Turtle Bay

UN: We have an obligation to protect civilians, not their stuff

U.N. peacekeepers have come under mounting pressure to protect civilians from imminent threat of violence in its most complex missions. But what about looting, plundering and burning of civilian property, acts which sometimes serve as a symbols and facilitators of ethnic cleansing. U.N. officials say not necessarily; that responsibility rests principally in the hands of ...

U.N. peacekeepers have come under mounting pressure to protect civilians from imminent threat of violence in its most complex missions.

But what about looting, plundering and burning of civilian property, acts which sometimes serve as a symbols and facilitators of ethnic cleansing. U.N. officials say not necessarily; that responsibility rests principally in the hands of the local authorities.

Last month, Sudanese forces and local Arab militia seized control of the town of Abyei, Sudan, driving tens of thousands civilians out of town. Thousands of nomadic herdsman from the Arab Misseriya tribe followed suit, stealing every moveable possession they could get their hands on and burning what they couldn’t take. U.N. human rights officials in Sudan expressed concerns that their action may constitute ethnic cleansing.

The dispute in Abyei has been at the center of a political struggle over rights to resources and the delineation of borders between northern Sudan and southern Sudan, as the south prepares to declare independence on July 9. But it has a volatile ethnic dimension, pitting the areas black Ngok Dinka residents, allied with the south, against pro-government nomadic  Misseriya. The two sides are bitterly divided over everything from voting rights, access to grazing areas and water.

Internal U.N. accounts of what happened last month in Abyei show that Sudan’s armed forces stood by as its comrades in arms began the looting. For its part, a United Nations peacekeeping contingent in Abyei, which retreated to its barracks in the first days of the assault, subsequently limited its role to monitoring the mayhem on the streets of Abyei, but not intervening to stop it.

A source provided Turtle Bay with copies of two confidential U.N. reports after I posted a photograph of a U.N. peacekeeping contingent patrolling the streets of Abyei, Sudan, last month while several men carted off household items on the side of the road. At the time, I said it was unclear from the picture whether the men were fleeing violence or looting belongings of local residents in plain site of the Zambian blue helmets. The source said the reports demonstrate that the UN passively allowed the looting to occur. 

According to the internal account, the Sudanese army  attacked Abyei  on the night of May 21, quickly seizing control of the town, though most of the population had already fled south by the time they arrived.  By nightfall, the Sudanese military had deployed 15 tanks in a town that had been abandoned by fleeing residents.   Sudanese aircraft bombarded the Bantom bridge, south of Abyei, in an attempt to bar civilians from returning or to prevent rival troops from south Sudan from mounting a counterattack.

Over the following days, as the Sudanese army looked on, elements of Sudan’s Popular   Defense Force(PDF) and the Misseriya systematically plundered the town. 

"There are reports of PDF(popular defense forces) and Misseriya elements looting the shops and burning down the tukuls(and smoke could be seen from the UNMIS compound)," according to a May 22 report from the office of the UN resident coordinator. "These were allegedly fighting along side SAF. The Misseriya/PDF elements could also be seen carrying away the loot, both on foot and using vehicles. SAF did not intervene to stop the looting."

The U.N. has acknowledged that the Zambian peacekeeping contingent had not responded adequately to the attacks on civilians and property.  They have sent a contingent of Indian peacekeepers to Abyei to reinforce the Zambians. The United States, meanwhile, is pressing for the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution that would approve the deployment of several thousands Ethiopian troops in Abyei to help restore calm.

The Sudanese government, which signed a peace deal last week allowing Ethiopian blue helmets to replace its troops, opened a new military front in neighboring South Kordofan, where church leaders and human rights organization have accused the government of displacing more than 70,000 Nubans in a military campaign.

But U.N. officials say the Zambian’s failure to act was mitigated by the fact that they were confronted with a force with overwhelming military superiority and that their compound had been hit during the attack. Some officials dispute claims saying that the looting and burning in Abyei were hallmarks of ethnic cleansing, saying they were more consistent with a history of reprisals and countereprisals between competing African tribes in the region.

"The [U.N.] Force commander advised that they saw SAF[the Sudanese Armed Forces] build up and attack coming but they were unable to stop it. There had however been assurance by SAF that the UN would not be targeted," according to the May 22 report by the U.N.’s resident coordinator’s office. "Although UN was not being targeted by SAF there were 5 shells that landed in the UNMIS compound, one of them burning a WFP[World Food Program] vehicle. Two (2) Egyptians were also injured but are out of danger."

When the U.N. resumed its patrols of Abyei in the days following the initial assault, they encountered a scene of chaos, with 2,000 to 5,000 Misseriya men roaming the streets of Abyei, carting away chairs, bed frames, mattresses and anything else they could find. They also  threatened to seize the Zambians armored personnel vehicles unless the UN agreed to pay three years rent for the base.

"The remainder of the looted items that have not yet been taken away from Abyei town are by the roadside awaiting transportation to the northern areas," according to a May 26 update by the resident coordinators office. "One of the UNMO[UN Military Observers] road patrols that went out this morning(26 May) observed at least 14 big trucks that were loading looted items. Sporadic and aimless shooting also continues but to a relatively lesser scale and…burning of tukuls(dwellings) still continues."

By that point, according to the May 26 report, the UN’s mission in Abyei had become decreasingly relevant: "It can now be confirmed that there will not be any need for humanitarian assistance within Abyei town(for now) as there are currently no civilians."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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