In South Sudan, UN struggles (again) with how to protect civilians

The UN says that camps set up as temporary measures – and which house some 200,000 – are unsustainable. Security Council officials visit South Sudan today amid renewed violence.

Jason Patinkin/AP/File
Some of the more than 30,000 civilians sheltering in a United Nations base in South Sudan's capital Juba for fear of targeted killings by government forces walk by an armored vehicle and a watchtower manned by Chinese UN peacekeepers in July 2016.

It is a scenario that has repeated itself over decades and across continents, but once again the United Nations is wondering how best how to protect civilians under imminent threat – this time, as conflict drags on in South Sudan. 

Nearly two decades after the UN was blamed for standing by during the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, the organization found itself in a familiar position when fighting erupted in South Sudan’s capital of Juba on Dec. 15, 2013.  

“There was a massacre in Juba,” said Zachariah Tut, a South Sudanese living inside a UN protected camp. “We ran to the UN because we were targeted.”

The UN mission, in an unprecedented decision, decided to open its logistics hubs across the country and use its blue-helmeted peacekeepers as human shields, saving countless lives in a civil war that has killed at least 50,000 people.

But when the camps were created, “most people thought ‘OK, here is a temporary measure…. Let’s give them help right now and find a more durable solution when things settle down,' ” said a UN official who work on the protection of civilians.

Instead, nearly three years later, six Protection of Civilians sites, as they are called, are still home to nearly 200,000 people. They are like cities unto themselves, complete with schools, churches, and cafes. And the UN is worried they have become too permanent, too difficult to defend, and a resource drain, according to an internal review of these camps obtained by The Christian Science Monitor.

The report is evidence of longstanding tensions over the very issue the UN struggled with in Rwanda and Bosnia: how to protect civilians. But amid resurgent violence in Juba, the question of what the UN should do with these camps, and if the organization should create the camps again the next time mass violence threatens to engulf a country, is being reconsidered. In the past month, many parts of South Sudan have experienced fighting that has killed hundreds of civilians, and the population of the UN protection of civilians sites has increased. 

“Protecting large numbers of civilians on UN premises is not sustainable indefinitely,” the report says.

On Friday, members of the UN Security Council arrived in South Sudan to discuss the deployment of an additional peacekeeping force of 4,000 troops aimed to protect civilians in the capital of Juba. In July, clashes killed hundreds of people here, and also saw the UN displacement camp targeted with small and heavy arms fire. 

The Security Council has a large role in protecting civilians, notes Jaïr van der Lijn, a senior fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “The UN knows that it must protect civilians, but in the same token it is not provided by the Security Council with the required resources to fully do so,” Mr. van der Lijn says, placing particular blame on Western countries who demand the UN be more aggressive, but don’t contribute adequately to make that possible.

In July, the British government pulled out two of its police officers in South Sudan “in light of the deteriorating security situation,” according to an internal United Nations Department of Peacekeeping memo. The memo questioned Britain's position as a permanent member of the Security Council when “they themselves are quick to abandon their post in challenging situations,”

On at least four occasions, the UN camps in South Sudan have been attacked by gunmen. Peacekeepers have been criticized for abandoning their posts. But violence outside the camps is another issue: During the recent clashes in Juba, women described being gang raped outside the camps with UN peacekeepers within sight.

“A lot of the focus has been on protecting the UN base, which is necessary, but less is being done about protection outside the base,” said Matt Wells, a senior adviser on Africa and Peacekeeping at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, a research group in the United States. “One of the biggest reasons why civilians run to these sites is because the areas they are living in are not secure, and there is not any force projection happening in those areas.” 

Many inside the UN say these Protection of Civilian sites, which were once considered innovative, have bred a host of complications, and the organization has subtly worked to scale them down. In the Juba camp that holds 37,000 people, the UN has taken steps that have blocked food rations for the newly displaced, according to aid officials from different organizations. In another site that was recently overrun by gunmen, it was reported that the UN declined to protect civilians due to political reasons.

“We would like for the conditions in the country to be right for civilians to leave the sites, but given where things are right now the protection of civilians sites are the ‘least worst’ option,” said Nick Birnback, a spokesman for the UN.

While the UN would prefer not to have these protection camps, the internal “lessons learned” report doesn’t provide many answers on how the organization should act differently when civilians are put in danger. Peacekeepers should still open their gates and provide protection in extreme circumstances, the report says.

Rather, the UN appears to be stuck with a concept that it does not like, but is likely to continue because there is no better option.

“The sites are less than ideal, full of tribulations and a source of constant friction,” the International Organization for Migration said in a recent report on the UN camps. But political instability means that the Protection of Civilians sites will “remain necessary for years to come.”

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