completely absent and the Indians were a disgrace,” the official in Malakal summarised.

Humanitarians have pressed for accountability of peacekeeping troops. “The UN needs to release far more about these investigations’ findings, to provide greater transparency about who was responsible for the violence and why the peacekeepers’ response was slow and ineffective,” said Wells. “There needs to be accountability for any peacekeeping unit that failed to perform.”

The UN now wants to “review the concept of protection of civilians sites” as part of the recommendations put forward by the investigation, which could pave the way for the disbandment of the PoCs. Since the beginning of the year, population in the sites declined by 21%, and is currently at just under 160,000.

Earlier this year, Unmiss angered some NGOs by announcing resettlements from the Bor PoC site. “While humanitarians are eager to support solutions for displaced persons, these processes are extremely complex and need to be managed in a delicate, transparent fashion. Supporting returns without first agreeing on a common strategy or conducting a risk assessment is irresponsible,” said an aid worker who didn’t want to be named.

Unmiss has maintained that it will only facilitate returns that are safe and voluntary-Guardian

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About Nelly Niyonzima

For Africa, International Relations, Geopolitical Trends and Strategic Issues.
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