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No Peace to Keep: The UN Is Letting Down Civilians in South Sudan

UN peacekeepers often fail because they dwell in silos, answering to different — and contradictory — masters.

The civil war in South Sudan has raged since December 2013, having started just over two tense years after nation’s inception. This trauma has rewritten the story of South Sudan. The rosy prognostications made by the country’s American partners in the halcyon days of the 2005 peace accord and after the 2011 declaration of independence are in ashes now. Harrowing accounts of atrocities — from rape to forced cannibalism — have become commonplace in the time since. To date, more than 50,000 people have been killed and another 2 million displaced, including more than 180,000 people seeking protection in six UN compounds.

High officials abroad and former detainees of government forces alike predict the imminence of genocide. Increasingly, chaotic confrontations blur understandings of motive and make obvious the lack of authoritative leadership within ranks.

Absent Peacekeepers

In September, a UN inquiry released its findings on a series of gruesome attacks in July 2016, less than a mile from the UN mission headquarters. The report documented in detail an attack on the Terrain Camp hotel in the capital city of Juba, where South Sudanese troops terrorized a residential compound for nearly four hours, beating, raping and robbing locals and foreigners alike. Perpetrators singled out Americans, several witnesses told the Associated Press, and a local journalist was publicly executed.

Aid workers and staff of the hotel repeatedly called for help from the UN peacekeepers but the calls went unanswered. The hotel attack followed three days of violence, during which more than 300 were killed, including, the report concludes, 20 internally displaced people who had sought UN protection. Many peacekeepers reportedly abandoned their posts altogether.

After the July violence broke out, South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit and First Vice President Riek Machar stated at a press conference, “What is happening outside is something that we cannot explain to you.”

The war has escalated on the literal doorstep of a seemingly apathetic UN peacekeeping mission. As a negotiated peace recedes further and further into the offing, an effectual peacekeeping mission has never been more critical.

A recent policy brief from Jewish World Watch (JWW), a genocide prevention advocacy group, concluded, “Without political will to end the war, South Sudan will never be at peace. But, with the severe and worsening crisis, an expansion of the peacekeeping mission is necessary to protect civilians.” Considering the fractious relationship between the government forces and the current, arguably irresolute mission, it seems necessary to advocate not for an expansion, but for a fundamental reimagining of UN theories on peacekeeping.

The executive summary of the report blames “a lack of leadership on the part of key senior mission personnel [culminating] in a chaotic and ineffective response to the violence.” More than 1,800 UN infantry troops were stationed in Juba, but they “did not operate under a unified command, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting orders,” the report says.

Peacekeeping troops from China, India, Nepal and Ethiopia form four national contingents serving the UN mission in the region. None responded to the attack. All were under the command of Kenyan Lt. Gen. Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki. The leader was fired shortly after the report’s release, sparking a series of tit-for-tat escalations between South Sudan and Kenya, and threatening the stability of a relationship critical to the UN mission.

Though he called the dramatic Kenyan reactions “an act of face-saving,” South Sudan correspondent John Tanza from the US-government-funded Voice of America news site told Truthout, “The problem with [the UN mission] is its top management have become very protective of themselves and their jobs. They have done so at the expense of the people, compromising the lives of innocent South Sudanese and foreign aid workers.”

Dysfunction Is Not Unique to UN Mission in South Sudan

Peacekeeping is inherently fraught; individual nations, either officially or unofficially, retain tight control over the troops they send to UN missions. Loyalty lies with the homeland, and the ethos engendered by the peacekeeping mission is not strong or decisive enough to establish its own loyalty. Peacekeeping troops, a majority from the least developed nations, have often received sub-par training. Earlier this year, Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post wrote, “[M]any are bound by commands from their own militaries — what the United Nations calls ‘hidden caveats’ — that trump U.N. orders. And those militaries often don’t want their soldiers risking their lives to fulfill an international mandate.”

Despite support from the Obama administration, among others, the fundamental culture of UN missions remained unchanged, even after a rare efficacy review in 2015 pointed to such flawed chains of command.

“We have collectively failed the people of South Sudan,” José Ramos-Horta, chair of the High-Level Panel on UN Peace Operations, wrote last June. “Despite the courageous efforts of some, we have as an international community fallen short, and continue to fall short, in Burundi, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, among other places.”

John Karlsrud, senior research fellow and manager of training for peace at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, wrote of the consensus condemning the ethos and structural weakness of the UN troops: “Séverine Autesserre and other scholars argue that international peacebuilders are more intent on following their professional prescripts than responding to local needs.” He blames the resultant top-down approach for missed opportunities to establish integrative relationships on the ground. Peacekeepers dwell in silos, answering to different — and often contradictory — masters.

