Aug 23, 2016 (IRIN/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) — The failure of UNMISS in South Sudan is a blow for international peace
The bitter criticism heaped on UN peacekeepers in South Sudan this month over their failure to act to protect civilians and humanitarian workers is sadly nothing new. But it is now raising an urgent question: is the UN‘s peacekeeping system fit for purpose?
In early 2014, shortly after the outbreak of South Sudan’s brutal civil war, officials at the UN‘s Department of Peacekeeping Operations were feeling the pressure over their ability to protect more than 60,000 South Sudanese displaced by the violence that were sheltering inUN camps. It was, then, an unprecedented number.
“We cannot protect those people from being overrun while at the same time doing patrolling in an area the size of France,” Kieran Dwyer, the spokesperson for DPKO said at the time. It wasn’t the job of peacekeepers, he continued, “to stand in the way of the anti-government forces fighting the pro-government forces.”
Dwyer was speaking shortly after the Security Council had authorised the enlargement of the mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, from 7,000 to 12,500 troops. Even with 5,500 new blue helmets on the way, he was clear about how limited their role could be. Despite possessing a Chapter VII mandate, authorising the use of deadly force, DPKO said its soldiers were ill-equipped to save lives in the midst of a civil war.
“The primary responsibility to protect civilians is with the government, and our job is to support the government,” said Dwyer.
This month, following fighting in the capital Juba that left hundreds dead and countless victims of sexual violence, the UN Security Council voted once more to enlarge UNMISS. On 12 August, diplomats approved a 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force, mandated to facilitate movement in Juba, protect its airport, and engage with “any actor” believed to be preparing or undertaking attacks on the UN, international actors, and civilians.
Its deployment – the terms of which, as well as the troops’ exact makeup, when they will arrive, or even where they will be housed, remains very much up in the air – is meant to give the UN a force that can intervene in ways the 13,000 peacekeepers already on the ground have been unwilling or unable to.
The Security Council’s decision to deploy the protection force comes largely in response to violence waged by the government that UNMISS was originally meant to cooperate with – underscoring just how delicate and potentially explosive its presence could be.
It also speaks to the changing environment that UN peacekeepers find themselves in: from Mali, where peacekeepers battle Islamist insurgents; to the eastern Congo, where they track down rebels in collaboration with government forces that have a gruesome record of human rights abuse; to Darfur, where they’ve remained bogged down for years, and faced accusations of covering up crimes committed by the government, including some carried out against peacekeepers.
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