How the United Nations responds, and in particular whether it follows through on promises to hold peacekeepers accountable for failing to protect, will reveal whether genuine progress is being made toward improving protection for civilians caught in some of the world’s worst conflicts.
The failures shown in Malakal by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) — including a disjointed chain of command, a slow response as violence unfolded and a reluctance to use force to protect civilians — provide a ready demonstration of the need for all peacekeeping-contributing countries to endorse and implement the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians.
February’s atrocities are only the latest example of civilians bearing the brunt of violence in South Sudan. After conflict erupted in December 2013, more than 2 million people were forced to flee their homes, including around 200,000 civilians who went to U.N. bases seeking refuge from horrific abuses committed by both government and opposition forces.
These six bases, referred to as Protection of Civilians (POC) sites, include Malakal POC — which was unique in that it included people from three ethnic groups and reflected the political and ethnic differences dividing those same government and opposition forces.
Tensions in Malakal, already high, escalated to a boiling point following President Salva Kiir’s decision in late 2015 to redraw the map of South Sudan and replace the country’s 10 states with 28. On the night of February 17, youths from different communities inside Malakal POC fought one another, using weapons that, as described to me by camp residents and U.N. officials, people in the camp had smuggled past security at official gates or through cuts in the fencing.
The violence exploded the following morning when attackers — many of whom arrived in pickup trucks, wearing uniforms of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the country’s military — entered the POC site through an enormous breach in the camp’s perimeter fence, only meters from a U.N. sentry post.
The attackers proceeded to shoot and kill civilians inside the camp and to systematically burn down areas sheltering people from typically pro-opposition ethnic groups. Witnesses described to me how attackers carried jerry cans of gasoline and fashioned Molotov cocktails to burn specific camp blocks.
Meanwhile, instead of stepping in to protect civilians under fire, U.N. forces on the ground dragged their heels. One troop contingent in Malakal even demanded authorization in writing before they would engage with force, despite UNMISS’s unambiguous mandate to protect civilians “under threat of physical violence.”
More egregiously, another troop contingent abandoned their posts along the eastern perimeter, precisely where SPLA fighters entered the hole in the camp’s fencing. An internal UNMISS timeline that an official shared with me shows that it took another four hours after the attackers entered before U.N. peacekeepers responded robustly. Once they did, the attackers left the camp within less than 30 minutes. By that point, however, the destruction was effectively complete.