By Somini Sengupta – UNITED NATIONS — Twenty years after Rwanda, is the United Nations any better at preventing mass atrocities? The question hangs over many of the United Nations’ peacekeeping missions, none more starkly than the one in South Sudan. Roméo Dallaire, the peacekeeping force commander in Rwanda in 1994, alluded to it this week in events marking the 20-year anniversary of the genocide there. Back then, his warnings about looming atrocities — the so-called Jan. 11 genocide fax to the United Nations Secretariat — went unheeded. United Nations peacekeepers pulled back. Nearly a million people, mostly Tutsis, were massacred.
The violence in South Sudan follows a very different trajectory. Whensimmering political rivalries burst into widespread attacks on civilians in mid-December and tens of thousands of people ran to United Nations bases for protection, the Security Council swiftly authorized a near-doubling of troops. Hilde Johnson, the special representative for the secretary general in South Sudan, said reinforcements of “people and equipment” would be on the way in 48 hours. The Security Council got plaudits: Mr. Dallaire called it “an extraordinary step forward.”
Three weeks later, South Sudan is still waiting. Of the promised 5,500 troops and 423 police officers that the Security Council authorized, the police are expected to be fully deployed by Friday, according to a United Nations spokesperson in South Sudan. But the troops have not arrived, only an advance team of 25 Nepali soldiers to prepare for a full battalion due later. As for equipment, the mission has received three utility helicopters and one transport helicopter, but none of the attack helicopters it had urgently requested to guard against attacks on civilians.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan, or Unmiss, has been credited for sheltering vulnerable civilians on a scale never done before, though not for figuring out how to stop the fighting. Government forces and their rivals continue to battle over important oil regions. Peace talks are going nowhere. Peacekeepers can do little more than guard the civilians taking refuge in their bases — around 65,000 people. Fighting near one base in Malakal killed a 14-year-old child sheltering inside and wounded an unspecified number, the United Nations said Wednesday. Before that, civilians hunkering inside were wounded by stray bullets when the town last changed hands between rival factions.
And so what was once supposed to be a model United Nations exercise in a hopeful new nation, with a relatively small contingent of 7,000 peacekeepers and close cooperation with the country’s leaders, has turned into a defining crisis for the United Nations. The light footprint has not worked. Efforts to reinforce the mission have been bogged down. And the peacekeepers now find themselves with a tough mission of protecting civilians with no end to the fighting in sight.
The gravest risk for the United Nations now is the prospect of South Sudan’s conflict turning regional like the one in the Democratic Republic of Congo next door, which has over the years drawn an array of African countries into proxy battles for control of the country’s rich mineral resources. South Sudan has oil to fight over. Ugandan troops are already in the country, and on Wednesday their president, Yoweri Museveni, declared that Ugandan soldiers were fighting alongside troops loyal to the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir.
“Unmiss deserves credit for defending so many civilians, but it has looked politically irrelevant as the war has intensified,” said Richard Gowan, an analyst at New York University. “In essence, Unmiss is now the custodian of tens of thousands of hostages. If there is no cease-fire or political settlement, every citizen who has fled to a U.N. base remains vulnerable to future violence.”
A Western diplomat on the Security Council praised what he called “a more robust strategy” to protect civilians by committing more troops. But the diplomat acknowledged that the Security Council had failed to recognize that Mr. Kiir’s decision to summarily fire his entire cabinet last summer — including the former vice president, Riek Machar, who is now leading the fight against the government — would lead to such a violent outburst.
“There was a failure of recognizing risks,” he said.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former under secretary general for peacekeeping operations for the United Nations, said preventing the escalation of violence required political muscle from the United Nations, not just military might. “Momentum is everything,” Mr. Guéhenno said. “If the thugs smell weakness, they push further, and it can lead to a debacle, while a strong posture, even with a bit of bluff, can go a long way in stopping escalation.”
It was not supposed to be this way. South Sudan was to be a model mission. The United Nations oversaw the creation of the country by supervising the independence referendum that led to South Sudan’s creation in 2011. The United Nations special representative, Ms. Johnson, was seen as being close to the country’s new leaders. The mission was tasked with helping the new government get the country up and running.
But the mission has not had an easy time, as its reports to the Security Council have warned. Its helicopter was shot down, its convoys were attacked, one of its senior human-rights investigators was thrown out of the country by the government.
Nor was the Security Council entirely uninformed about the unrest. Just months after South Sudan declared independence, about 8,000 fighters from the Lou Nuer ethnic group razed huts, burned granaries, stole tens of thousands of cattle and killed hundreds of people. The United Nations came under heavy criticism at the time because its 3,000 combat-ready peacekeepers, saying they were outnumbered and outgunned, remained in their bases.
Last April, armed men killed seven United Nations employees and five Indian peacekeepers in an ambush in Jonglei State. In December came the turning point, when a force of 2,000 fighters overran the United Nations base in the town of Akobo, killing 11 civilians and two peacekeepers and prompting the Security Council to approve temporary reinforcements.
Fighting this week surrounded the base in Malakal. Peacekeepers fired at the combatants in an effort to deter them from coming closer. Bullets flew into the compound, killing the teenager.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday called on the United Nations to “accelerate the deployment of these reinforcements and take other urgent steps to improve the protection of civilians, including better security around Unmiss compounds.”
At the moment, it seems the Security Council has exercised little to no leverage. Its call for a cessation of hostilities last week fell on deaf ears. Neither Mr. Kiir nor his rival, Mr. Machar, is budging in negotiations underway in Ethiopia. The death toll in South Sudan remains a mystery, with the International Crisis Group saying last week that it could be as high as 10,000.
On Wednesday, Mr. Dallaire reminded that even when he finally received the green light from the Security Council to protect civilians from mass atrocities in Rwanda, it took an additional two months for troops to arrive. Now, as then, there are the usual difficulties: persuading countries to send their soldiers and others to help get them there. The United Nations does not have heavy-lift aircraft to transport things like armed personnel carriers.
Seated at the same table here on Wednesday morning at an event to mark the Rwanda genocide, the United Nations deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson told the audience that the United Nations had taken the lessons of Rwanda to heart. It had pledged to speak out earlier about human-rights violations and in South Sudan, at least, had opened its gates to anyone who sought protection.
“Thousands of civilians are alive today because they’ve sought shelter in U.N. facilities,” he said. He then issued an important caveat: “For the moment, people are largely safe.”