Brutal Violence in South Sudan: How Peacekeepers Can Do More to Protect Civilians

November 27, 2016

The hope that filled South Sudan at its independence is rapidly disintegrating. Brutal tensions flared again in July 2016 after heavy fighting from December 2013 to August 2015 came to a tenuous halt with the signing of a peace deal between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar. This seemingly constant cycle of politically and now ethnically motivated violence has displaced over 2.6 million people and caused tens of thousands of conflict-related deaths. Because of an urgent and unmet need for protection, more than 200,000 civilians are sheltering at United Nations protection of civilians (POC) sites throughout the country. Both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Movement in Opposition (SPLA-IO) have purposefully attacked civilians based on their ethnic background or perceived political ideologies, committed acts of rape and sexual violence, arbitrarily arrested and detained individuals, and attacked journalists and United Nations personnel. Both parties to the conflict have committed gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, with leaders from both sides permitting these violations to occur by forces under their command. A recently released U.N. report confirmed that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) could have done much more to protect civilians. As it currently operates, UNMISS does not have the capability or capacity to stop the brutal violence against civilians. UNMISS will need to make major changes to its training requirements, posture, and operating procedures to more effectively protect civilians in South Sudan’s complex environment.

July Violence Intensifies

This latest round of violence erupted on July 8, 2016 after months of increasing tensions throughout the country. Just before this violence surged, the SPLA, led by President Salva Kiir, reportedly attempted to arrest members of the opposition leader’s guard in Juba. The guard members, who are loyal to Vice President Riek Machar as the leader of the SPLA-IO, resisted arrest and a shootout occurred. Five SPLA soldiers were killed, and soldiers from both sides of the conflict suffered serious injuries. Violence between the two parties continued on July 8 outside the presidential palace, with fighting in Juba intensifying on July 10th and 11th near the U.N. House in Jebel and the U.N. base in Tongping. Both the SPLA and SPLA-IO have systematically committed gross violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, this time firing indiscriminately in neighborhoods known for housing civilians and around a number of the POC sites. Specifically, the SPLA used tanks, artillery, and even helicopter gunships in close proximity to heavily populated civilian areas in their operations, causing a significant loss of civilian life and property. They also blocked the free movement of civilians fleeing the violence, committed widespread looting and sexual violence, and conducted summary executions. For its part, the SPLA-IO put huge numbers of civilians at risk by deploying in and around civilian-populated areas during the height of the conflict, at times even sheltering inside POC sites. Whether or not the opposition sheltered in and around heavily populated civilian areas to strategically shield themselves from attack, which could constitute a war crime of using human shields, the end result of these operations was that the civilian population was put at increased risk. These continued abuses by both the government of South Sudan and the opposition only serve to heighten the tensions and tear apart the social fabric between communities throughout the country.

Where Was UNMISS?

As civilians were put in harm’s way and violence escalated in close proximity to the peacekeepers and their bases, UNMISS did little to protect civilians. There are numerous reports that peacekeepers fled their posts entirely, going so far as to leave the gated entrance to one of the POC sites wide open. Peacekeepers also refused to engage even when humanitarians and U.N. personnel they are directly mandated to protect were being physically and sexually assaulted within the confines of the city. Even when a quick reaction force was ordered to intervene,  the Chinese and Ethiopian battalions refused to go to the humanitarian compound under assault from the SPLA — they never left the U.N. House gate. However, some UNMISS peacekeepers did in fact support and protect civilians. A Rwandan unit cut holes in a fence at one POC site to usher in fleeing civilians when the main entrance was blocked with gunfire. While many Ethiopian peacekeepers appear to have abandoned their posts during the height of the violence, some witnesses recall the Ethiopians responding to fire in the immediate vicinity of a POC site, explaining to many civilians sheltering from fire how to more effectively protect themselves and evacuating some civilian casualties. Unfortunately, these positive instances in which civilians were protected were too few and far between. This violence against civilians and the inadequate response by UNMISS demonstrates that the current operating norms in UNMISS are untenable and ineffective.

