UN Must Act Now to Protect Civilians in South Sudan

Ongoing emergency evacuations of foreign citizens from South Sudan and President Obama’s decision to deploy 47 U.S. troops to protect the U.S. Embassy and staff are stark reminders of the potential for further escalation of violence in this conflict-ridden country. Since violence re-erupted on July 7th, just ahead of the country’s fifth anniversary of independence, more than 270 people have been killed and more than ten thousand displaced in the capital, Juba. In United Nations peacekeeping bases across the city, hundreds of newly displaced civilians have sought shelter, even as the bases have sustained small arms and artillery fire resulting in the deaths of three UN personnel.

A fragile ceasefire has opened a window that the UN and other international actors must utilize to address the immediate fallout, act to protect civilians, and deliver much-needed humanitarian aid. South Sudanese leaders must do their part to ensure that the current ceasefire is upheld.

A fragile ceasefire has opened a window that the UN and other international actors must utilize to address the immediate fallout, act to protect civilians, and deliver much-needed humanitarian aid. South Sudanese leaders must do their part to ensure that the current ceasefire is upheld.

Because of the failures of South Sudanese leadership, the international community is once again tasked with the responsibility of providing protection for civilians in South Sudan. The robust mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) must be fulfilled, including by expanding UNMISS’ protective presence beyond its bases. The lesson of repeated violent outbreaks in South Sudan is that if civilians are not made to feel safe outside UNMISS bases, then they will seek safety inside. Refugees International (RI) welcomes, in this regard, yesterday’s statement by the head of UNMISS, Ellen Margrethe Løj, that peacekeepers needed to "get out to assist where needed." However, organizations in South Sudan have reported to RI that this is only happening to a limited extent.

RI has drawn attention to the need for UNMISS to strengthen its protection of civilians in past reports, and we reiterate such concerns today. First, the South Sudanese authorities must cease all actions that limit the movement of UNMISS staff and assets. Second, UNMISS mission leadership and individual troop contingents – in particular Ethiopia, China, and Rwanda – must take all possible measures to re-establish their protective presence beyond UNMISS bases. Third, those UNMISS personnel who do not act to protect civilians despite having the necessary means, must face accountability, including repatriation if warranted.

The UN Security Council must do its part, as it meets this month to consider a new mandate for UNMISS. The Council should increase the number of infantry and support units deployed to UNMISS, while ensuring that these troops deploy without any so-called “caveats” that would limit their ability to protect civilians.

RI has drawn attention to the need for UNMISS to strengthen its protection of civilians in past reports, and we reiterate such concerns today.

It will also be critical to get humanitarian aid out to those in need. The UN now estimates that three-quarters of South Sudan’s population need humanitarian assistance, with more than 60 incidents of impeded humanitarian access each month. In a joint advocacy letter in April, RI joined in expressing alarm at the drastic humanitarian situation and calling for unimpeded humanitarian access. The spike in fighting and displacement will only make the need for access and strong financial support from donor governments all the more critical. South Sudan’s leaders, who have publicly ordered troops to stand down, must hold both those who continue to commit violence and those who block international aid efforts to account. Failure of South Sudan’s leaders to allow unfettered access must be met by pressure at the highest levels of the UN, African Union, and all countries with influence.

Finally, RI has received reports that civilians seeking to flee the violence are barred from leaving the country, both at the Juba airport and the country’s border with Uganda. Authorities in South Sudan and neighboring countries should immediately rescind any such orders and permit citizens to seek asylum and other protections afforded by the 1951 Refugee Convention. International donors should also prepare for possible increased refugee flows, which would inevitably add strain to camps and host communities.

We hope South Sudanese leaders will do what is needed for South Sudan’s people, who have endured years of conflict and long for peace. In the meantime, the UN must act now to protect South Sudan’s civilians.