What Next for UN Peacekeeping in South Sudan?

By Lauren Spink, Program Officer, Africa and Peacekeeping

When violence between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those allied with former Vice President Riek Machar broke out in July in Juba, South Sudan, the UN mission there, along with thousands of civilians, was caught in the crossfire. Some UN peacekeeping units took action to protect civilians threatened by the violence. “Those with blue helmets collected those who were shot and took people to the hospital,” one 29-year-old woman living in one of the Protection of Civilians (POC) sites guarded by peacekeepers told CIVIC.

Other civilians were angered by inaction on the part of some peacekeeping units: “No one was protecting [civilians],” an employee of a medical clinic inside POC1 told CIVIC, referring to the abandonment of POC1 site by peacekeepers during the heaviest fighting. “Even those patients who could run and relatives who could help ran to the Level 1 [clinic] in UN House. … That the UN could leave civilians, I didn’t believe it could happen until I saw it with my own eyes.”

On July 8–11, 2016, violence between the two parties to the conflict raged around the UN House base, UN Tongping base, and the POC1 and POC3 sites attached to the UN House base that house approximately 37,000 South Sudanese internally displaced persons (IDPs). Indiscriminate small arms and artillery fire from Kiir’s Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan People's Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), allied to Machar, killed more than 30 civilians inside the POC sites alone and seriously injured many more.

Through interviews with civilians, UNMISS officials, and humanitarian aid workers, CIVIC documented that while some peacekeepers remained in their positions and assisted civilians in finding safe spaces during July violence, others abandoned their posts and refused to follow direct orders to conduct foot patrols or rescue international and national aid workers under attack by SPLA soldiers at the Terrain Hotel. Our findings are reflected in our October report, Under Fire: The July 2016 Violence in Juba and UN Response.

Concerns of underperformance by UNMISS peacekeepers during the July crisis prompted the United Nations (UN) to launch its own Special Investigation into the response of the Mission. On November 1, 2016, the UN released the Executive Summary of the investigation, which went further than any previous report in naming specific actors and troops who underperformed or failed to protect civilians. It found that UNMISS mounted a “chaotic and ineffective response to the violence.”

The Executive Summary also makes broad recommendations that are not only addressed to peacekeepers and UNMISS staff on the ground, but also to the UN Security Council (UNSC) and Secretariat, which are vitally needed to improve the training, support, and capabilities of the Mission.

While CIVIC welcomes the level of openness demonstrated in the Executive Summary of the Special Investigation, we continue to call for the release of the full findings of the Special Investigation to promote more meaningful accountability and transparency for both UNMISS and wider UN deficiencies. Likewise, we recognize that the removal of the Force Commander from his position and the announcement by Hervé Ladsous, the Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations, that a task force is being created to implement the recommendations of the Special Investigation are major steps forward. However, these are only the first steps in what will need to be a sustained and determined effort at peacekeeping reform.

As both CIVIC’s report and the Special Investigation note, UNMISS troops need additional scenario-based training on the use of force to protect civilians, patrolling, and combatting sexual violence. The UN Secretariat needs to address the issue of national caveats that plagues UNMISS along with other peacekeeping missions and to prioritize funding and recruitment of medical personnel to improve the level of medical care available to peacekeepers in South Sudan. The UN Security Council must take more decisive action to address countless violations of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between UNMISS and the Government of South Sudan that have reduced the freedom of movement of the Mission.

As the UN prepares to deploy a Regional Protection Force (RPF) to South Sudan to reinforce the capacity of the Mission, the Security Council and Secretariat must recognize that additional troops will not improve protection of civilians on the ground unless those troops are well trained, supported by additional medical and engineering personnel, and permitted to enter the country with weaponry and equipment such as armored personnel carriers (APCs) and attack helicopters. The RPF should be one tool employed alongside persistent international political engagement to resolve sources of conflict in the country. CIVIC also believes that the UN Security Council must implement a long overdue arms embargo that could begin to stem the flow of weapons into South Sudan, where weapons have been turned against the civilian population throughout three years of conflict.

Finally, transparency in the UN peacekeeping system needs to be the norm, not the exception. Public reports should be issued by the new task force on a regular basis that outline what actions have been taken towards implementing the recommendations of the Special Investigation. The UN Secretariat should also begin systematically tracking the performance of peacekeeping troops and troop-contributing countries across all Chapter VII peacekeeping missions and publish a bi-annual or annual report that highlights both failures and successes in civilian protection. Such measures, aimed at improving transparency and accountability within UN peacekeeping operations, are critically needed to catalyze change in the face of recurring challenges and shortcomings that have left civilians without adequate protection.

