The rape and beating of American and Western aid workers in the South Sudanese capital of Juba by government soldiers has struck a devastating blow against two of President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy efforts: reforming the United Nations’ troubled peacekeeping program and standing up a stable government in the world’s newest country.
The horrific July 11 attacks on the Terrain hotel facility mark a grim moment in a long-standing U.S. effort to help South Sudan build a functioning state after gaining its independence from the Arab-dominated Sudanese government in Khartoum. The violence highlighted the degree to which South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has evolved from a valued U.S. friend to the leader of a rampaging army that has now targeted American nationals.
“The U.S. and the U.N. gambled on close relations with Salva Kiir, and it turns out that Salva Kiir in an untrustworthy partner who hates the U.N. and increasingly hates the U.S.,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on U.N. peacekeeping operations at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
In the assault last month, uniformed South Sudanese troops singled out Americans for abuse and beatings, shot dead a local reporter while forcing foreign nationals to watch, carried out mock executions, and gang-raped several foreign women, according to a report by The Associated Press, which cited interviews with multiple witnesses on the ground.
The grim details of the attack have raised questions about why the nearby U.S. Embassy didn’t send American troops to rescue those trapped at the hotel — and why Washington kept silent about the incident for more than a month until it was revealed by the AP’s report.
When about 80 to 100 South Sudanese troops stormed the compound and overwhelmed the hotel’s small security team, foreign aid workers at the facility sent desperate pleas for help to the U.N. peacekeeping mission, located less than a mile away, as well as to the U.S. Embassy. But no U.N. blue helmets ever arrived to stop the nearly four-hour ordeal.
The U.S. ambassador to South Sudan, Mary Catherine Phee, immediately asked the South Sudanese government to send troops deemed trustworthy to intervene, and forces from the National Security Service did eventually arrive, senior U.S. administration officials said. But by then several foreign nationals had been raped, and Americans had been terrorized and beaten. A South Sudanese reporter, John Gatluak, who worked for Internews, a U.S.-funded media development organization, had been hauled out and shot in the head in front of aid workers.
The incident carries potentially damaging political overtones for the Obama administration and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who has faced an avalanche of criticism from Republicans over how she handled a 2012 attack on an American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
Two days after soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) carried out the assault, the Obama administration rushed dozens of American troops to bolster security for the embassy there. Another 130 American troops were deployed to nearby Djibouti as a quick reaction force.
That was too late to help those hurt in the July 11 attack at the Terrain hotel. U.S. officials said the embassy had a small security contingent that was not equipped to carry out a major combat and rescue operation against dozens of armed and disorderly South Sudanese troops. Embassy staff had to move to bunkers more than once during that day due to mortar and small-arms fire around the embassy compound, officials said. With the capital engulfed in violence, the primary mission of the security team — as in other embassies around the world — was to protect embassy staff and classified material, officials said.
“We didn’t have the personnel with the mission or the capacity to respond to such a wide-scale event. Our response was to engage the government that had the capability to do so,” a senior administration official told Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity.
“There’s no Delta Force residing at the embassy,” the official added.
The U.N., for its part, has launched an “independent special investigation” into reports that Chinese, Ethiopian, and Nepalese peacekeepers failed to respond to calls for help from the hotel. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office issued a statement late Tuesday night saying the U.N. chief “is concerned about allegations that UNMISS [The United Nations Mission in South Sudan] did not respond appropriately to prevent this and other grave cases of sexual violence committed in Juba.”
The statement, which was attributable to Ban’s spokesman, noted that the U.N. chief is “alarmed” by the preliminary findings of a U.N. fact-finding investigation that probed the July 11 attack on the Terrain hotel, and confirmed that one person was killed and “several civilians were raped and brutally beaten by men in uniform.” He urged the South Sudanese government to investigate the abuses and “prosecute those involved in these unspeakable acts of violence.”
The latest bout of fighting between government forces loyal to Kiir and those of his vice president-turned-rival, Riek Machar, erupted on July 8 after a cabinet meeting at the presidential compound and quickly spread to several locations around Juba. Researchers from Human Rights Watch visited Juba later that month and found evidence of “multiple crimes,” according to an Aug. 15 report by the group. The researchers said most of the wrongdoing was “committed by government soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).”
The Obama administration says it is working tirelessly to ensure that U.N. peacekeepers are in a better position to defend civilians in South Sudan. Last week, the United States led negotiations on a resolution that authorizes an additional 4,000 peacekeepers to secure the capital of Juba.
