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UN moves to protect South Sudan civilians after years of criticism

South Sudanese people, who were internally relocated because of the civil war and various violent attacks, are seen at Civilian protection camp founded by the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) in Wau, in the Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan on 26 October 2016. More than 28,000 live in makeshift sheds at the camp. [Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Anadolu Agency]
Image of a UN envoy at a refugee camp in South Sudan [Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Anadolu Agency]

United Nations peacekeepers in South Sudan are moving more aggressively to protect civilians caught in the country's four-year civil war, after years of criticism for failures that led to the sacking of the mission's military chief last year.

This year, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has rescued aid workers and UN staff during attacks, saved civilians from abduction by armed groups, and pushed past roadblocks to a massacre site.

"A lot has been done … to improve UNMISS' ability to deliver on its protection of civilians mandate," said Lauren Spink, a South Sudan specialist for the independent US-based advocacy group Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).

South Sudan was the world's youngest country when it became independent from neighbouring Sudan in 2011 following decades of conflict.

But the new nation dissolved into civil war less than two years later, after President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, fired his deputy, Riek Machar, a Nuer.

Since then tens of thousands have died, and 3.5 million of the country's 12 million citizens have fled their homes, creating Africa's largest refugee crisis since Rwanda's 1994 genocide.

Base Protection

As the war spread, families flooded into UN bases seeking protection. More than 210,000 people now stay in six such bases, too fearful to go home.

Between December 2013 and July 2016, more than 100 civilians and four UN peacekeepers were killed in attacks on UN bases when peacekeepers didn't shoot back, fled, or delayed responding, according to data from the UN and CIVIC.

But a chastened UNMISS has gradually taken a tougher stance, boosted by the January arrival of new chief David Shearer, a former New Zealand labour party leader.

"We are trying to make our peacekeeping more robust," Shearer told Reuters.

Our peacekeepers are going to stand up to situations and challenge them.

Several incidents demonstrate the change. In April, peacekeepers deployed to Aburoc, a village on the Nile. After the UN arrived, rebels withdrew, and a government offensive that had displaced 20,000 civilians paused. Aid workers then intervened to stop a cholera outbreak.

The same month, peacekeepers went to Torit in the southeast to protect an orphanage housing 250 children caught between the front lines.

Mongolian peacekeepers in northern Bentiu town have repeatedly rescued civilians from abduction by armed groups this year, including one incident where they fired their weapons. Reuters was unable to find records of such interventions for previous years.

"There is improvement," said Peter Ruach, who lives in the camp outside the UN base in Juba. A year ago government troops raped dozens of women who ventured outside the fence to search for food.

Read: US journalist among 19 killed in South Sudan fighting

Strained History

UN peacekeepers have been in South Sudan since before independence, but found themselves frequently criticised after war broke out by aid groups like Doctors Without Borders, who said they were not doing enough to protect civilians.

A year ago, peacekeepers at the UN's main Juba base ignored desperate pleas for help when government troops attacked a hotel a mile away, killing one aid worker and gang-raping others.

In following days, government troops raped dozens of Nuer women outside the same base. Ten aid agencies released a joint statement accusing peacekeepers of failing to adequately patrol the area.

"The inability of UNMISS to protect civilians threatens to undermine any attempts at safety and security in the country and makes it impossible for humanitarian agencies to provide the help that is so urgently needed," Frederick McCray, South Sudan Country Director at charity CARE, said at the time.

The U.N. eventually launched an investigation that led to the firing of UNMISS' top general, Kenya's Johnson Ondieki, in November. In response, Kenya pulled its troops from the peacekeeping mission.

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