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.