The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, condemned the attack in a statement issued late Monday and demanded an inquiry into the response of the U.N. peacekeepers.
Power said the United States is “deeply concerned that United Nations peacekeepers were apparently either incapable of or unwilling to respond to calls for help. We have requested and are awaiting the outcome of an investigation by the United Nations and demand swift corrective action in the event that these allegations are substantiated.”
She also defended the U.S. reaction to the attack on the Terrain compound, saying that “the U.S. embassy responded to distress calls from the compound and urgently contacted South Sudanese government officials, who sent a response force to the site to stop the attack.”
The U.S. effort to reinforce the U.N. mission in South Sudan is part of a broader push by the Obama administration to reform peacekeeping operations to make them better suited to protect civilians from atrocities. The U.N.’s failures in Juba raise serious doubts about how much progress will have been made by the time Obama leaves office next January.
In July 2009, Obama’s newly appointed U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, delivered an address to the U.S. Congress in which she defended the U.N.’s often maligned peacekeepers as “an essential instrument for advancing” American interests around the world.
The Obama administration, she pledged, would make their “effectiveness” and “efficiency” a key priority. In September 2015, Obama hosted a peacekeeping summit in New York to highlight the U.S. commitment to such operations and to urge other countries to pledge troops and equipment.
But more than seven years after Rice’s speech, U.N. peacekeepers continue to generate damning headlines, including on sexual assault scandals in the Central African Republic and the failure to confront atrocities in Darfur, Sudan. In South Sudan, the U.N.’s inability to stem the violence even in its own compounds has raised doubts about the peacekeepers’ effectiveness.
Since fighting erupted in December 2013, more than 50,000 people have been killed and another 2 million displaced, including more than 180,000 people seeking protection in six U.N. compounds. A U.N. board of inquiry this month faulted the world body’s response to an attack likely carried out by government forces and allied militias on a U.N. compound in the northeastern city of Malakal, which resulted in 30 deaths and 123 injuries. The latest allegations about U.N. inaction in Juba have only reinforced those doubts about the mission’s effectiveness.
“This is an incredible moment of frustration for the U.S.,” Gowan said. “The U.S. has pushed hard for UNMISS [the U.N. mission in South Sudan] to raise its game since 2013,” when the country descended into civil war. “But the U.N. has been unable to protect civilians. After the Obama summit and all the emphasis on increased U.S. support to the U.N., it seems that the blue helmets are no better than before,” Gowan added.
The chaos in South Sudan also marks a major setback for China, which has significant oil interests in the country and has taken a lead role in the peacekeeping effort there. “It’s a big embarrassment for China,” Gowan said. “China had invested heavily in South Sudan, sending its first full combat brigade to Juba and doing a lot behind the scenes to try to make the government behave properly. Now, it has not only lost two peacekeepers, but Chinese troops also stand accused of ignoring mass rape near their base.”
It’s unclear what effect the attacks, and the reports of widespread abuses by SPLA soldiers, will have on Washington’s support for the government in Juba. The United States remains the single biggest bilateral donor to South Sudan. In its budget request for 2017, the State Department asked for $30 million to help modernize the South Sudanese army so that it “respects human rights, represents its population, is accountable to elected leadership, protects the people of South Sudan, and encourages stability in the Horn of Africa” — in other words, to ensure it does not carry out the kinds of abuses it stands accused of. Another $132 million was requested for civil society and peace-building programs.
Two days after the attack on the Terrain hotel, Obama said in a statement that he was sending into the country an additional 47 U.S. troops “equipped for combat” who were being deployed “for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property.” Those troops remain in Juba, along with the 130-strong quick reaction force in Djibouti.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Africa Command told FP that there are American military “assets positioned within the region that are capable of providing a wide variety of responses when requested by the ambassador” but declined to go into detail about what capabilities are available.
The State Department declined to say exactly how many American forces or staff were at the U.S. Embassy in Juba on July 11. But, in recent years, the government has said about 50 staff were working out of the embassy. After the outbreak of fighting in Juba and the July 11 attack, the United States helped secure medical treatment for victims of the hotel rampage and organized flights out of the country for 80 U.S. nationals. The State Department also scaled back the embassy’s footprint to a skeletal staff, officials said.
U.S. diplomats and aid workers in South Sudan have faced recurring security threats. In 2013, a U.S. military attempt to evacuate American citizens from a U.N. post in Bor had to be aborted when a CV-22 Osprey aircraft came under machine gun and small-arms fire, wounding several Navy SEALs.
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