Is the UN being asked not to protect civilians in South Sudan?

South Sudan's army is waging a war against a rebel militia. The UN peacekeeping mission has stepped aside to allow the operation to unfold – potentially at a cost to civilians caught in crossfire.

Tim Freccia/AP
A UNMIS peacekeeper patrol on APC in Abyei, South Sudan on March 11. Scores of villagers have died in recent fighting in South Sudan despite the presence of 10,000 UN troops mandated with protecting civilians. Now, internal documents say UN officials have ordered the peacekeepers not to operate in an area where civilians are at risk in upcoming battles, after being asked to avoid the region by the south's military.

As South Sudan's army continues its fight against rebel forces it claims are backed by the Khartoum government, the question of how everyday South Sudanese caught in the crossfire can and should be protected is becoming increasingly urgent.

I reported last week for the Associated Press on how the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) may be ceding ground on its relatively robust civilian protection mandate. According to an internal UN document’s account of recent events, the UN peacekeeping mission accepted the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s “demand” that the UN cease all operations in a “no-go” zone specified by the army due to its own military campaign against George Athor, a southern rebel commander who launched a revolt against the southern government after losing his bid to be governor of volatile Jonglei state in last April’s elections.

This is not the first time the UN mission has come under fire for failing to intervene to protect civilians “under imminent threat of physical violence,” to quote the Chapter VII element of the mission’s mandate. Another notable instance was in 2009, when intercommunal violence – which largely took the form of armed cattle-raiding – killed some 2,500 southerners. In that case, the blue helmets could, in theory, have come in to protect villagers in places like Jonglei state who came under attack from armed raiders seeking to steal their cattle or cause them other harm. In practice, despite UN attempts to preemptively protect civilians by setting up “temporary operating bases” in particularly vulnerable locations, little on-the-spot intervention occurred when violence broke out.

In this latest instance of the UNMIS taking heat on protection issues, the challenges are clearly different. The South Sudanese army has declared war on an intransigent rebel movement posing serious security threats within its territory and the UN mission has, at least for the moment, stepped aside to let this operation go ahead, turning its head at least a little to the side to avoid noticing the likely collateral damages that will accrue to civilians unable to escape the army-rebel violence on their doorsteps.

Civilian protection is not a cut-and-dry affair, and word in the south's capital of Juba is that the UN is attempting to renegotiate access into the “no-go areas” it accepted to stay out of ten days ago, but at the very least the current quandary illustrates the myriad challenges that tend to block success in peacekeeping missions saddled with “PoC” (protection of civilians) responsibilities.

Another reason why these issues are particularly relevant in South Sudan at the moment is that less than four months before South Sudan declares independence and becomes the world’s newest country, some key players in the UN’s New York-based Department of Peacekeeping Operations are here in the south scoping out what “the future of UNMIS” looks like. In fact, the mission will not be called UNMIS, since it will be a whole new mission with a new mandate and arrangement with the newly sovereign Southern Sudanese government. More on all this over the coming weeks…

Maggie Fick is a freelance journalist based in Juba, Sudan who blogs here.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Africa bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.