The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has rejected accusations of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) about failing to protect civilians in South Sudan, particularly in the oil-rich Unity State.
“We underscore that the responsibility to protect civilians is primarily the responsibility of the host government, and the warring parties are directly responsible for their actions in violation of international human rights and humanitarian law,” UNMISS Acting Spokesperson Shantal Persuad said in an emailed statement Wednesday.
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On Tuesday, Pete Buth, MSF Holland’s deputy operations director and manager of activities in the Unity State, said that the UN mission’s lack of action was “shocking.”
“There has been a complete and utter protection failure on UNMISS’ part in southern Unity. There has not been any protection to speak of until now while the violence has been ongoing and there have been thousands of people coming into the sites in Bentiu from southern Unity – those who manage to flee – and they have been telling their stories,” Buth said.
“It’s not like this is a secret. They [refugees] talk about the most horrendous incidents of sexual violence and I’m sure we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he added.
MSF added that the situation in Leer County of Unity State, the hometown of rebel leader Riek Machar “was dire.”
Persuad said that the UN mission established a base in the area in early November, and its presence created an environment that allowed humanitarian organisations such as the MSF to return in the area.
“UNMISS is maintaining 24-hour protection to more than 185,000 civilians in its bases nationwide and is continually strengthening its efforts to protect civilians outside the bases,” she added.
In October, Protection Cluster, an umbrella agency for 60 South Sudanese and international aid organisations, said that it received reports of killings of at least 80 civilians in Unity State; 57 of those killed were children; 29 of the 57 children had reportedly drowned after they tried to protect themselves from attacks in swamps.
Under the terms of the mandate given to the mission by the UN Security Council, peacekeepers are "authorised to take the necessary action... to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence."
The failure to protect civilians displaced by the fighting who sought shelter at the base has led to accusations that the UN force was not neutral. UN Resolution 1590, which created the UN mission, called for "particular attention" to be given to the protection of "vulnerable groups, including internally displaced persons."
Fighting broke out in the country in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused Vice President Riek Machar of plotting a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country. War continues despite numerous cease-fire deals.
“Throughout the 23 months of conflict, Unity state has been one of the most conflict-affected states. In April 2015, following an upsurge of violence in Unity, thousands of civilians were forced to flee into the surrounding bush and swamplands or into the UN Protection of Civilians sites in Bentiu,” according to MSF.
“Almost 600,000 people are displaced in Unity state… Civilians have been repeatedly targeted and subjected to extreme levels of violence, including rapes, abductions, extortions, lootings and executions. No one has been spared the violence,” MSF added in its statement released Monday.