Further evidence of this consensus comes from watchdog groups. Mike Brand, director of advocacy and programs at Jewish World Watch, spoke with Truthout about his perspectives on peacekeeping in South Sudan and in the modern era broadly.

“The UN’s current peacekeeping structure is ill-equipped to prevent or effectively respond to instances of mass atrocities. Relying on troop-contributing countries … to build a peacekeeping force is a flawed model and it always has been,” said Brand, providing examples of such flaws made manifest during the Rwandan genocide, when extraction of the Belgian contingent precipitated the mission’s collapse.

“Like most missions, [the UN mission has been] understaffed, underequipped and unable to patrol areas during the rainy season. The force got a lot of praise for establishing the [protection of civilian sites] after violence broke out in 2013, but that should be a minimum requirement.”

The UN mission in South Sudan suffers from a bunkering mindset, choosing not to challenge government restrictions placed on its free movement — in violation of UN agreements. The UN mission “has been failing to protect civilians since day one of the violence. I honestly feel like the attack on Terrain sparked some action because, in large part, expats were attacked. That happens literally every day in South Sudan to South Sudanese” without repercussions, Brand reflected. The July attacks made headlines, and so blame was publicly cast. The expansive breakdowns in [the UN mission] do not have easy fixes. “[The firing of Ondieki was] one part scapegoating another part deflection. It’s easier to cast the blame on one individual than to pull on a string attached to the whole system.”

Lack of Geostrategic Pressures to Support Cooperative Peacekeeping

Richard Barnett, a professor of political science at George Washington University, explained his conclusions this way: “We know the lessons learned, and they have been as clear as day for a long time…. The UN hasn’t incorporated these lessons. The principle reason is that states don’t have an interest in doing so.”

The necessity of geostrategic interests in ensuring the cooperation of troop-contributing countries is not a new issue. In a 2014 feature piece for National Geographic, Roger Meece, an American diplomat who later led the Congo mission, said that the lack of such interests prevented the Security Council from committing badly needed resources: “There was little appetite.”

Once indiscriminate slaughter had become the everyday reality on the ground, the UN mission finally expanded — as did its difficulties. Troop-contributing countries “saw to it that as little as possible was required of peacekeepers.” One Security Council diplomat said frankly, “There were troop-contributing countries who would revert to what their capital [asked] them to do over what the force commander [told] them do to. There [was] a reluctance among the troop-contributing countries to do proactive protection of civilians.”

The question then becomes: How can individual state interests be removed from the equation?

Brand imagines a distinct UN peacekeeping force. “If people joined a UN force under the sole mandate of the UN, they would all get paid by the UN; they would get the same training, the same equipment, language training, etc. You wouldn’t have your host government making the troops risk averse because it is a bad investment if their troops are injured or killed. And you’d have troops that were signing up, voluntarily to join a peacekeeping force and all that entailed.” An independent UN force would no longer risk disruptive international incidents like Kenya’s refoulement of a South Sudanese refugee as retribution for Ondieki’s firing, or the country’s recent politically-motivated troop withdrawals.

Such a force would increase accountability as well — long seen as a profound, systemic failure. Reports of UN peacekeepers committing sexual crimes date back to at least the 1990s, according to a Newsweek investigation. Missions in Mozambique, Bosnia, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone saw abuses that “ran the gamut from sex trafficking to prostitution in exchange for money, food or medical supplies.” An internal review by the UN Office of International Oversight Services in May 2015 revealed that little has changed. It calls the commitment to zero tolerance “weak,” and describes broad “confusion and resistance to the 2003 bulletin of the Secretary-General,” which condemned transactional sex and sexual abuse. The report recorded 480 allegations of abuse between 2008 and 2013 — 36 percent of them against minors. There were 54 confirmed cases of abuse in 2014 across the UN’s 16 active missions, and 77 confirmed cases in 2015.

The current system is reliant on troop-contributing countries to act as its judicial arm. Suspects seldom face the threat of prosecution; few cases are ever investigated by the UN. As Joanne Mariner wrote in the Guardian, “Because of questionable rules regarding peacekeeper immunity, the onus is generally on the troop-contributing country to undertake prosecutions. They rarely, if ever, do so.”

While the UN policy is meant to send a message of support for the sovereignty of troop-committing countries, it instead solidifies a culture of impunity and discredits the organization.

In South Sudan, the status quo is an unmitigated conflagration. The UN has the power to douse the tallest flames by making its mission in South Sudan functional, and actively creating the safety it promised so long ago. At the very least, the UN must model cooperation; otherwise, the “common destiny” Kofi Annan reminded us we share, will be a bloody one.