UN warns of South Sudan genocide, but what will the UN do about it?

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(Screenshot via aljazeera.com)

If the UN doesn't act to end it, the civil war in South Sudan is set to repeat the genocide atrocities of Rwanda, writes Ben Jackson.

IN 1994, the international community stood by as Rwanda was engulfed by genocide after a years-long civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis.

In just 100 days, 800,000 Rwandans – mostly Tutsis – were killed in a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing.

At the time, the United Nations condemned the killings, but its response was to withdraw UN troops from the country and, effectively, allow the slaughter to continue.

After months of procrastination, the UN finally resolved to send a significant force into Rwanda to end the genocide. The only problem was that by the time they actually agreed on the action, the killing had already stopped.

Now the United Nations are concerned that South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, is in danger of following a similar path to genocide.

Yasmin Sooka, chairperson of the UN Commission in South Sudan has warned:

“The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it.”

South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, has been in a state of civil war since 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused former Vice-President Riek Machar of an attempted coup. The resulting conflict has cost tens of thousands of lives, displaced 3 million people from their homes and caused widespread hunger. It has also seen the nation divided along ethnic lines, pitting pro-Kiir Dinkas against pro-Machar Nuers, as well as other groups suspecting of supporting the rebel forces.

After years of bloody conflict between government forces and Machar’s rebel army, President Salva Kiir and Machar signed a peace agreement in 2015, which saw Machar returned to his former post. The peace did not even last a year. In July 2016, the country was once again plunged into violence.

The UN is now warning the international community about the ramifications of this resurgence of violence, but they must take some responsibility for it. A UN Special Investigation report on the outbreak of renewed hostilities between government and rebel forces explains that in July, President Salva Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar were meeting in Juba, the nation’s capital, at the UNMISS headquarters — known as "UN House". Remarkably, Machar had been allowed to station 1,200 of his troops less than a kilometre from both the UN House and civilian camps hosting more than 27,000 civilians displaced by the ongoing war.

The same report explains that when fighting broke out between government and rebel forces, the 1,800 UN infantry troops – comprised of troops from China, Ethiopia, Nepal and India – failed to stop the violence and to protect civilians due to the inadequate command structure, confused orders and a failure to control crowds. The report describes instances of UN troops abandoning posts and refusing to engage government forces when they began looting, raping, murdering and torturing civilians.

In the weeks that followed, UN peacekeepers allowed the violence to continue in Juba. One incident reported in the special investigation describes how UN troops and UN police stood by as attackers raped a woman in plain sight. Patrols on foot began to cease and UN troops were nowhere to be seen at night.

The violence has now spread across the nation and the UN Commission in South Sudan has recently announced that:

“There is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages.”

The Commission has urged for immediate steps to be taken, including the enactment of targeted sanctions, an arms embargo and the setting up of a hybrid court in South Sudan. It has also called for the immediate deployment of 4,000 extra UN troops – adding to the 12,000 already serving across the country – that the South Sudanese Government agreed to in September as part of UN Security Council’s Resolution 2304 (2016). This will bring the total number of UN troops in South Sudan to 16,000.

If those troops are as incompetent, or as criminally negligent, as those who failed in their task to protect civilians surrounding the UN House in Juba, then the people of South Sudan may have little to celebrate when they arrive. Exactly when they will arrive has not been established and it is impossible to tell how high the South Sudanese death toll will rise in the meantime. If the UN wants to avoid another "Rwanda", then they’d better move fast.

However, fast deployment does not solve the issue of whether or not these troops will be capable of handling the desperate situation in South Sudan. Fortunately, a lead UN Investigator has formulated a plan to ensure that peacekeepers are prepared for deployment. His advice is just to train them. 

You can follow Ben Jackson on Twitter @benljackson1982.

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