JUBA, South Sudan — The headlines about United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, the strife-torn neighbor here in the violent heart of the continent, are nothing short of grotesque. There are scores of allegations of child rape, including charges by one advocacy group claiming that a soldier paid four young girls to have sex with a dog.
Investigations are now under way, and as happens often in cases of alleged peacekeeper abuse, and there are many—69 last year alone in the CAR—the process will be long and justice dubious.
But such tales of crime by individual soldiers may actually serve to obscure the greater problem, which is the persistent failure of troops dispatched by the United Nations to perform their fundamental function: helping to reestablish order in war-torn environments where, in fact, a certain amount of force is needed to impose peace as well as to sustain it.
Now, more than 20 years after the UN’s failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, we are looking once again at the prospect of massive bloodshed that the peacekeepers appear both unable and unwilling to stop.
Events in South Sudan last month offer a ready example.
Around 6 p.m. on Feb. 17, South Sudanese government soldiers began to gather outside the United Nations-protected camp in Malakal, South Sudan.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) could not have had more time to prepare for what was about to happen.
In September, UNMISS conducted a training exercise in Malakal that imagined security forces responding to an inter-communal conflict within the Protection of Civilians (PoC) camp that could not be initially contained.
On Feb. 8, humanitarian activists warned the head of the UN mission in Malakal that there was increased tensions between the main tribal groups—the Dinka, Nuer, and Shilluk. A conflict of that magnitude, they said, usually ended in violence.
On the morning of Feb. 17, according to two sources who spoke on condition they not be named, leaders within the PoC warned UN leadership in Malakal that there were signs of an imminent attack.
But that same night, the Malakal camp became the scene of a wild gunfight, ethnic violence, and arson that lasted around 22 hours as South Sudanese government soldiers gathered outside the base. Dozens of people were killed.
Internal United Nations documents obtained by The Daily Beast and interviews with UN officials reveal the extent to which the organization—tasked with protecting civilians and helping to implement peace—has fallen short of its objectives, and not only here.
“We have collectively failed the people of South Sudan,” José Ramos-Horta, chair of the High-Level Panel on UN Peace Operations, wrote last June (PDF). “Despite the courageous efforts of some, we have as an international community fallen short, and continue to fall short, in Burundi, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, among other places.”
At Malakal, an internal UN timeline shows that 30 minutes after South Sudanese government troops were first spotted outside the PoC, ethnic clashes erupted. The government soldiers, known as the SPLA, began to fire at the PoC, and the peacekeepers did little in response. As the gunfire continued into Thursday morning, peacekeepers from Rwanda abandoned their posts during a confrontation with SPLA troops at a nearby airport. When UN peacekeepers were ordered to use force to protect civilians, some UNMISS troops protested, according to UNMISS military officials.
At least 40 people died in the fighting, and around 15,000 people have been displaced after half the camp was burned to ashes.
“UNMISS have been very prepared for the sort of garden variety tribal violence that we see is part of migration or cattle rustling,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “But what has really thrown them for a loop is anticipating political violence that has erupted from the last two years with the SPLA, or aligned groups, as the aggressor. If the South Sudanese government want UNMISS to go, they can kick them out at any time.”
As the United Nations and other organizations have begun to conduct investigations into the Malakal attack, UNMISS looks like a shell of the organization that the South Sudanese expect it to be. Many say the mission in South Sudan lacks the resources, troops, and gumption to carry out its mandate.
Such deficiencies have plagued UN peacekeeping missions for decades and around the world—byproducts of a bloated bureaucracy that asks countries to contribute to conflicts they are not fully invested in.
“We know the lessons learned, and they have been as clear as day for a long time,” says Michael Barnett, a professor at George Washington University in D.C. “I don’t think they are real complicated, but the UN hasn’t incorporated these lessons. The principle reason is that states don’t have an interest in doing so.”
Many officials within the United Nations have been critical of the quality of peacekeepers they have been provided, but say it’s their only option. In each mission, countries pledge their own troops. Since the failed peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Rwanda, Western nations have been reluctant to contribute troops— the United States only contributes about 80 peacekeepers worldwide, although that number is expected to double.
