UN peacekeepers stayed in their bases rather than risk doing their job of protecting civilians during an outbreak of fighting in South Sudan in July, a rights group has said.

Chinese peacekeepers in the capital Juba “abandoned their posts entirely” at one civilian protection site where tens of thousands had sought safety from successive bouts of fighting, the report by Washington-based Center for Civilians in Conflict (Civic) said.

Although Ethiopian troops appear to have withdrawn from their perimeter positions at another base, civilians said the peacekeepers helped evacuate civilian casualties and, on at least a few occasions, returned fire when fighters targeted the camp.

Outside the fortified bases, however, peacekeeper presence was “non-existent”.

On 11 July, around 80 to 100 rebel soldiers attacked a compound in Juba where they raped and gang-raped at least five international aid workers, physically or sexually assaulted at least a dozen others, the report said. They also executed a South Sudanese journalist –apparently because of his Nuer ethnicity. 

The UN mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) gave orders for a peacekeepers to intervene but none “ever tried to leave their bases”, the report said, with the Chinese and Ethiopian battalions refusing to go. 

“The UN peacekeeping mission faced a challenging environment during the July violence in Juba, but it underperformed in protecting civilians inside and outside its bases,” said Federico Borello, executive director of Civic. “To ensure that such problems are not repeated, it is critical that the UN be transparent about what went wrong and hold accountable any individuals or units that failed to live up to the protection mandate.”

Civic also called for a UN arms embargo on South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 and was plunged into conflict in December 2013, when the president, Salva Kiir, accused his former deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup.

A patchily implemented August 2015 peace deal saw Machar return to the capital earlier this year, but fresh fighting between his forces and government soldiers loyal to Kiir erupted in July.

During four days of fighting between the rival forces, artillery rounds and gunfire hit two UN bases, killing two Chinese peacekeepers. Civilians died both inside and outside the UN bases and rebel soldiers outside raped many women – some within sight of UN sentries.

The failings in July were nothing new, Civic said. The group previously investigated an incident in February, when peacekeepers from Ethiopia, India and Rwanda stood by as government soldiers attacked another Protection of Civilian site in the northern town of Malakal, killing at least 30 civilians.

Months later, the UN admitted to peacekeeper “inaction, abandonment of post and refusal to engage” during the Malakal attack, but failed to hold any commanders or troops to account.

Civic said the UN mission was hampered by “inadequate support” from UN headquarters and has been “repeatedly blocked, harassed, and, at times, even attacked by the parties to the conflict”.

UN peacekeeping officials said the report “raises a number of important issues”, noting that an independent investigation into the Juba violence is due to present its findings shortly.

The UN sites offering civilians refuge were “unsustainable and cannot provide a reliable option for the physical security” of tens of thousands of South Sudanese, the peacekeeping department said in a written response.

“The investment we urgently need to make and prioritize in South Sudan is putting the peace process back on track,” it added.

Rebel leader Machar is currently exiled in Khartoum, from where he has called for “armed resistance” against Kiir’s government.

Courtesy The Guardian