The UNPOL and Military components of the UNMISS conduct a sweep for weapons and contraband in the Protection of Civilian site 3 neighboring the UN base, Jebel area, Juba. Photo: UNMISS / Eric Kanalstein

Are South Sudanese Forces Deliberately Targeting Americans? Is the UN next?

Colum Lynch has an explosive scoop in Foreign Policy reporting an incident in July in which a convoy of American diplomats was fired upon by South Sudanese government forces. The diplomats were traveling in armored cars, and when they passed the presidential palace they were met with a barrage of gunfire.

Anxious that Juba was set to explode, Molly Phee, the U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, phoned [her deputy James Donegan] and six other American diplomats at the restaurant and ordered them to cut short a farewell dinner for a colleague over beer and Indian food. The Americans’ two armored SUVs were passing by the palace when more than half a dozen presidential guards stationed at a checkpoint pulled them to the side of the road. Brandishing AK-47 assault rifles, they yelled at the Americans in a mix of Arabic and Dinka, South Sudan’s main indigenous language. At one point, the soldiers tried to force one of the car doors open, prompting the South Sudanese driver in the lead vehicle to floor it.

The second car followed as the guards opened fire from behind at both vehicles, forcing Donegan’s car to swerve into a parked car, which happened to be owned by a senior South Sudanese national security official. The trail car whizzed past, sideswiping Donegan’s vehicle as it barreled down the main thoroughfare before turning onto CPA Road — named after the U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement — and racing back to the U.S. Embassy. A second group of more than half a dozen South Sudanese troops, dressed in government military uniforms, unleashed a barrage of fire at the Americans. A third cluster of armed soldiers farther along the escape route sprayed the speeding American vehicles.

The incident occurred on July 7, just as the capitol city Juba was descending into several days of fighting between government forces and forces loyal to rebel leader Riek Machar. It was also days before government troops stormed a hotel compound popular with foreign aid workers, killed a prominent South Sudanese journalist, staged mocked executions, and gang raped and beat foreign aid workers —  singling out Americans for abuse. 

So what is behind these series of attacks on Americans in South Sudan–a country the USA has longed backed and helped achieve independence from Sudan just five years ago? Cameron Hudson, who directs the Holocaust Museum’s genocide prevention center, has a theory:

“I think this is not accidental,” said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA and State Department official who has advised three U.S. special envoys to Sudan. Hudson, who currently runs the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s genocide prevention program, suspects Kiir and his supporters want to drive prying Western eyes out of the country in order to better prosecute the war against Machar. He said the recent attacks on foreigners appear to be part of a concerted campaign.

“If you connect the dots — this is a way to signal, ‘We don’t want you here, and you need to get out of our way so we can conduct whatever sort of scorched-earth campaign we’d like against our political and ethnic enemies,’” Hudson told FP. Indeed, several American diplomats withdrew from South Sudan in the days following the July 11 incident.

The broader context here is is important.

The United States lead a push at the Security Council to authorize an additional 4,000 peacekeepers to South Sudan. These peacekeepers would be deployed mostly to Juba, President Salva Kiir’s back yard. They would also be empowered  with a more robust mandate than the other 14,000 blue helmets in the country to  “promptly and effectively engage any actor that is credibly found to be preparing attacks, or engages in attacks, against United Nations protection of civilians sites, other United Nations premises, United Nations personnel, international and national humanitarian actors, or civilians.” In other words, this new force is not merely a defensive peacekeeping force, but can pro-actively engage militants who are threatening civilians–including government forces.

The resolution passed on August 12. But in the weeks since, the government of South Sudan balked, refusing to give these new troops the consent they require to deploy to South Sudan. (Peacekeepers, without exception, cannot deploy to a country that refuses to consent to their deployment. The non-consensual deployment of troops to a sovereign country is tantamount to a military invasion, which is not something  in which UN peacekeepers engage).

The Security Council, including US Ambassador Samantha Power, visited Juba earlier this week. There, President Salva Kiir finally agreed to the deployment of the additional peacekeepers. His commitment to cooperate with the mission, however, is still exceedingly tenuous.

“There are some questions the UN Mission in South Sudan and the Security Council must consider as it considers paths forward. Is the mission willing and able to engage in active combat with Government of South Sudan soldiers to protect civilians?” said Better World Campaign president and United Nations Foundation vice president Peter Yeo in a statement released ahead of a Congressional hearing on South Sudan on today.* “What happens if the Government then kicks the UN peacekeepers out of the country, exposing hundreds of thousands of civilians to a hostile government?”

Indeed, this is a contingency for which the international community needs to plan. Should the government of South Sudan obstruct the work of the UN mission and engineer the exodus of peacekeepers from the country, the nightmare scenario envisioned by Cameron Hudson could yet unfold. On the other hand, with sustained diplomatic pressure and broad support from the international community, the peacekeeping mission could offer a modicum of relief to the war weary people of South Sudan.