Photo courtesy of UN Photo/Martine Perret

Waiting and Hoping Amid the Mosul Campaign

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) 's own Sahr Muhammedally, senior program manager for the Middle East, is in northern Iraq right now while the offensive against Mosul grinds on. She has witnessed thousands of civilians fleeing east into Kurdish territory seeking safety from the self-styled Islamic State (also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh and ISIS). The Kurdish authorities and their fighters, the Peshmerga, are doing their best to accommodate the influx of internally displaced people, but resources are limited. Still, some residents of the Mosul area are just glad to be alive and out of ISIS's grasp.

CIVIC’s Sahr Muhammedally on Mosul

Sahr Muhammedally, senior program manager for the Middle East and Asia, briefed the House of Representative's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Oct 6, 2016, on the humanitarian concerns related to the expected upcoming military operation to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from the self-styled Islamic State.

Her remarks and recommendations on how to better plan for civilians before and after the operations are available here.

Yemen’s Conflict Kills 13 Civilians Every Day

By Bénédicte Aboul-Nasr

Up to 13 civilians a day are being killed in Yemen, according to a recent report from the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report documents allegations of abuses and violations of international humanitarian law against Yemen’s civilians in that country’s civil conflict; deplores the use of cluster bombs, banned since 2008; and highlights attacks on hospitals, schools, and places of worship—places protected under the law of armed conflict for their role as potential shelters for civilians.

The report was released on Aug. 25, and details the impact of the fighting between Shiite Houthi rebels and the internationally-recognized Yemeni government, which is aided by a Saudi-led coalition.

“OHCHR has documented substantial allegations concerning possible violations of international humanitarian law,” the report states. “In several of the documented attacks, OHCHR was unable to identify the presence of possible military objectives.”

One of the core principles under international humanitarian law is the distinction between military and civilians which prohibits parties to a conflict from deliberately targeting civilians. Such violations include attacks in residential areas, markets, and celebrations including weddings, which resulted in vast civilian harm.

The report is published amidst growing criticism of the conflict and of the motives of actors in the field, including the coalition. Observers and NGOs have repeatedly accused the parties of carrying out deliberate attacks on civilians and protected facilities; under these circumstances, Médecins Sans Frontières decided to evacuate six of the 11 hospitals it was operating in Northern Yemen on Aug. 19.

At least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the conflict started in 2015, according to the UN, a major increase from the report’s figures, and more than 3.15 million people have been displaced. The single largest cause of casualties according to the OHCHR has been coalition airstrikes, but landmines used by Houthi rebels and their allies have also killed civilians and hindered the return of displaced persons. There have also been reports that Houthis are recruiting children and women to fight.

UN observers are concerned that such brutality will increase sectarian divides, allowing a stronger presence of armed groups including al Qaeda and the Islamic State within the country and exacerbating tensions. In turn, this would complicate the peace process significantly and risk further destabilizing the region.

In light of such abuses, governments and parties to the conflict, whether directly or indirectly involved, must remember their responsibilities to adhere to international humanitarian law, and work to deescalate the violence. Moreover, coalition allies such as the US can ensure that its support to the coalition is conditional upon steps taken by the coalition to minimize civilian harm. (Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are trying to prevent a $1 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia from going through).

The consequences of the conflict have been dramatic, particularly on children and women, and without limits on the support provided and a change in the way the warring parties are fighting, the alternative may well be a lost generation.

Photo by Ibrahem Qasim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

What is Aleppo? This is Aleppo.

By Kevin Gustafson

This week Muslims around the world marked Eid al-Adha, a holy day in which sacrifice and charity are celebrated. As Syrian Muslims observed the occasion, the implementation of a new ceasefire agreement gave additional reasons to give thanks. While the agreement appears to be largely holding, though there have been reports of some violations and caution remains the norm, a lull in fighting will surely bring some reprieve to those still living in Syria’s great ancient city and a focal point in the war: Aleppo.

Before the ceasefire, Aleppo—the city and its people—bore much of the brunt of the civil war. In one instance in late August, barrel bombs fell from helicopters circling Bab al-Nayrab, just a mile and a half south of the Aleppo Citadel, one of the world’s oldest castles, now nearly ruined by years of fighting in Northern Syria. The bombs hit a family home killing several family members including 11 children. Footage of two brothers who survived the attack soon surfaced on several media outlets.

This heartbreaking video shows the true human cost of the war. But such videos are not in short supply. Each day in Aleppo brings forth another human tragedy amid the rubble of the once grand city.

