The world’s youngest country is anything but peaceful.
Since fighting began in December 2013, civilian casualties have been a consistent feature of the South Sudanese civil war. A peace agreement signed in August 2015 provided a brief respite from the worst of the violence, but last month saw a vivid return to ethnically motivated killing.
This has been happening despite the presence of a relatively large United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force in the capital Juba, and begs the question whether the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is up to the task.
The UNMISS mandate includes the directive to ‘protect civilians under threat of physical violence, irrespective of the source of such violence’. This mandate extends to foreign nationals, includes the ‘specific protection of women and children’ and commits the mission to ‘maintain public safety and security of and within… civilian sites’. Moreover, UNMISS is authorised to use ‘all necessary means to carry out its tasks’. By any reasonable measure, UNMISS has been failing to adhere to this mandate.
According to the Armed Conflict Location Event Database (ACLED), July 2016 was the most violent month in South Sudan since October 2014. There were nearly as many fatalities in South Sudan in July of this year (659) as in the five preceding months combined (662).
Violence flared up again on 7 July. Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and the first Vice-President Riek Machar started a gunfight at a security checkpoint, which quickly escalated. Tensions in Juba had been simmering for a few weeks prior to that due to delays in implementing the August 2015 peace agreement.
Source: ACLED real-time data
Although the fighting was initially confined to different factions within the South Sudanese government, it quickly descended into widespread violence against civilians. From 8 to 11 July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented soldiers firing indiscriminately into densely populated areas – including camps for internally displaced persons – killing at least 73 civilians in the process. HRW also documented targeted killings, rape, beating, looting and harassment, often ethnically motivated.
South Sudan is a fractured country. Although much of the violence in South Sudan has played out along ethnic lines, the root causes of the conflict are as much about control of resources and political power as they are about ethnicity.
Nonetheless, the Dinka and Nuer are the most prominent of South Sudan’s many ethnic groups, and historical divisions between these two factions laid the foundation for South Sudan’s civil war that started in 2013. Moreover, both Kiir (who is Dinka) and former rebel commander turned vice-president, Riek Machar (who is Nuer), belong to these South Sudanese ethnic groups. Along with playing a role in previous conflicts, ethnic identity has assumed a conspicuous role in the most recent violence.
On 11 July, soldiers from President Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) surrounded the Bedale Hotel and demanded access so that they could search for any Nuer being hidden at the hotel. After refusing to open, SPLA soldiers opened fire on the hotel, shooting through the walls and doors and killing at least one of their targets.
That same day, between 80 and 100 South Sudanese men in camouflage uniforms bearing the insignia of the president’s personal guard stormed the Terrain compound, a spot popular with foreign aid workers and South Sudanese elites. During that raid, several women were raped, dozens of aid workers and staff were beaten and abused, and the entire compound was looted.
During the assault, the group of men discovered a prominent South Sudanese journalist, John Gatluak, and summarily executed him. The Associated Press (AP) reported that as soon as Gatlauk was brought in front of the group, one of the looters shouted ‘Nuer’ and shot him twice in the head. Gatlauk was then shot four more times while lying on the ground. Further details of the attack are horrific – but even more disturbing is the lack of response from UNMISS.
Almost as soon as the Terrain was breached, reports suggest guests and visitors were frantically trying to contact UNMISS. The AP confirmed that the UN Joint Operation Center was alerted about the attack at 3:37pm and again at 4:22pm. By 4:33pm a quick reaction force (QRF) was alerted but the official UN timeline is blank until 6:52pm, when it concluded they would not be sending a team. Twenty minutes later, another QRF from UNMISS was asked to intervene. This second group also failed to deploy.
By this time UNMISS had known about the attack – which was taking place a few hundred meters away from a UN compound – for roughly four hours.
The South Sudanese Army Chief of Staff, Paul Malong, was also coordinating with UNMISS around this time and planned to send soldiers, but ‘eventually abandoned their intervention because it took too long for the quick reaction force to act’. Ultimately, South Sudanese forces did enter the Terrain and rescued most of the victims.
In the aftermath of the violence, thousands more South Sudanese have been displaced and the country faces the very real threat of a return to the scale of violence that characterised the country from 2013 to 2015. UNMISS is already a Chapter VII intervention, so there is little room for a serious escalation of its mandate.
The South Sudanese government initially announced its fervent opposition to an expansion of UNMISS. However, the government recently said it would consider additional peacekeepers, provided it could influence the ‘size, mandate, weapons and contributing countries’ of the mission.
Given its history of human rights abuses, it would be unwise to allow the government to dictate the terms of the mission in any way.
A more effective route might be to throw more support behind the regional protection force from the African Union (AU), which was tentatively backed at the AU summit in Kigali last month. AU peacekeepers will ‘have a broader mandate to engage in combat than UN peacekeepers’ and ‘will be able to go where the fighting is happening’.
A major challenge would be to circumvent domestic hostility against foreign troops on South Sudanese soil. Sending an African force with a multi-dimensional mandate to engage combatants and foster a political solution might strike the right balance as a peacekeeping mission that can actually keep the peace, without provoking the resentment of the South Sudanese. This could work provided there is a built-in contingency plan to escalate the size and scope of the mission should the security situation deteriorate.
What is clear is that UNMISS is unable to fulfil its obligation. If South Sudanese civilians are to receive the protection they need, an AU peacekeeping force with a wider mandate may be a more effective instrument.
Zachary Donnenfeld, Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria
Picture: ©Jacqueline Cochrane/ISS