Urgently Needed Changes

Although a country’s own government is primarily responsible for protecting its population, the government of South Sudan has directly targeted its own civilians. The opposition has now also increasingly put civilians in harm’s way. POC, the major line of effort in the new UNMISS mandate, has been inadequate in South Sudan for a long time, but July 2016 was a disaster. To successfully protect the civilian population and help stabilize the country, UNMISS will have to prioritize the following major changes.

1. End the constant Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) violations by the government of South Sudan to allow for actual free movement of the peacekeepers.

One reason peacekeepers claim they were unable to protect civilians in July was because they were more or less confined to their bases. This violation of the SOFA, which basically allows for free movement of peacekeepers in the country to do their job, is only one of many that have occurred in the last few years. The U.N. Security Council reported at least 450 violations of the SOFA in 9 months in 2015, violations that carry terrible consequences for the mission. Without the freedom of movement to protect civilians, UNMISS cannot implement its mandate or maintain a perception among civilians that the peacekeepers are protectors.

While it is clear now that peacekeepers should not have ceded their freedom of movement to the government of South Sudan long ago, UNMISS now faces two possible courses of action. One option is to move without the permission of the government, which would likely result in peacekeepers being fired upon by the very government that asked them for help. This escalation of conflict could put additional civilians at risk, cause the peacekeepers to engage government forces in individual circumstances, and eventually serve as a cause for the dismissal of UNMISS from South Sudan entirely. In my opinion, a better option is for UNMISS to set a date and basically say that from this date forward, peacekeepers will either possess freedom of movement or there will be an arms embargo. Some argue that an arms embargo would do little to help a country so awash with weapons, but at this point it would still begin to stifle the brutal violence. With the very real possibility of genocide looming on the horizon, this is a chance the international community needs to take immediately. If the international community does not put pressure on the government to stop the SOFA violations, South Sudan will continue to suffer in the same way it has since 2013.

2. Educate, train and prepare commanders — particularly tactical commanders – to better understand and instruct their units in effective use of their rules of engagement and escalation of force tactics.

Peacekeepers must deploy with a full and complete understanding of their rules of engagement and escalation of force tactics to effectively protect civilians. Without a deep understanding of when and how to react to violence, civilians will continue to suffer. South Sudan-specific scenario-based training exercises, table-top exercises and discussions must be repeated periodically throughout a mission, with almost constant rehearsals and conversations at all levels of command, to help peacekeepers understand the consequences of both their actions and inactions. They need to think through the actions they would be expected to take in different situations before they actually find themselves in those complicated situations.

The aforementioned U.N. after-action report includes some useful guidance for this training. It suggests that mobile training teams of experienced peacekeepers need to train battalion officers. However, I believe that this training should be done at all levels of command to ensure that peacekeepers in a command position understand not only what is expected of them, but also what is expected of the more junior peacekeepers. In particular, I believe that the key players who must understand all aspects of the rules of engagement are the tactical-level platoon commanders and section/squad-level small unit leaders, who are the peacekeepers on the ground making split-second decisions about the use of lethal force. Because there are times in a mission when it is not possible to ask for permission to use force from higher-ranking officers, a platoon leader or a company commander must understand that he/she has the authority and obligation to take immediate action.

Unfortunately, peacekeepers from many countries believe that the decision to implement the escalation of force process or use lethal force must be made by higher-ranking officers. They sometimes wait or refuse to engage until a superior has made the decision for them. Many peacekeepers tend to fear repercussions from their own nation or the mission if they engage without direct permission. This delay can result in increased danger to the peacekeeping force and to civilians. Tactical-level peacekeepers need to know that their leaders will support them if the peacekeepers using force believed the actions they took to protect civilians were necessary and legal. This requires a level of trust within the command structure that is not always present, but each unit must begin to build this trust and work together toward the common goal of protecting civilians.

The events of July 2016 show that the UNMISS peacekeepers do not understand what they are legally, morally, and ethically authorized and obligated to do to protect civilians. UNMISS peacekeepers continue to display a risk-averse posture that does not protect civilians or communities from sexual violence or criminal threats. This failure to understand the rules of engagement and how to cohesively implement the POC strategy has put the entire mission in jeopardy.