Instead, most of the UN’s peacekeepers around the world come from Bangladesh (8,496), India (7,798), China (3,045), and several African countries. Little Rwanda, where peacekeeping failed so dismally, contributes 6,077 peacekeepers, according to UN’s numbers.
UN officials say privately that troops from many developing nations are not as well trained as those in the West, nor are they willing to risk their lives to protect civilians. But there are no guarantees Europeans would do better, as the world saw when the Dutch blue helmets surrendered Srebrenica to war criminals in Bosnia in 1995, and thousands of people they were supposed to have protected were massacred.
The attitude on the ground today in Sudan, says one UNMISS military officer, is, “I know that the UN isn’t going to come and help me, I’m losing a shitload of money if I have to go home, and I’m not doing it for my own country.” So there’s a huge reluctance to risk life and limb to protect civilians.
UNMISS officials have defended the actions of their peacekeepers in Malakal, saying they were put into an impossible situation where they would have been firing on soldiers from the South Sudanese government. But, again, this sort of dilemma has become commonplace.
"Peacekeepers are not war-fighters, it’s not what we do,” says Nick Birnback, head of public affairs at United Nations Peacekeeping in New York. “We are an expression of political will that can help a fragile peace take hold, but we don’t fight and win wars.”
“If you look at many of our large missions, particularly Mali and Somalia,” he said, “we are being directly targeted by a variety of groups at a level that is unprecedented in the history of peacekeeping. In Mali alone, since last September our mission gets attacked on average of about once in every 5.5 days.”
As UN peacekeepers have been deployed to more civil wars and intra-state conflicts like Mali, Darfur, and South Sudan, they have found themselves increasingly targeted by troops from the host government, and are confronted by the deadly paradox that if they resist, the may simply be ordered out of the country.
UN officials and diplomats in Juba say that their mission has been deliberately undermined by the South Sudanese government from the start of the country’s civil war, which began in December 2013. But if the South Sudanese kicked the mission out altogether, they fear, millions of civilians would lose access to essential services and be unprotected.
The result can be the kind of impotence we witnessed at Malakal.
“It’s always for a good reason,” Louise Arbour, a former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, told Foreign Policy. “It’s always not to aggravate the government or make sure they can stay in the game as long as possible. That’s exactly why it’s so important to look at the facts and start asking, Are we getting to a point where we are almost complicit with the government in our desire to maintain the delivery of services?”
Here, many argue that the UN should also take a tougher approach with the government of South Sudan.
“We have long urged more frequent UNMISS human-rights reporting,” said Jehanne Henry, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Regular, public reporting on human-rights issues could help hold perpetrators to account.”
International and humanitarian organizations are frustrated when their vehicles are denied access to certain areas. They say that they are stopped for no reason and the United Nations doesn’t do all it can to defend the mission. UNMISS refuses to report publicly that it’s denied freedom of movement from either the government or the opposition, even though the UN collects the information, according to its spokesperson.
“There is this mentality among the senior leadership at UNMISS that you do not embarrass the SPLA,” said a UN official who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity. “You always roll out ambivalent statements that don’t directly attribute anything. … UNMISS has become so placid and so beaten down that it self-censors, that it writes its own reports as if it’s the government. They kind of see themselves as maintaining some completely fictitious relationship that just genuinely doesn’t exist.”
Since the attack on the Malakal PoC, many have questioned the role of the governor of Eastern Nile State, Gen. Chol Thon. Diplomats told The Daily Beast they strongly suspect Thon bears at least partial responsibility for the Malakal PoC attack. And UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said the massacre there could be a war crime. Yet when the head of UNMISS, Ellen Margrethe Løj, met with Thon, she was decidedly less confrontational. She paid “a courtesy call” to the man many believe is responsible for destroying her base.
The operative assumption that the presence of UN peacekeepers is better than nothing in South Sudan, in the Central African Republic, and other war-torn countries is still in place. But for those who hope for protection, and find instead abuse, or abandonment in moments of great danger, “better than nothing” is a phrase with a bitter, brutal ring to it.