Before the war started in 2011, Aleppo was home to almost 2.2 million people and the most populous city in Syria. With a history stretching back nearly 7,000 years, the ancient trading post on the Silk Road has been the center of economic activity in the area for centuries, even gaining a mention in the pages of Shakespeare. A crossroads of many of Syria’s ethnic and religious minority groups, Aleppo had been a place where the reach of the Ba’ath regime seldom touched.

However, as the Assad regime sought to tighten its power, the government began systematically denying ethnic groups like Kurds, Turks, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians certain rights—namely citizenship and language rights—other religious minority groups, such as Assad’s own Alawite sect, otherwise enjoyed in Syria. Once war broke out, multi-ethnic and economically active Aleppo became a strategic prize for regime forces.

Since then, Aleppo has remained under near constant threat of attack by government forces, ISIS, and other jihadist groups. Kurdish and other rebel groups have also attempted to take it. The once dense and vibrant city is now cut in half between government and rebel forces, and filled only with the sound of gunfire and aerial bombardment. Less than 50,000 people remain amidst the besieged ruins.

Although Aleppo has been attacked by all groups fighting in the war, Assad’s air force and his Russian allies tip the balance in the government’s favor. But they have been criticized for the lack of distinction between military objectives and civilians. Indeed, schools and hospitals, especially protected under international humanitarian law, have routinely been hit. As CIVIC has noted, many of these necessary functions have gone underground (literally). Even events meant to be celebrations, like weddings, are liable to be attacked. The city stands, like Syrian society, in ruins.

Together, all this violence in Aleppo can lead to “victim fatigue” and cause the public to forget the human cost of war. This must not happen.

It’s true, the numbers are hard to grasp. Nearly half a million people have been killed in the war and millions more are internally displaced or outside Syria. But it’s the faces, like that of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh—numbed and silent after being pulled, still bleeding, from the rubble of his home in Aleppo—and the video of the brothers from Bab al-Nayrab that should shock the public.

Also shocking: the difficulty of delivering necessary aid to those still in the city. Aid groups have either been denied permission through checkpoints, or found the situation too dangerous given the potential for rather indiscriminate attack from the air.

A durable cease-fire, the delivery of aid, as well as a re-commitment of all fighting forces to protecting war’s civilians, are central to easing the struggle faced by those remaining in Aleppo. Otherwise, it will be the faces of civilian children like Daqneesh and the Bab al-Nayrab brothers the world will remember when it thinks of Syria and Aleppo, instead of the vibrant city of days past.

Photo by Nicole Tung

NATO’s Civilian Protection Policy Has Some Work to Do

By Alex Liffiton, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

On July 1, 2016, President Obama issued an Executive Order (EO) on Pre- and Post-Strike Policies on Civilian Casualties in United States operations using force. Eight days later the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) released their Policy for the Protection of Civilians. The details are similar but there are some key differences. Most importantly though, perhaps, is the strategic emphasis these policies place on civilian protection in conflict and counterterrorism operations.

Both the EO and NATO policy guidelines argue that these new directives are being enacted not only to satisfy legal obligations, but also because of moral obligations that the US and NATO feel are imperative. They both stress the importance of integrating civilian protection into the use of force so there is an overarching context in which to judge all future actions. Both documents argue this integration is central to the successful completion of the missions that they carry out. Both have made it a directive to learn and implement best practices of experience and allies, to inform the strategic process of planning a campaign. Unsurprisingly, they also both vow to take all feasible measures to avoid civilian harm—a key tenant of international humanitarian law. If the US or NATO does incidentally harm civilians, the policy and EO require the armed forces to make these losses public. Additionally, both stress that they’re not creating a new legal framework that supersedes the Geneva Conventions.  

Perhaps the major difference between the two policy directives is that NATO’s guidelines do not have any language about post-harm amends or payments to civilians. At CIVIC we have found that post-harm amends are critical to appropriately addressing civilian harm and ensuring mission success, and we believe NATO should adopt such a policy as soon as possible. Also, the EO requires the US Director of National Intelligence to compile and release an annual list of casualties, but NATO’s policy does not call for a systematic accounting. Instead, NATO “will make every effort to communicate known civilian casualties” to the relevant authorities, media and local population. Finally, the EO specifies that US armed forces will develop weapons and intelligence practices that will reduce civilian harm. NATO’s guidelines do not have this level of detail in their orders.

For more than a decade, civilian protection as a central component of military and political planning of operations has been a major goal for our organization. CIVIC welcomes both the EO and NATO policy guidelines, but notes that the real proof will come in how effectively the policies are implemented. 

CIVIC provides assistance in implementing these types of directives to ensure civilians are protected. With a long track record of helping civilians in conflict by working with various governments and militaries, CIVIC ensures civilian protection is considered at all levels of planning and not just as an afterthought.

Photo Illustration by Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC); original photo U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II