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UN Peacekeepers Accept Responsibility for Massacre at Malakal

South Sudanese civilians flee fighting in an United Nations base in the northeastern town of Malakal on February 18, 2016.
South Sudanese civilians flee fighting in an United Nations base in the northeastern town of Malakal on February 18, 2016.

The spokesman for the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations said the U.N. has accepted responsibility for its lack of swift response during the February massacre of internally displaced persons in the South Sudanese city of Malakal.

The U.N.’s Nick Birnback said some peacekeepers did not respond in time to protect civilians who were attacked by gunmen Feb. 17 and 18 at the U.N. Protection of Civilian (POC) compound. At the time, the U.N. had contingents from Rwanda, Ethiopia and India in Malakal. Thirty people were killed, and 123 others were wounded in the attacks.

“In the process of an inquiry, we looked at the systems that were in place and how those systems could be strengthened, but we also looked at individual unit responsibility. The U.N. peacekeeping is currently engaging directly with the concerned troop-contributing countries to address the underperformance of certain UNMISS (United Nation Mission in South Sudan) personnel, and that includes training and preparedness.”

Birnback said the U.N. Peacekeeping Department will repatriate some peacekeepers and their commanders who were on duty during the attack. Birnback confirmed that the U.N. Peacekeeping Department has been investigating the Malakal attack in South Sudan in order to prevent it from happening again in future peacekeeping operations.

“There will be action taken, whether [against] individual units as a whole or those in command of certain units.”

Birnback said the U.N. has been reviewing its posture and stepping up measures to improve safety in what he terms “a very challenging environment.” Birnback pointed out that responsibility also rests with those who carried out the attack. He added the U.N. will send back those peacekeepers and commanders who did not respond appropriately during the attack.

“We work with our troop-contributing countries. We need them. We thank them for their service. But when something happens that involves a unit not responding in a way that it needed to, it’s logical that both us and the troop-contributing country in question will take whatever action is necessary to make sure that does not happen again, and that does include repatriation of individual units when appropriate and repatriation of commanders who did not live up to their responsibility.”

On Wednesday, U.N. Peacekeeping Operations Chief Hervé Ladsous said nobody expected the crisis in South Sudan would go on for such a long time and that there would be such huge numbers of internally displaced persons in U.N. protection sites.

“I visited them (U.N. POC sites) 2 weeks ago. The Secretary-General [Ban ki-Moon] launched an investigation after the very grave incidents in Malakal on the 17th and 18th of February in the POC sites. We did take that very much to heart. Even though the two reports are not quite out, they are being reviewed by the lawyers and should be out soon. We gave the Secretary-General a list of recommendations on this incident.”

Ladsous said there was a lack of responsiveness from some U.N. peacekeepers in Malakal, and there was apparently also a lack of understanding about the rules of engagement by some. He noted that some uniformed personnel reacted “very well,” while “some did not.”

Ladsous spoke to reporters about the February incident in Malakal at U.N. headquarters in New York following consultations late Wednesday with the U.N. Security Council.

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    John Tanza

    John Tanza works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is the managing editor and host of the South Sudan In Focus radio program.