U.N. criticized for lack of civilian protection in South Sudan

Children displaced by recent fighting stand outside a tented school run by UNICEF, in the town of Mingkaman, South Sudan where humanitarian assistance is being provided. (Credit: UNICEF/Holt)

Two years have passed since allegations of a coup attempt sent South Sudan into a civil war that displaced more than 3.2 million people and caused tens of thousands of deaths. Continued failed peace talks and violence has left the once-promising young nation in a cycle with no foreseeable end. The latest deal will see former vice president and rebel leader Riek Machar return to the post he was booted from in mid-2013.

Nearly 4 million people in the country experience food insecurity that is just below famine, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification System. The f-word has been uttered numerous times in the past two years. Aid groups remain concerned that poor harvests caused by displacements could drive hundreds of thousands of people into famine.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders and the International Refugee Rights Initiative are criticizing the U.N. for its inability to protect displaced people. The U.N. Mission in South Sudan was one of the first responders when violence broke out in December 2013, and provided protection for people fleeing their homes. But they are not doing enough, advocates say.

“Two years on civilians express disappointment that the U.N. has not been able to do more. The mission has not prevented atrocities from being committed, and civilians are frustrated that protection appears to be available only inside the camps,” according to the International Refugee Rights Initiative report.

Doctors Without Borders forcefully criticized the U.N. mission for its “shocking” lack of action in the embattled Unity state, according to the Guardian. The medical humanitarian group said that people are taking refuge in swamps and rivers to protect themselves from the violence. Reports over the last year have ranged from the forced enrollment of child soldiers to attacks at hospitals. Attacks have been brutal and reports of rape frequent.

“There has not been any protection to speak of until now while the violence has been ongoing and there have been thousands of people coming into the [Protection of Civilians] sites in Bentiu from southern Unity – those who manage to flee – and they have been telling their stories,” said Pete Buth, deputy operations director of MSF Holland and manager of MSF’s activities in Unity state, in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s not like this is a secret. They talk about the most horrendous incidents of sexual violence and I’m sure we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

The affects of the conflict on children is particularly dire, according to UNICEF. It says nearly 2 million children are among those displaced by the conflict. That means they are out of school, living in unhealthy conditions and at the risk of hunger. And then there are the roughly 13,000 child soldiers. Human Rights Watch recently identified more than 15 commanders and officials from government and rebel forces who are using child soldiers.

Interviews with more than 100 child soldiers revealed the terrible conditions they experience. The report details how boys are recruited or forced to join armed groups and their experiences fighting in the civil war. They are forced to participate in gun fights, where they witness the brutal deaths of their own friends. The report calls for an arms embargo by the U.N. Security Council on both sides of the fight.

“We defeated and killed a lot of people,” said a 15-year-old who joined opposition forces, in an interview included in the Human Rights Watch. “We were shooting, me and the other young kids. We were afraid but we had to do it anyway.”

The inability of UNMISS to protect civilians remains a major problem. People remain in the protection of civilian sites due to fears that they will be vulnerable to attacks and reprisals if they leave. Whether or not the U.N. mission in South Sudan is doing a good job, the International Refugee Rights Initiative interviews show that people are very scared. There is little faith that the peace deal, set in August, will hold.

“They tell us they can only protect us if we stay here. They say that if you go out far from the camp, we can’t protect you,” said two men in an interview from late October.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.