Peacekeeping: Lessons unlearned from Rwanda?

Earlier this month, civil conflict in South Sudan between the Murle and Nuer tribes resulted in the deaths of hundreds or possibly thousands of Murle people. A UN source said the number might be as high as 1,000, while a local Murle official estimated the number of deaths to be as high as 3,000 (Jeffrey Gettleman, “Born in Unity, South Sudan Is Torn Again,” New York Times, 12 January 2012).

A UN peacekeeping mission, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), is present to assist the government of the country, which achieved independence from Sudan in July 2011, in establishing peace and stability. However, as the New York Times reported, the peacekeepers seem to have been of little benefit to the civilians targeted in the recent violence:

The United Nations, which has 3,000 combat-ready peacekeepers in South Sudan, tracked the advancing fighters from helicopters for days before the massacre and rushed in about 400 soldiers. But the peacekeepers did not fire a single shot, saying they were greatly outnumbered and could have easily been massacred themselves….

As thousands of Nuer fighters poured into Pibor on Dec. 31, United Nations military observers watched them burn down Murle huts and then march off, in single file lines, into the bush, where many Murle civilians were hiding. Murle leaders have complained that they were abandoned in their hour of need. Neither government forces nor the United Nations peacekeepers left their posts in Pibor to protect the civilians who had fled, and it appears that many Murle were hunted down.

Hilde F. Johnson, head of the United Nations mission in South Sudan, said the peacekeepers had warned residents that the fighters were coming. But she argued that the United Nations troops had little choice but to stay on the sidelines. “Protection of civilians in the rural areas and at larger scale would only have been possible with significantly more military capacity,” she said.

The UN mission currently has a total of about 7,500 personnel in South Sudan, including roughly 5,500 uniformed personnel (troops, military observers, and police). India and Bangladesh between them provide 3,620 uniformed personnel. Canada contributes nine soldiers and nine police officers.

The mission has an authorized strength of up to 7,900 uniformed personnel.

UN Photo/Marie Frechon

Tags: Canada and peacekeeping, South Sudan, UN Mission in South Sudan, UN peacekeeping