The United Nations should make public the findings of two UN investigations into the February 2016 attack on civilians in a UN camp in South Sudan and act on their recommendations, according to Human Rights Watch.
The brutal attack on the Malakal camp for civilians displaced from conflict in South Sudan killed at least 30 camp residents and injured 123. The UN established a special investigation to examine the causes of violence, as well as an internal board of inquiry to review peacekeepers’ responses to the incident. The Security Council will be briefed on both reports and their recommendations on June 22, in a closed-door session.
“The UN did the right thing by investigating both those responsible for carrying out this horrific attack and the lackluster peacekeeper response, but a behind-the-scenes inquiry is not enough,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch. “A camp that should have been a sanctuary came under fire, and no one has been held accountable.”
On February 16 and 17, fighting between youth inside the camp escalated along ethnic lines. In the early hours of February 18, armed Dinka men, including soldiers from the government Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), forced their way into the camp, shot civilians, and systematically burned homes of Nuer and Shilluk civilians as UN peacekeepers stood by. The UN Security Council condemned the attacks against civilians and the UN compound as possible war crimes.
A summary of the reports obtained by Human Rights Watch says that the special investigation found that, “it is difficult to exonerate the local SPLA commanders and government allied militias from involvement in the incident.” The investigation also found that the “Eastern Nile political leadership […] pursued a vigorous policy aimed at ensuring that the state would be exclusively for the Dinka ethnic group.”
The summary also states that South Sudanese soldiers in pick-up trucks assisted Dinka and Darfuri civilians as they left the camp in an orderly fashion before violence broke out.
The response by peacekeepers – composed of Ethiopian, Rwandan, and Indian contingents – was woefully inadequate. Independent researchers found that some forces waited for written authorization before using force, while others appeared to have abandoned their posts along the fence where the attackers entered. A report on the UN response by the medical group Doctors Without Borders says the peacekeepers actively blocked displaced people in the camp from reaching safety during a large part of the emergency.
The UN board of inquiry report also recommends an investigation of each case of “underperformance of troops and police” and decisive action to “hold the troop contributing countries accountable, ultimately repatriating commanders and/or units.”
The UN peacekeepers in South Sudan are mandated by the UN Security Council to use force when needed to protect civilians from imminent harm. The UN mission hosts nearly 200,000 displaced people on several of its bases. However, it has repeatedly failed to effectively protect civilians from armed attacks in or near its bases, underscoring wider problems in its effectiveness.
In April 2014, armed Dinka youths in Bor, supported by the local authorities, opened fire on the UN camp there, killing more than 50 civilians and injuring dozens. The South Sudanese government did not hold anyone to account for the killings, and a UN board of inquiry investigation into the UN response to that attack was never made public. The mission did not release its own findings on the attack until January 2015. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any steps by the UN following the Bor incident to avoid a similar attack in the future.
The precedent set in Bor created a permissive atmosphere of impunity and underlines the importance of public reporting and UN follow-up, Human Rights Watch said. On June 13, the head of UN peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, told media that the two Malakal investigation reports would soon be released. But the UN has issued only a brief note to correspondents about the reports, with limited details.
The special investigation report recommends that South Sudan’s Transitional Government of National Unity “hold accountable the individuals identified” as responsible for the violence, including “the political and military leadership in Eastern Nile state.” It also recommends that President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar make a public televised statement condemning any form of attack “against civilians anywhere, particularly those who have sought protection in UN sites.”
The South Sudanese government has not held anyone responsible for the attack at Malakal or other serious crimes against civilians during the country’s recent conflict. In March 2016, a government investigation into the Malakal incident concluded that the violence was “instigated by political interests and the failure” of the UN peacekeepers “to arrest the situation as required by their mandate to protect civilians,” but did not investigate any local political or military authorities for their role in the violence.
Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly urged the African Union to begin work to establish an African-South Sudanese court, envisioned in the country’s August 2015 peace agreement, to try the most serious crimes committed during the conflict.
“Holding those responsible for the Malakal attack accountable is only half the battle,” Kumar said. “The UN Security Council also should stand behind its mission in South Sudan, even when that means confronting troop-contributing countries whose soldiers aren’t delivering on their commitments.”