The killing this week of five United Nations peacekeepers and seven civilians by armed attackers in South Sudan is a tragic reminder of the sacrifices made by U.N. personnel around the world in conflict zones.

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The killing this week of five United Nations peacekeepers and seven civilians by armed attackers in South Sudan is a tragic reminder of the sacrifices made by U.N. personnel around the world in conflict zones, and in particular the hazardous environment they are facing in parts of the world’s youngest nation. Others were wounded in the incident, and some are unaccounted for, the U.N. says.

The attack took place in restive and remote Jonglei state on April 9, when a U.N.-protected convoy came under fire from some 200 fighters. South Sudan’s government said the assailants are part of a rebel force under the control of David Yau Yau, a local rebel leader whose units are fighting South Sudan’s army. Jonglei has been wracked by ethnic conflict, retaliatory cattle raids and government-rebel fighting.

The attack was condemned by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who pointed out that the killing of peacekeepers is a war crime subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. His special representative in South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, vowed that the attack “will not deter UNMISS and its peacekeepers from working to protect vulnerable communities in South Sudan [and] to continue its work in supporting authorities to ensure peace."

UNMISS stands for U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, an operation led by Johnson that is authorized to have up to 7,000 peacekeepers. Johnson spoke at USIP just a month ago, on March 8, to lay out the tremendous challenges the U.N. faces in South Sudan, an impoverished land that gained independence in July 2011 after breaking away from Sudan in an internationally supervised process. U.N. peacekeepers have been executing quick deployments to hot spots to deter internal violence, and they are often outnumbered by armed groups, she cautioned on that occasion.

They were badly outnumbered this week, when a unit of 32 Indian peacekeepers repulsed the ambush launched by the 200 men. 

At USIP last month, Johnson described the logistical nightmares in South Sudan. A road-ruining wet season covers eight months of the year throughout most of the country, and the U.N. mission has lacked boats to transport troops and materiel on the nation’s rivers and has to rely on modest air services. For more than a year, she said, it had no military helicopters.

Still, UNMISS has a presence in all ten of South Sudan’s states, she said, noting that the mission was then fielding 4,931 peacekeepers in the country. The force size along with logistical problems mean that UNMISS cannot deploy to two major crises simultaneously, said Johnson, meaning that “we have to make very difficult choices.” 

UNMISS’s work is also helping South Sudan—in particular its Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)--develop the capacity to protect its own citizens. UNMISS has established early-warning and early-response capabilities to threats of significant violence from armed groups internally, Johnson said, and it is helping South Sudan to build similar capabilities. 

She recalled major fighting in and near the Jonglei town of Pibor in December 2011 and January 2012. Johnson said a force of some 8,000 Lou Nuer fighters moving on the town were repulsed by SPLA troops, backed by UNMISS peacekeepers. Possibly thousands of lives were saved, though 612 people were killed in the fighting, she said. 

The new violence will draw more attention to the U.N.’s dangerous but vital work in South Sudan. Do you think it signals the need for changes in the size or role of its mission there?

Thomas Omestad is a senior writer at USIP.

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