South Sudan peacekeeping head fired for not doing his job

Peacekeepers assisting displaced civilians in South Sudan by providing protection, building sanitation and providing medical support. (Credit: U.N.)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fired the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan for failing to protect civilians.

A new investigation found the peacekeeper response to heavy fighting in July was “chaotic and ineffective.” Peacekeepers refused to help people in need and some abandoned their posts to hide from the fighting. The report pinned the failures on poor leadership.

“The force did not operate under a unified command, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting orders to the four troop contingents from China, Ethiopia, Nepal and India, and ultimately underusing the more than 1,800 infantry troops at U.N. House,” the report stated.

More than 300 people died in July when violence broke out in the capital city of Juba between government and rebel forces. Both sides stand accused of committing crimes, but government soldiers were most responsible, according to multiple investigations.

Civilians were wounded, killed and sexually assaulted. The crimes garnered more attention when it was revealed that several foreign aid workers were raped and attacked.

People fled their homes and sought help from peacekeepers. They received little to no help, as did the already displaced people living inside U.N. bases.

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When government soldiers launched an attack on the Terrain camp on July 11, there were civilians, aid workers and U.N. staff inside. Despite pleas for help, peacekeeping contingents rejected the request to travel less than a mile to help, defying the mission’s mandate to protect U.N. staff.

Most of the people escaped the camp with the help of the South Sudan National Security Service. Three female international aid workers remained. They managed to contact the mission and begged for them to come. The security officer who took the call was dismissive of their appeal, and the mission took no action to save the three. It took a private security company to rescue the women the next morning.

The failures go straight to the top of the mission, leading to the removal of Lieutenant-General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki. With more than 1,800 U.N. infantry troops in Juba at the time, a coordinated response could have saved lives and prevented attacks.

The U.N. said it would try to identify the peacekeepers at fault for not doing their jobs. That information would then be referred to their home country. The four countries would need to deal with the actions of their peacekeepers during the attacks.

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“The secretary-general is deeply distressed by these findings. He reiterates his outrage over the acts of violence committed in Juba in July and the continuing betrayal of the people of South Sudan by too many of its leaders, said Ban’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric, during a press briefing on Tuesday.

Not all units stood by and did nothing during the attacks. Two peacekeepers from China died during the three days of intense fighting.

A total lack of coordination between peacekeeping units and mission leaders was one of the major problems with the response. Senior leaders ineffectively managed the mission, compounding the existing problems. The four troop contingents received multiple and sometimes conflicting orders during the crisis, rendering them ineffective.

Those factors are why the Chinese battalion abandoned some of its defensive positions at one of the camps and the Nepalese Formed Police Unit did not protect against looting.

It ended up being the worst possible scenario. The mission was not prepared for a sudden rise in fighting, was not coordinated enough to respond and lacked the leadership to overcome its deficiencies.

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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.