3. Develop a public information campaign in South Sudan about what peacekeepers are actually there to do to prevent already-unrealistic expectations of the civilian population from developing further.

Sometimes the lack of understanding about the mission of peacekeepers creates unreasonable expectations among the local population. To help alleviate this misunderstanding that can turn the population against peacekeepers, UNMISS needs to develop a public information campaign to reach the population.

UNMISS peacekeepers are basically in country to create time and space for the government and people of South Sudan to find their own way and create their own path to peace, but it is clear that the civilian population does not understand the role of the United Nations. Instead of allowing this lack of understanding to spin out of control, UNMISS needs to increase its engagement with local civil society alongside tribal and religious leaders. UNMISS should also immediately set up its own radio station, which could effectively explain the role of each actor in building peace to help manage the currently unrealistic expectations.

4. Increase UNMISS medical evacuation capabilities so peacekeepers will be more willing to take necessary risks to protect civilians.

When a vehicle was attacked outside one of the POC sites protected by the United Nations on July 10, six Chinese peacekeepers were wounded and two eventually died. At least one of these deaths could have been prevented if the peacekeeper could have been moved to a higher level hospital only 15 kilometers away that had the ability to perform blood transfusions. Instead, he bled out in 16 hours because UNMISS was unable to move him to an appropriate facility. While one cause of this terrible loss was the inability to achieve SPLA transport to the higher-level medical facility, this also shows that the medical capabilities in UNMISS itself must be drastically improved. A mistake of this magnitude meant that a peacekeeper that was in South Sudan to help build the stability of another country unnecessarily died. This does not engender loyalty or risk-taking within the peacekeeping mission. A severe lack of medical care promotes a risk-averse posture and a minimal desire to actually help the civilians the peacekeepers are there to protect.

With the extreme weather, limited mobility, and few maintenance options in the field, peacekeepers operating with a risk-averse posture and very limited patrolling for a country the size of Texas with only 200 miles of paved road is utterly unacceptable. Currently, UNMISS seems to have an almost complete aversion to patrolling. To many South Sudanese, peacekeeping has become wrongly synonymous with POC sites. In effect, UNMISS has limited their capabilities to be an effective peacekeeping force and are now considered more of a sporadically effective guard force. Nonetheless, limited medical capabilities like the one mentioned above will only increase the perception — and reality — that the peacekeepers will be endangering their lives anytime they go off their bases, including for increasingly necessary long-range patrols and night patrols. These peacekeepers are young soldiers who are putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of another country’s stability. UNMISS peacekeepers cannot be expected to successfully do their job without the knowledge that the international community will do everything it can to save their lives.


The people of South Sudan deserve the peace they have been working toward for over 50 years. Unfortunately for the world’s newest country, violence against civilians, gross human rights violations, and forced displacement all continue. This violence committed against civilians by both sides has left little trust in the political and military elites of South Sudan. This is why UNMISS needs to succeed, despite all its flaws.

The U.N. Special Investigation on the July 2016 violence in Juba makes clear that UNMISS could have done much more to protect civilians when they needed the protection the most. UNMISS was unprepared and unwilling to take on the challenges presented during a vitally important period in July 2016. To more effectively protect the civilians of South Sudan from the predatory behavior of their government, its opposition, and other predatory actors, UNMISS will need to make some major changes to its overall posture and operating procedures. Peacekeepers can play a major role in ending South Sudan’s current conflict, if they are buttressed by commitment from the international community to end SOFA violations, a stronger understanding of their rules of engagement,  a public information campaign to manage the expectations of the civilian population, and increased medical evacuation capabilities to build the confidence of the force.


Cheri Baker has been working as a Senior Subject Matter Expert in Human Rights and Protection of Civilians as a contractor for the U.S. Department of State’s African Contingency Operation Training and Assistance (ACOTA) Program for approximately three years. She also recently completed a consultancy with the Center for Civilians in Conflict where she supported the creation of innovative training material on reducing harm to civilian populations caught in armed conflict. She has conducted primary and secondary research in and on protection issues in South Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Ghana.

Image: United Nations photo by Mohamed Nour Eldin