WASHINGTON, DC – On February 17–18, armed attackers, including soldiers from South Sudan’s military, killed civilians and deliberately set ablaze large parts of a United Nations Protection of Civilians site in Malakal that sheltered about 47,000 people, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) said in a report released today. Although U.N. peacekeepers ultimately pushed the attackers out of the camp, the Mission’s response was slow and ineffective throughout much of the violence.

The 38-page report, A Refuge in Flames: The February 17-18 Violence in Malakal POC, examines the two days of violence that killed at least 30 people, left more than 120 injured—many by gunshots—and around one-third of the camp burned to the ground. Inter-communal violence between different communities within the camp escalated during the morning of February 18 when attackers wearing the uniform of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) entered the camp through an enormous breach in the perimeter fence.

“Civilians fled to Malakal POC seeking refuge from a conflict in which they have been consistently targeted by armed groups,” said Federico Borello, Executive Director of CIVIC. “By breaching the U.N. camp’s perimeter and attacking people and shelters within, soldiers in the SPLA have again shown a disturbing lack of respect for civilians and for the U.N. Mission.”

This report is based on more than 90 field interviews conducted in Malakal and Juba in March 2016. These include interviews with 47 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who directly witnessed the violence as well as with 21 civilian and military officials from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). CIVIC was also provided certain UNMISS internal documents and emails about the events.
UNMISS has sheltered around 200,000 IDPs in six Protection of Civilian (POC) sites across the country, including Malakal, throughout the conflict in South Sudan. Its efforts have saved lives, despite warring parties regularly undermining the Mission’s ability to move and operate. Yet, the response to the Malakal violence fell short. Quicker, more robust action could have deterred or deescalated at least some of the killing and destruction.

The Mission undoubtedly faced challenges in responding to the Malakal violence, but CIVIC’s findings raise concerns about different aspects of UNMISS’s engagement, including its reaction to evidence of increasing tensions; its resourcing for camp security; its handling of perimeter breaches; certain forces’ understanding of their mandate to protect civilians; the willingness of particular units to respond robustly; and the speed with which leadership in Juba responded.

Showing a commitment to understand what went wrong with the response in Malakal, the U.N. has formed a Board of Inquiry that is currently investigating the incident. If the Board finds that specific units failed to intervene effectively and protect civilians within the camp, the Secretariat, with the support of Member States, needs to ensure there is accountability.

CIVIC also calls for the U.N. to ultimately publish at least a redacted version of the BOI’s findings. A transparent discussion about lessons learned is critical to restore trust with the civilians the Mission is mandated to protect, and to ensure it is better prepared in the future.

“The U.N. has built up enormous goodwill among civilians in South Sudan as a result of its protection efforts during the devastating armed conflict,” Borello said. “By responding openly and forcefully to what happened in Malakal, it would send a strong signal that performance is demanded in fulfilling its mandate to protect civilians.”


Notes to editors:

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)’s mission is to improve protection for civilians caught in conflicts around the world. We call on and advise international organizations, governments, militaries, and armed non-state actors to adopt and implement policies to prevent civilian harm. When civilians are harmed we advocate for the provision of amends and post-harm assistance. We bring the voices of civilians themselves to those making decisions affecting their lives.

For more information, contact Christopher Allbritton at +1 (917) 310-4785 or chris@civiliansinconflict.org.


Image courtesy of CIVIC
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