UN Peacekeepers Protecting Civilians in South Sudan

South Sudan is in free fall. But things could be much, much worse if not for the presence of some 8,000 UN Peacekeepers currently deployed as part of the UN Mission in South Sudan.

According to the latest figures from the United Nations, 189,000 people have been displaced by the current crisis in South Sudan since 15 December. Nearly one third of the displaced —some 62,000 — are sheltering in UN bases throughout the country.

The blue squares in the map below shows the number of people sheltering at UNMISS bases throughout the country.

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It’s not hard to imagine how bad things could have gotten if there were no UN compounds to which civilians could flee.  With the exception of one tragic incident in the early days of the conflict in which thousands of militia overran a UN outpost, killing two peacekeepers and an several civilians, those huddled in UN compounds have been kept safe from external attack. Blue Helmets have been able to deter armed attacks on civilians and provide a modicum of security in an otherwise lawless and threatening environment. The main threats to their safety are from outbreaks of disease that accompany thousands of people who are suddenly forced to live in a cramped environment without resources to handle it.

The Security Council recognized the crucial role of UNMISS in deterring atrocities against civilians and has authorized an increase of the total number of peacekeepers from a 7,500 to 12500. Typically, it takes months to mobilize 5,000 peacekeepers, but the UN is  rapidly bolstering the ranks by taking peacekeepers from neighboring missions, like Liberia, Congo and Cote D’Ivoire.

One thing the UNMISS peacekeepers cannot do is impose an end to the civil war. Blue Helmets cannot compel the warring factions to lay down their arms, or force the two sides to reach a political agreement that ends the conflict. This is the stuff of international diplomacy.

Still, the crisis in South Sudan is showing the value of UN peacekeeping in keeping civilians protected from harm. A horrific mass atrocity event may have been averted because tens of thousands of civilians quickly found safety at UN bases throughout South Sudan.