United Nations ignore horrific attack on aid workers and expatriates in South Sudan

Danger zone: UN police officers patrol a camp for internally displaced persons in Juba, South Sudan. (Andreea Campeanu, Reuters)

Danger zone: UN police officers patrol a camp for internally displaced persons in Juba, South Sudan. (Andreea Campeanu, Reuters)

On 11 July at about 3pm, just as a new bout of fighting in Juba was beginning to die down, government soldiers stormed into the Hotel Terrain complex. The hotel is popular with expatriates and international aid workers. Over the course of the next four hours, occupants were gang-raped, robbed and assaulted, with American citizens especially targeted.

In the context of South Sudan, such horrific atrocities are nothing new.
The country’s civil war has been unimaginably brutal, and gross human rights violations and war crimes have been well documented. The African Union’s report into human rights violations found that both sides have been culpable for the most egregious offences, including murder, mass rape, torture and the use of child soldiers.

During the attack, panicked victims phoned and messaged whoever they could think of for help, including embassies and the nearby United Nations base, where thousands of well-armed peacekeepers were stationed. The peacekeepers chose not to intervene, allowing the crimes to continue.

One American, who was released from the hotel, approached UN troop-contributing countries directly. “Everyone refused to go. Ethiopia, China and Nepal. All refused to go,” he told the Associated Press.

The UN’s inaction has provoked a storm of criticism. “We are deeply concerned that United Nations peacekeepers were apparently either incapable of or unwilling to respond to calls for help,” Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the UN, said on Monday. On Wednesday, the UN secretary general ordered an independent special investigation into the incident.

UN inaction in South Sudan is nothing new; it has a track record of failing to respond to attacks on South Sudanese civilians. “The UN peacekeepers in South Sudan are mandated by the UN Security Council to use force when needed to protect civilians from imminent harm,” said Human Rights Watch in June, in a statement documenting some of these failings.

“The UN mission hosts nearly 200 000 displaced people on several of its bases. However, it has repeatedly failed to effectively protect civilians from armed attacks in or near its bases, underscoring wider problems in its effectiveness.”

Although depressingly familiar, the attack on the hotel — and the failure of the UN to respond to it — was different to other atrocities in one key aspect. The identity of the victims underlined that aid workers are now targets in South Sudan, and the UN’s passivity shows that it is unable, or unwilling, to protect them.

Aid workers in warzones accept a certain level of risk. An enormous amount of effort and planning goes into mitigating those risks, and UN peacekeepers play a central role in those plans.

Proximity to armed peacekeepers is supposed to confer a degree of security — it’s no coincidence that the hotel complex was so close to a UN base. It was popular with aid workers for precisely that reason.

But the July 11 attack has shattered that sense of security. Many aid workers will leave South Sudan. Some nongovernmental organisations will close up shop. Convincing others to take jobs in Juba, or elsewhere in the country, will become much harder and much more expensive.

The humanitarian situation in South Sudan remains grave. At least five million people are at risk from food shortages and 1.6-million are internally displaced. Government services are almost nonexistent, which means the international humanitarian community, including UN agencies, are the primary source of emergency food supplies and healthcare in the country. Although impossible to measure, the long-term effect of a reduction in international humanitarian assistance could be catastrophic.

The effect of the hotel complex attack will be felt far beyond South Sudan’s borders. If the UN cannot be relied upon to protect aid workers in Juba, can it be relied upon to do so anywhere else?

Across the world, the delivery of international aid and development assistance has become a lot more dangerous. And therefore more difficult, and more expensive — and even less likely to make a difference to the people who need it the most. — ISS

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