U.N. peacekeepers dismissed from South Sudan for failing to protect civilians

UNMISS is continuing to provide protection to approximately 10,000 civilians in Wau, following the outbreak of violence. (Credit: UNMISS/Flickr)

Amid renewed violence in parts of South Sudan, the United Nations has admitted that it bungled a February peacekeeping mission there in which 30 people died. As U.N. forces create a security cordon to protect 10,000 people in the region, the U.N. has dismissed staff responsible for the slow response in February.

The U.N. revealed last week that a special investigation and a U.N. headquarters board of inquiry were convened to review events on Feb. 17, when a civilian site in Malakal, South Sudan, was attacked. It apparently started when a pair of South Sudanese soldiers tried to smuggle ammunition into the U.N.-controlled compound. A large part of the camp was destroyed over two days, injuring at least 123 people, in addition to the 30 deaths. The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was criticized for its lack of action when the site came under attack and its failure to protect civilian refugees.

The review of the events found a lack of responsiveness, that troops were confused about the rules of engagement and that the mission was in over its head. It helped take in 48,000 people displaced by the fighting that started two years ago. The mission was not able to adequately support all of those people when the attack was launched. Further, the response by some members of the mission exposed the lack of training and preparation for peacekeepers in South Sudan.

The details of the U.N. report are not yet public, but the consequences for UNMISS are already evident. Peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous announced on Wednesday that the involved troops were being sent home. He briefed the U.N. Security Council and said he had already spoken with the U.N. ambassadors representing the countries of troops who will be sent home.

“I will not name names at this point. But certainly there will be repatriation – in some cases a unit, in other cases of individual officers,” Ladsous told the media.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) recently released an external review of the incident, which provided more details of the events and what MSF says were UNMISS failures. The report described the lack of protection as a “glaring failure” on the part of the mission. MSF said that the U.N. mission did not live up to its mandate when it did not protect people coming under attack.

MSF also cited concerns about living conditions at the site and that there have been no improvements in the months since the attack. The report said that UNMISS is “reluctant to extend protection” for the proposed expansion and improvements of the site, as set out by U.N. agencies and NGOs working in the country. As it stands, the living space per person is just 33 percent of the international minimum. Water and food are also in short supply.

“UNMISS and all humanitarian agencies should learn the lessons from this collective failure and take concrete steps to ensure that radically different decisions and actions would be taken in the event of a new attack or violence in the [Protection of Citizens] site,” Raquel Ayora, MSF director of operations, said in a release.

South Sudan’s civil war may be winding down after rival leaders signed a power-sharing agreement. The slow implementation of the deal and the fact that a fracture between the two leaders three years ago initiated the fighting is cause for concern. The recent spate of fighting in Wau shows that international assistance and protection are still important.

“The secretary-general calls on all fighting forces to immediately suspend the hostilities, provide access to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and cooperate with humanitarian partners to facilitate the delivery of assistance. He urges all parties to agree to dialogue to resolve their political disputes,” according to a statement from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Whether UNMISS is better prepared to deal with another incident like what was seen in Malakal remains uncertain.

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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.