Seven years after civilians first rushed UN military bases in South Sudan, beginning an unprecedented scheme credited with saving tens of thousands of lives, humanitarian workers are accusing the international body of failing to do due diligence as it withdraws protection.
UN-protected camps, known as “protection of civilians sites” (POCs), were established early in South Sudan’s war, when civilians, fleeing brutal violence, rushed into UN military bases in search of safety.
They ended up sheltering hundreds of thousands of people, something the former UN special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Dr Chaloka Beyani, called "an unprecedented achievement".
On September 4th, South Sudan's peacekeeping mission, Unmiss, issued a statement saying peacekeepers will now be withdrawing from the sites.
"The POC sites were set up to protect people in imminent physical danger and they did so for many different ethnicities, for many years," Unmiss head David Shearer said. "But today, many stay just to access services."
The UN-protected sites are to be reclassified as camps for internally displaced people, and placed under the control of South Sudan’s government.
“Nobody will be pushed out or asked to leave when Unmiss withdraws. Humanitarian services will continue. It is just that the sites will no longer be under our jurisdiction,” said Mr Shearer.
Several current and former Unmiss staff and humanitarian workers spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity. They all expressed worry about the process Unmiss has followed before withdrawing from the sites, and what might happen next.
“I am concerned that people will be harmed by this decision,” said one humanitarian worker in South Sudan with knowledge of the situation.
The humanitarian worker accused Unmiss – which has a budget of more than €1 billion a year – of taking advantage of the uncertainty and lack of international attention caused by the coronavirus pandemic in going ahead with the withdrawal, saying the requisite analysis to ensure that civilians will be safe hadn’t been done.
“[Unmiss] are not doing this because they think the sites are now safe. They are doing this because they do not want the responsibility,” the humanitarian worker said.
“Now, if people die on these sites, Unmiss can say that it is not their fault. The UN does not want to be blamed for failing to protect civilians in South Sudan, as they failed to protect civilians in Srebrenica,” they added, referencing the 1995 incident where 8,000 individuals were killed in a UN “safe area”.
“Many of us are concerned about the safety of the people on these sites. Are we being alarmist?” the humanitarian worker asked. “I don’t know.”
South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, gained independence from the Islamic north of Sudan on July 9th, 2011.
Just 2½ years later, in December 2013, South Sudan's president Salva Kiir, who comes from the Dinka tribe, sacked his vice-president, Riek Machar, from the Nuer tribe, accusing Machar of trying to overthrow him. A brutal war ensued, in which roughly 400,000 people were killed and millions displaced, out of a population of 11 million.
A peace agreement collapsed in 2016. Humanitarian workers called that year for more support after foreign aid workers were gang-raped and a local journalist killed during an attack on a hotel by government soldiers, while peacekeepers failed to respond to pleas for help.
As the country was decimated, civilians saw any hope of a prosperous nation and a decent quality of life disappear. Despite being oil-rich, the World Bank now ranks South Sudan as one of the poorest countries in the world. Last month, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned there was a risk of famine.
Mass sexual violence was documented even after the latest peace agreement was signed in 2018. Both sides of the conflict also recruited children, and thousands are believed to be still active in the army or armed groups.
In February, former rivals Kiir and Machar were sworn in to a new unity government. A transitional three-year period is now under way. However, key aspects of the deal still have to be implemented, and in some cases, they are not yet agreed.
Despite the deal, more than 1,500 civilians were killed in the first half of this year, with the number increasing in the period after the unity government was sworn in. Unmiss says this is one of the reasons it is withdrawing peacekeeping troops from the POC sites, with the aim of redeploying them to hotspots where there is inter-communal conflict.
In an interview with The Irish Times, Shearer – the Unmiss head – said a security assessment of all the POC sites was carried out in conjunction with humanitarian staff on the ground.
He said while Unmiss would continue to monitor the POCs and be in a position to act if something went wrong, “we believe that we have got more important issues to focus our forces on rather than controlling a group of people who we don’t believe are under threat”.
The POC sites will be put under the control of South Sudan’s government, despite the UN itself accusing both sides in the country’s conflict of carrying out war crimes.
In March, Yasmin Sooka, chairwoman of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, told the UN's Human Rights Council that torture, rape, killing, intimidation, displacement, corruption, enforced disappearances and the intentional starvation of civilians haved become the norm.
“Six years of brutal conflict have left the country bitterly divided along ethnic lines,” she said.
“Corrupt officials have brazenly looted and plundered millions of dollars, depriving millions of South Sudanese civilians of access to basic services, exposing them to severe hunger, while corruption has made a small group of officials extremely wealthy.”
‘Unstable business agreement’
One former Unmiss staff member told The Irish Times that the current peace deal was really a “highly unstable business agreement” that had been reached between a small group of elites “because it was in their business interests”.
“The government has been the primary source of civilian suffering and casualties in the country since 2013, openly waging ethnic conflict and conducting ethnic cleansing in some areas,” the former staff member said, adding that Unmiss had failed to protect civilians at many periods during the war, including at the beginning.
“People died in sight of our bases because our forces would not . . . literally step outside of the base . . . So people came to us. That was the only way they could actually get protection.”
Shearer said the government of South Sudan had signed a “memorandum of understanding”, setting out behaviour it would need to adhere to, as peacekeepers withdraw from the POC sites.
"There has been no accountability for the atrocities that occurred on all sides in the war, and in the minds of many the conflict is far from settled," said Nicholas Coghlan, a former Canadian diplomat and author of Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat's Memoir of South Sudan. "There is in fact no good reason to expect the army and police to behave honourably and professionally as and when they take over the UN's duties. Quite the contrary, in fact," he said.
Over the past few years, The Irish Times has interviewed numerous South Sudanese civilians who lived in POC sites at various stages. One, from the Nuer tribe, described being caught and detained for eight months by government forces after he ventured outside. He said his father was killed in 2018, after leaving UN protection. “The government is targeting my tribe,” he said, explaining he still feels in danger.
“It can even leave a security vacuum,” said Tet, another Nuer, who is in a POC camp in capital city Juba. “You know the POC is far from town, it’s an isolated area . . . Protecting the civilians, it is risky.”
Through WhatsApp audio messages, Tet told The Irish Times that disease was common, sanitation and hygiene was very poor, and there was a lack of medication. Many civilians had their homes destroyed or claimed by government soldiers at the beginning of the war, making it impossible to return to where they came from. “The people displaced in their houses should be compensated,” he said.
“Being in one place is very difficult, you can even face so many challenges, it is not an easy thing for a human being,” said Tet. “It is no different to detention, it is like we are in jail. We are traumatised.”