How UN peacekeepers failed South Sudan

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  • U.N. peacekeepers in South Sudan failed to meet their mandate, writes Matt Wells
  • The U.N. Security Council should demand accountability, he says

Matt Wells is the senior adviser on peacekeeping at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and author of the report, A Refuge in Flames: The February 17-18 Violence in Malakal POC.

(CNN)The heart of most U.N. peacekeepers' mission includes the protection of civilians -- and it's a mandate that, in light of recent events, the United Nations must do better at fulfilling.

This week, the Security Council received briefings on two investigations into violence that occurred in February in Malakal, South Sudan, at a U.N. base that housed 47,000 displaced people. What did they learn? That despite the heavy presence of U.N. peacekeepers, armed men, including soldiers in military uniforms, were able to enter the camp and attack civilians -- killing at least 30 people and setting ablaze several thousand shelters.
Matt Wells
How the United Nations responds, and in particular whether it follows through on promises to hold peacekeepers accountable for failing to protect, will reveal whether genuine progress is being made toward improving protection for civilians caught in some of the world's worst conflicts.
    The failures shown in Malakal by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) -- including a disjointed chain of command, a slow response as violence unfolded and a reluctance to use force to protect civilians -- provide a ready demonstration of the need for all peacekeeping-contributing countries to endorse and implement the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians.
    February's atrocities are only the latest example of civilians bearing the brunt of violence in South Sudan. After conflict erupted in December 2013, more than 2 million people were forced to flee their homes, including around 200,000 civilians who went to U.N. bases seeking refuge from horrific abuses committed by both government and opposition forces.
    These six bases, referred to as Protection of Civilians (POC) sites, include Malakal POC -- which was unique in that it included people from three ethnic groups and reflected the political and ethnic differences dividing those same government and opposition forces.
    Tensions in Malakal, already high, escalated to a boiling point following President Salva Kiir's decision in late 2015 to redraw the map of South Sudan and replace the country's 10 states with 28. On the night of February 17, youths from different communities inside Malakal POC fought one another, using weapons that, as described to me by camp residents and U.N. officials, people in the camp had smuggled past security at official gates or through cuts in the fencing.
    The violence exploded the following morning when attackers -- many of whom arrived in pickup trucks, wearing uniforms of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the country's military -- entered the POC site through an enormous breach in the camp's perimeter fence, only meters from a U.N. sentry post.
    The attackers proceeded to shoot and kill civilians inside the camp and to systematically burn down areas sheltering people from typically pro-opposition ethnic groups. Witnesses described to me how attackers carried jerry cans of gasoline and fashioned Molotov cocktails to burn specific camp blocks.
    Meanwhile, instead of stepping in to protect civilians under fire, U.N. forces on the ground dragged their heels. One troop contingent in Malakal even demanded authorization in writing before they would engage with force, despite UNMISS's unambiguous mandate to protect civilians "under threat of physical violence."
    More egregiously, another troop contingent abandoned their posts along the eastern perimeter, precisely where SPLA fighters entered the hole in the camp's fencing. An internal UNMISS timeline that an official shared with me shows that it took another four hours after the attackers entered before U.N. peacekeepers responded robustly. Once they did, the attackers left the camp within less than 30 minutes. By that point, however, the destruction was effectively complete.
    Humanitarian crisis in South Sudan
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      Humanitarian crisis in South Sudan

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    In response to Malakal, the United Nations established a special investigation to examine the context of the violence and who was responsible, as well as a Board of Inquiry to look at UNMISS's protection. By all accounts, UNMISS gave full access to both teams, which, according to U.N. officials in New York, put together strong reports.
    Those reports were the basis of the briefings given this week to the Security Council, which must now ensure that the government of South Sudan and the U.N. Secretariat act transparently and address the reports' findings and recommendations.
    First, the Security Council should demand that the U.N. Secretariat make public both reports. The Board of Inquiry drafted a synopsis that was designed to be public, but the United Nations has so far released only a few paragraphs of watered-down findings.
    The displaced population in Malakal -- indeed, all 160,000 people still in POC sites in South Sudan -- deserves to know what happened, who was responsible, and what actions are being taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.
    The United Nations has already seen the consequences of putting short-term face-saving over transparency about protection failures in South Sudan. In April 2014, the POC site in Bor came under attack, leading to the deaths of about 50 civilians. The Board of Inquiry report into that incident was buried; several people in UNMISS told me that the impetus for change was buried with it, helping pave the way for Malakal.
    Second, the Security Council should demand that perpetrators and peacekeepers alike be held accountable. South Sudan's transitional government needs to ensure that those who incited or carried out the violence are identified and prosecuted. Given the government's flawed investigation into the Malakal events and its more general hostility to justice for the conflict's atrocities, such action is highly unlikely without considerable pressure from the Security Council.
    After the Security Council briefing Wednesday, Hervé Ladsous, the U.N. under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, promised that peacekeeping units that failed to respond effectively to the Malakal violence would be repatriated. The Security Council should ensure that the U.N. Secretariat follows through, as accountability will help restore civilians' trust in UNMISS.
    The United Nations should also speak openly about how specific peacekeeping units fell short.
    On the heels of the High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) report and the U.S.-led Peacekeeping Summit in 2015, high-level U.N. officials have repeatedly emphasized that peacekeeping performance matters and that the failure to protect civilians will not be tolerated.
    Malakal represents a key test case for the United Nations' willingness to back those statements with action. Indeed, if the United Nations upholds its commitment here to transparency and accountability, Malakal should become the standard for when peacekeepers fail to perform.
    In recent weeks, tensions have risen again around Malakal. Civilians within the POC site are understandably worried about whether UNMISS will provide protection if armed actors once again target them. It's time for the Security Council to deliver a clear message: Anyone who attacks a POC site will face consequences, as will any peacekeeper who fails to respond appropriately in protecting civilians.