A Massacre in South Sudan and the Limits of UN Peacekeeping


It’s a heavy time for South Sudan. Last week, the UN warned of famine should $230 million of donor funds not materialize before the rainy season begins next month. Now, there is word of a massacre of hundreds of civilians in the city of Benitu, an oil town.

A rebel contingent, known as SPLA in Opposition, captured the city on Tuesday. They began systematically targeting certain ethnicities, including members of their own ethnic group whom they deemed not sufficiently supportive. A grim press release from the UN Mission in South Sudan details what happened next.

At Bentiu Hospital, on 15 April, several Nuer men, women and children were killed for hiding and  declining to join other Nuers who had gone out to cheer the SPLA in Opposition forces as they  entered the town. Individuals from other South Sudanese communities, as well as Darfuris, were specifically targeted and killed at the hospital. On the same day, the SPLA in Opposition forces  entered the Kali-Ballee Mosque where civilians had taken shelter, separated individuals of certain  nationalities and ethnic groups and escorted them to safety, while the others were killed. More than  200 civilians were reportedly killed and over 400 wounded at the Mosque. At the Catholic church  and at the vacated WFP compound, SPLA in Opposition soldiers similarly asked civilians who had  taken refuge there to identify their ethnic origins and nationalities and proceeded to target and kill  several individuals.

Many of those who survived this assault have taken refuge at a nearby UN base, which has become a de-facto IDP camp. There are now over 22,000 people sheltering at the UN camp in Benitu.

Toby Lanzer, a top UN official in South Sudan, documented an endless stream of humanity as they fled to relative safety of the UN compound.

I say ‘relative’ safety, because even in a UN compound there is no guarantee. Last week, in the city of Bor, militia entered the UN compound and opened fire, killing 20 people before they were pushed back by blue helmets.

In all, there are about 8,500 armed UN Peacekeepers in South Sudan–a country the size of Texas. The actual authorized size the peacekeeping mission is 12,500 troops, but countries have so far not provided all the troops the UN has requested. About 75,000 civilians are now sheltering in UN bases throughout the country.

This is clearly a violent and volatile situation. These peacekeepers are outgunned and out numbered. The massacre in Benitu on Tuesday shows that peacekeepers are unable to prevent attacks on civilians outside the base. The assault on the UN compound in Bor last week calls into question UN Peacekeepers’ ability to deter attacks on civilians huddled inside their bases.

These 8,500 troops clearly cannot impose a peace. They are too few, for too large a territory, with foes apparently determined to wage war on civilian populations. If the international community is serious about preventing a slaughter in South Sudan, they need to step up and provide the UN the tools it requires to protect civilians. This includes more troops, more equipment and funding for a humanitarian operation to stave off a famine. Deeper still, countries with influence in the region need to use their muscle and compel the warring factions to negotiate a political settlement to this conflict.  As it stands, the situation is just getting worse by the day.