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Is the UN being asked not to protect civilians in South Sudan?

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Tim Freccia/AP

(Read caption) A UNMIS peacekeeper patrol on APC in Abyei, South Sudan on March 11. Scores of villagers have died in recent fighting in South Sudan despite the presence of 10,000 UN troops mandated with protecting civilians. Now, internal documents say UN officials have ordered the peacekeepers not to operate in an area where civilians are at risk in upcoming battles, after being asked to avoid the region by the south's military.

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As South Sudan's army continues its fight against rebel forces it claims are backed by the Khartoum government, the question of how everyday South Sudanese caught in the crossfire can and should be protected is becoming increasingly urgent.

I reported last week for the Associated Press on how the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) may be ceding ground on its relatively robust civilian protection mandate. According to an internal UN document’s account of recent events, the UN peacekeeping mission accepted the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s “demand” that the UN cease all operations in a “no-go” zone specified by the army due to its own military campaign against George Athor, a southern rebel commander who launched a revolt against the southern government after losing his bid to be governor of volatile Jonglei state in last April’s elections.

This is not the first time the UN mission has come under fire for failing to intervene to protect civilians “under imminent threat of physical violence,” to quote the Chapter VII element of the mission’s mandate. Another notable instance was in 2009, when intercommunal violence – which largely took the form of armed cattle-raiding – killed some 2,500 southerners. In that case, the blue helmets could, in theory, have come in to protect villagers in places like Jonglei state who came under attack from armed raiders seeking to steal their cattle or cause them other harm. In practice, despite UN attempts to preemptively protect civilians by setting up “temporary operating bases” in particularly vulnerable locations, little on-the-spot intervention occurred when violence broke out.

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