The Failure of UN Intervention in South Sudan

Celia Garrett


A woman aid-worker seeking refuge from violent fighters in the streets at the Terrain Hotel looked up to see a soldier pointing his AK-47 at her, offering a choice. She remembers hearing him say, “either you have sex with me, or we make every man here rape you and then we shoot you in the head.” But there was really no choice. Fifteen South Sudanese soldiers raped her that night. Troops charged with adrenaline after winning a battle against opposition forces celebrated by rampaging through a residential compound, those in the compound were forced to watch soldiers shoot dead a local journalist and torture others. Several other women in that compound experienced the same brutality as the first. The frantic pleas for UN peacekeepers stationed less than a mile away went unanswered throughout the hours-long assault. Criticism of the UN response sparked an official investigation into peacekeepers’ behavior, finding widespread unwillingness to intervene and contributing specific recommendations to reform the mission. Brutal attacks against civilians dominate the civil war in South Sudan and illustrate the desperate need for a successful UN mission. Instead, atrocities such as sexual and gender-based violence have become a regular part of life and a reoccurring fear for South Sudanese women. Despite the peacekeepers presence next-door, the 2016 crimes at Terrain Hotel duplicate earlier incidents. In 2014, a woman watched helplessly as government forces gang raped her sister-in-law, burned her village and attacked civilians.

Hope and optimism inspired by independence in 2011 has quickly disappeared amidst widespread government failure and escalating demonstrations of underlying tensions in the country. Government leaders of the SPLM party– former rebel commanders during the Sudanese civil war – rely on destructive military solutions to political problems, fostering an atmosphere of armed rebellion and inter-ethnic violence. While instability in South Sudan results primarily from political conflict, South Sudan’s political bases often overlap with ethnic bases and the government’s engagement in widespread regional and ethnic nepotism exacerbates these tensions. Leadership has failed to establish law and order in the new country, instead allowing a pervading sense of immunity among national security forces, unchecked human rights violations and arbitrary assaults and arrests against a civilian population dependent on their protection. Additionally, unresolved issues between Khartoum and Juba (the capitals of Sudan and South Sudan respectively), and mass poverty resulting from the country’s economic dependence on oil increase unrest.

One woman – a gang-rape victim of the army forced to flee as they burned her home and village to the ground – stares at the ground as she recalls their brutality, saying “they didn’t spare anyone – even an old woman, even a blind woman, even girls who are so small you have to carry them, they raped them, and some of them died.” The national army looted the village, taking cattle, beds, cooking pots, grain – anything they could get their hands on and carry out. Everything else they burned. Those raped and injured attempted to walk to the hospital seeking aid, instead finding it destroyed and empty, all the medicine having been stolen by the army.

Government leaders are guilty of intense repression and human rights violations, with widespread corruption, mismanagement, and a deep intolerance of both opposition and internal dissent. In 2013, after President Kiir fired his Vice-President, Riek Machar, due to an alleged coup, Machar publicly criticized Kiir for failing to attack corruption and for fueling conflict to cover his own failure in government. The alleged coup and firing of Machar, in which he challenged Kiir for SPLM and South Sudanese leadership, caused an outbreak of civil war. The UN and human rights groups have accused both sides – Kiir’s national forces and Machar’s rebel forces – of systematic, gross human rights violations as well as ethnically motivated killings in pursuit of revenge or personal political gain. The war deepened already existing ethnic tensions and Khartoum further worsened them by arming some ethnic groups against others. President Kiir belongs to the Dinka majority, while Machar is an ethnic Nuer, yet many prominent Nuer figures support President Kiir and vice versa. Nuer and other ethnic groups oppose the Dinka domination of SPLM leadership and security services, fueled by President Kiir’s dismissal of Machar. And in retaliation, state security forces and the Presidential Guard escalated violence against members of the Nuer ethnic group.

These two sides came together (under duress and international pressure) to sign a fragile peace deal in August 2015, yet conflict erupted in 2016 on the eve of the country’s fifth anniversary of independence. The growing divide between Kiir and Machar and deepening ethnic animosity contributed to both sides launching offensives and actively amassing weapons and ammunition despite public claims by Kiir and Machar against any further fighting. President Kiir’s unhappiness with the terms of the peace deal and differing opinions on the deal within each side have increased internal tensions and caused Kiir and Machar’s already uneasy coalitions to splinter. This has only served to increase uncontrolled violence and chaos within the country.

The 2015 peace accord outlined the AU’s responsibility to establish a legal accountability mechanism to target those with the greatest responsibility for brutal human rights violations. A year later, the AU has yet to take preliminary steps to develop a hybrid tribunal. The AU has not even begun determining the statute, rules of procedure, location, or even personnel of the court. South Sudanese victims are too terrified of government repression to testify and the judicial system within South Sudan reflects the instability, failing leadership, and corruption of the government. Over thirty-four South Sudanese and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have called for the AU to take action, as the court presents the most viable option to hold violators accountable. The International Criminal Court (ICC) does not have jurisdiction over South Sudan because the new country is not a party to the ICC.

A Bangladesh Force Marine Unit of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) launching riverine operations on the River Nile. Marine boats are intended to protect UN barges, including those carrying humanitarian aid. Photo credit: UN Photo/Isaac Gideon via United Nations Photo’s Flickr stream
While the South Sudanese government violently targets aid workers and restricts all NGO operation within the country, International Human Rights agencies, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI), and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) continually release reports on violations occurring within the country and advocate for the trapped civilians. Similarly, the UN reports many of these violations internally.

Additionally, the UN funds a peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which began two months after the fragile foundation of an independent South Sudan. While Machar called for a neutral force to police the peace after the eruption of violence in the summer of 2016, President Kiir has obstructed UNMISS and denounced the AU’s pledge to send troops, claiming he neither wants nor needs them. His refusal to cooperate inhibits progress and government checkpoints block UN peacekeepers from getting more than 500m from their bases. By August 2016, almost 14,000 UN troops occupy South Sudan yet according to Eugene Owusu, the deputy head of UNMISS, “the mission is very, very constrained in terms of resources” and forces are unable to prevent violence across such a vast territory. The escalating conflict requires “additional resources, both in terms of human capabilities and also in terms of assets like helicopters.”
The UNMISS protects displaced civilians, as their camps throughout the country currently accommodate over 200,000 people forced to flee their homes. The UN house in Juba protects over 35,000 civilians, yet gunfire and lack of access to necessities, such as clean water (obstructed by the government), threaten the overcrowded camp. However, their failure to help international aid workers attacked by national soldiers less than a mile from their base not only underlined the missions inability to effectively protect civilians, but also raised concerns of the willingness of peacekeeping forces to intervene. Reports surfaced claiming peacekeepers abandoned their posts during fighting and lack any presence outside of their fortified bases, exposing aid workers and civilians to targeted attacks within sight of UN bases. An independent inquiry ordered to investigate these claims determined that the UNMISS failed to protect civilians. Top peacekeeping officials subsequently established a task force to carry out the inquiry’s recommendations, including greater accountability of UNMISS leadership. A refusal to engage outside the base’s protection – in addition to lack of preparedness, ineffective command, and a risk-averse attitude – plagues the already weak UNMISS and further threatens peace and stability in South Sudan. In the upcoming months, I will focus on the pattern of conflict in South Sudan and devote special attention to the unrealized responsibility of the UN and its attempts (or lack thereof) to increase the effectiveness of the UNMISS.