Recent Intertribal Conflicts in South Sudan Bring Challenges for Peacekeepers

Earlier this year in South Sudan, fighting between the Lou Nuer and Murle communities escalated sharply, causing casualties and destruction of property; tens of thousands of civilians fled their homes. The UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has a Chapter VII mandate that gives authority for peacekeepers to intervene to protect civilians under the imminent threat of violence, using force if necessary.

More than 120,000 people have been affected with this increase in ethnic clashes in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. Given the region’s long history of intertribal conflict, retaliatory attacks will most likely continue, threatening the future development of the newly independent country. What has been the UN’s role in preventing violence against civilians?

Key Conclusions

The recent increase and spate of ethnic clashes in the Jonglei region has cast doubt on the mission’s ability to effectively protect civilians. Last month, a New York Times article criticized UNMISS for failing to prevent an attack of 6,000 Lou Nuer tribe youths against a Murle tribe. It reported that UN peacekeepers “tracked the advancing fighters from helicopters for days before the massacre and rushed in about 400 soldiers. But the peacekeepers did not fire a single shot, saying they were greatly outnumbered and could have easily been massacred themselves.”

The challenges facing peacekeepers in South Sudan are complicated by a long history of intertribal violence attributed to traditional cattle raiding. Cattle are a valuable currency as a result of South Sudan’s lack of basic services and economic opportunities. Coupled with the competition for resources to survive and the supply of small arms, raids have become more violent, prompting herders to arms themselves in defense and for retaliation. As such, distinguishing between civilians and combatants in conflict situations in order protect the former is becoming more difficult for peacekeepers in the field.


In these violent clashes, such as the one in January, all sides have played the role of victim and aggressor. The lack of capacity of the South Sudan forces (SPLA) and UNMISS peacekeepers to effectively prevent tribal violence has meant that groups are now taking protection into their own hands.

The January attack on the Murle tribe has again underscored ongoing resource and capacity constraints faced by UN peacekeeping missions. UNMISS has an authorized military strength of 7,000, but only has approximately 5,100 soldiers deployed to the mission. The peacekeepers deployed during the January attack were vastly outnumbered – only 400 peacekeepers, in addition to the 400 SPLA officers were expected to respond to the advancing 6,000-strong force. UNMISS also emphasized its shortfall of helicopters as a further constraint on the mission to quickly respond to threats of attacks on civilians, as remote areas of the country can only be reached by air.

A key challenge to implementing a protection of civilians mandate in South Sudan that is seldom discussed in the public arena and that requires further consideration by the UN is the difficultly in distinguishing the civilians that need protection. In the case of South Sudan, clearly some victims of violence will be unarmed victims with no prior role in a conflict; yet, the cyclical nature of long-standing intertribal conflicts has complicated matters.

Peacekeepers are expected to distinguish civilians from combatants at all times. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations training on the protection of civilians teaches peacekeepers that civilians only lose their protections for as long as they directly participate in hostilities. While possession of a weapon does not necessarily give the person status as combatant, individuals are no longer entitled to protection if there is a reasonable belief that they are preparing to commit violence against another individual or group.

For peacekeepers in the field, how does one apply this during an intertribal conflict? What is UNMISS’s role in such conflicts? How does the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations provide guidance for peacekeepers in these situations? How can protection of civilians training take into account such complications so that peacekeepers do not discredit the mission in the eyes of the international and local community?

In some ways, however, the response to protecting civilians seems to be improving. In previous attacks, UNMISS has been criticized for failing to communicate with local communities, and for responding to threats in high-risk areas. In this instance, the mission was warned in advance of the attack on the Murle tribe, and was able to warn residents that the Nuer youth were advancing. UNMISS was also able to mobilize blue helmets and preposition troops in areas identified as high-risk to civilians.

There is little hope, however, that the security crisis in Jonglei state will be swiftly resolved, and UN peacekeepers will continue to face ongoing and new challenges protecting civilians. As stated by Hilde Johnson, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNMISS, “the ongoing security crisis in Jonglei state is a test for all of us.”

About the photo: UNMISS peacekeepers deployed in Jonglei State