Hilary Matfess

On Thursday, April 17, armed youths broke through the gates of the UN Mission in South Sudan and opened fire, killing forty-eight people and injuring a hundred more before UN peacekeepers could repel the attack. The base—in Bor, the capital of the war-torn but oil-rich Jonglei—is estimated to house 5,000 displaced Sudanese. 

The attack calls into question what role the international community has in such crises. Advocates for international intervention argue that if a state is unable to protect its citizens from crimes against humanity, then the international community should bear that responsibility. In March, the UN Mission in South Sudan shifted its mandate from peacekeeping to “protecting civilians; facilitating humanitarian assistance; monitoring and reporting on human rights; preventing further inter-communal violence; and supporting the IGAD process as and when requested, and within available capabilities,” thus reflecting the ascendant idea of a "Responsibility to Protect."

However, the security breach in South Sudan poses a troubling conundrum, namely that while the international community has the responsibility to protect the most vulnerable populations, it does not have the capacity. 

The attack in Bor is the latest in a string of distressing developments in South Sudan. The first outbreaks of violence began in December when President Salva Kirr accused his vice president, Riek Machar, of attempting to overthrow him. The political situation quickly deteriorated, fracturing along along ethnic lines, as Kirr is a member of the Dinka ethnic group while Machar is a member of the Nuer ethnic group. Although these groups cooperated during the fight for liberation from Sudan, conflicts over resources later undermined this cohesion. In recent months the conflict has exploded into “tit-for-tat violence and a deliberate inflaming of ethnic sentiments on both sides.” Left unchecked, these pockets of conflict threaten to destroy the world’s newest country.  

The planting season in South Sudan, which begins in June, is likely to be compromised by the escalating violence. The delay or failure to plant could turn an ethno-political tragedy into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe. In April, Toby Lanzer, Deputy Special Representative to the Secretary-General for the UN Mission in South Sudan, said that the mission requires an additional $230 million dollars in aid to prevent “the worst outbreak of starvation” since the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. 

The UN estimates that by December 2014, the country will have more than 125,000 internally displaced people. Recent reports from Bentiu suggest the dismal projections are not without basis, claiming that rebels have killed at least four hundred civilians since April 15. In these attacks, which occurred in mosques, churches, and hospitals, rebel forces reportedly separated residents by ethnicity before slaughtering Dinkas and Nuers who did not support the rebellion. The UN Mission has confirmed that rebels have taken to local radio to propagate hate messages “declaring that certain ethnic groups should not stay in Bentiu and even calling on men from one community to commit vengeful sexual violence against women from another."

The country direly needs a ceasefire in the short term, as well as economic and political policies that address long-term growth and stability. The UN Mission in South Sudan has been operating since July 2011, demonstrating that an international presence was insufficient to deter ethno-political violence and remains ineffective at stymying the violence that has erupted. Although the mission is tasked with providing the resources and expertise necessary to facilitate a ceasefire—and ultimately the negotiation of a power-sharing arrangement—it is floundering in its primary mandate to provide protection to the most vulnerable segments of the population. 

Even as the world response to the crisis in South Sudan is largely failing, the timely presence of international actors arguably marks an improvement over the response to atrocities in Darfur, which were largely ignored until funding for an ineffective African Union intervention was procured. 

Nevertheless the UN’s willingness to intervene in South Sudan has not meant a viable solution to the crisis. In response to the most recent attack, Toby Lanzer cautioned those who would strike the base again. “We've got clear rules of engagement and we will use force if at all necessary to protect people whose sole purpose for being inside our base is to stay alive.” The attack on the UN Mission Base and the ethnic slaughter in Bentiu, however, suggest that peacekeepers cannot provide the basic security that advocates of humanitarian intervention would like to believe.

Image via France24

Hilary Matfess is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, pursuing a degree in International Economics and African Regional Studies. Her primary focus is modern African political economies. Follow her on twitter @HilaryMatfess