JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN —
The head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) vowed Wednesday that U.N. peacekeepers will continue to work to fulfill their core mandate of protecting South Sudanese civilians, despite an attack last month that killed five peacekeepers and seven local staff in Jonglei state.
"The attack strengthened our resolve to continue and implement the mandate of UNMISS," the U.N. Secretary General's Special Representative for South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, told VOA News on the 11th International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers.
The U.N. General Assembly designated May 29 as International Day of U.N. Peacekeepers in 2002, to honor peacekeepers who have “lost their lives to the cause of peace” and pay tribute to the thousands of men and women who have served or are serving in U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world.
Currently, there were 15 peacekeeping operations and one special political mission – the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) – led by the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
The largest peacekeeping operation is in Darfur, in western Sudan, where 20,000 uniformed personnel, nearly 4,000 civilian workers and around 450 volunteers are on the ground.
The U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was created on July 8, 2011, the day before South Sudan became the world’s youngest state, by a U.N. Security Council resolution.
UNMISS currently comprises 7,259 uniformed personnel, 852 international civilian personnel, 1,349 local civilian staff and nearly 400 U.N. volunteers.
The U.N. also has a peacekeeping mission in Abyei, a region on the border of the two Sudans that is claimed by both Khartoum and Juba.
"I think the only implication [the attack] has is that we are, in our threat assessment, making sure that... there is increased protection when anyone is traveling on the road," she said.
Five Indian peacekeepers and seven civilian members of UNMISS staff were killed in an ambush in April when they were escorting a group of civilians from one town to another in Jonglei.
Johnson said Jonglei, where David Yau Yau relaunched a rebellion last year aimed at toppling the government in Juba, was the biggest challenge facing UNMISS. She described Yau Yau's new uprising as "a setback."
Since Yau Yau rekindled his insurgency, she said, UNMISS has tripled the number of troops it has in the restive state in order to be able to protect civilians. She said the U.N. mission has contingency plans for protecting South Sudanese during the rainy season, which is just getting under way.
"We can move in significant, increased numbers if there is a build-up to an incident."
In the past few months, UNMISS has "been protecting civilians that have been seeking refuge in our bases numerous times,” she said.
At least 12,000 people in South Sudan have been provided protection by the U.N. mission, Johnson added.
But that has not prevented many South Sudanese from perceiving the U.N. mission as having fallen short, she said.
That's because many South Sudanese have a basic misunderstanding that UNMISS is in South Sudan to act as a “buffer against aggression from the other side of the border."
“This is not the case. Our mandate is not to be deployed along the border and be a buffer,” Johnson said.
That job is supposed to fall to the Joint Border Verification and Monitoring Mechanism (JBVMM), which, after numerous delays, was finally activated in March -- nearly two years after South Sudan became an independent state in July 2011.
“The delay led the South Sudanese population to believe we were failing in our protection mandate, but we were not: we were protecting civilians who were under threat,” Johnson said.
In a resolution adopted in July 2012, extending UNMISS’s authorization for another year, the U.N. Security Council “requested,” but did not mandate, “UNMISS to observe and report on any flow of personnel, arms, and related materiel across the border with Sudan” pending activation of the JBVMM.
Transforming South Sudan’s Judiciary, Police
UNMISS has also been instrumental in making “transformation happen” in the South Sudan police force, and has helped to “improve and strengthen” the country's judicial system, Johnson said.
“One of the big problems in South Sudan is the many people in arbitrary and prolonged detention because of the lack of capacity in the justice system,” she said.
“In this area we have been working with colleagues and with the government, and I think I can say at least 1,000 arbitrary detention cases have been addressed and resolved.”