South Sudan’s relationship with the United Nations has plummeted to an unprecedented low as authorities have beaten U.N. personnel and relief workers, forcibly searched their vehicles, and organized public demonstrations demonizing the world body as an enemy of the fledgling African nation, according to a confidential internal report obtained by Foreign Policy.
The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), compiled the list of attacks — as well as a separate incident in which South Sudanese security agents threatened to arrest a local U.N. employee if he refused to spy on the international organization — in a March 18 paper to the U.N. Security Council.
The paper found that the South Sudanese government had violated the Status of Forces agreement that provides immunity for U.N. personnel dozens of times between Feb. 9 and March 12. It also cites three incidents in which anti-government forces have either refused or delayed U.N. requests to land at rebel-controlled airport in the rebel-controlled South Sudanese city of Malakal.
South Sudanese forces have also routinely stopped U.N. convoys transporting food, medicines, and other humanitarian goods, and in many cases, beat the truck drivers, according to the report.
They have also blocked the United Nations from conducting routine land and air patrols throughout South Sudan, as well as impeding the work of U.N. de-mining experts in Jonglei state. In one case, explosive experts from the U.N. Mine Action Service (UNMAS), were prevented by South Sudanese and Ugandan government forces from clearing bombs from an area south of Bor.
In one March 11 incident, soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), stopped a U.N. relief truck carrying emergency reproductive health kits, the report stated. "The driver and his assistant were instructed to offload the medical equipment and were beaten by SPLA soldiers when they refused to do so." On the same day, SPLA soldiers accosted the driver of a vehicle delivering humanitarian goods from the town of Rumbek in Lakes state to Yambio in Western Equatoria state. "The driver was beaten, made to offload the cargo and forced to pay the soldiers money," according to the U.N. report.
The incidents don’t appear to have been isolated cases.
On Feb. 21, South Sudanese police stopped employees from a U.N. aid agency that were transporting water to a camp for displaced people in the town of Bor. The report said that the police were reportedly acting under instructions of the SPLA to "not allow any truck delivering food or water to proceed to the protection side, unless cash was paid for each truck."
Relations between the U.N. and the South Sudanese government have been tense for well over a year, but they have markedly deteriorated since the world’s youngest independent country erupted into civil war in December 2013. The U.N. infuriated the South Sudanese government in January when it refused to allow the country’s information minister, Michael Makuei, and his two armed guards to enter a U.N. compound where thousands of civilians had sought refuge from fighting between government and rebel forces. The South Sudanese government claimed that some of the rebels had slipped into the camp. "I think the U.N. wants to be the government of the South [Sudan]," South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit complained at the time.
In a sign of the deepening mistrust, South Sudanese security agents on Feb. 12 detained a citizen employed by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), for several hours of interrogation. He was "questioned about his work" according to the paper. "He was also asked to provide information on UNMISS operations and movements in the State, or risk an arrest if he refused."
The atmosphere worsened early this month, after South Sudanese security forces uncovered weapons and ammunition concealed in U.N. vehicles headed in the direction of a Ghanaian peacekeeping outpost in the town of Bentiu. The weapons were packed in crates whose labels said they contained food rations. Under the terms of its agreement with South Sudan, the U.N. is only allowed to ship its peacekeepers weapons by air, not by land.
South Sudanese officials immediately accused the U.N. of trying to smuggle the weapons to rebel forces. On March 11, a senior South Sudanese official delivered a speech at an anti-U.N. rally urging locals to view the peacekeeping force as an "enemy of South Sudan," according to the report. The report does not name the official, who is described only as the governor of Lakes State. Maj. Gen. Matur Chut Dhoul is the acting governor of Lakes State.
The Ghanaian commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in South Sudan, Maj. Gen. Delali Johnson, issued a statement on March 11 saying it was a "highly regrettable mistake" that the U.N. had transported the weapons by road in violation of its agreement.
Johnson insisted, though, that it was the result of a "packing error," not a deliberate attempt to conceal weapons transfer. "The weapons and ammunition belong to the Ghanaian contingent which is to deploy in Bentiu," he said. The weapons, he added, "were never intended to serve any other purpose than that of peace and protection of South Sudanese civilians."
The U.N. sent a high-level delegation to South Sudan to determine how it happened.
But even before the incident, South Sudanese forces were accusing the U.N. of supporting the rebels.
On March 6, a U.N. de-mining specialist in the town of Yei, in Central Equatoria state, was "searched, robbed and reportedly beaten at a SPLA checkpoint by soldiers who accused the U.N. of providing support to the opposition forces."