UN failed in South Sudan just as it failed in the Middle East

Crowds taking refuge at UN compound near Juba airport

Crowds taking refuge at UN compound near Juba airport

The biggest UN refugee compound in Juba hugs the airport like a battered child clinging on to its mother for dear life. The area is one of the last bastions of safety in a country ripping itself to sheds.

Nobody appears able to halt the six-week-old conflict that has ravaged the world’s newest state, leaving thousands dead and 65,000 people scattered in six refugee camps across the country.

How South Sudan’s much-trumpeted secession collapsed in bloodshed in under three years under the eye of the international community is a conundrum still being pondered by Geneva think tanks and UN officials.

Everyone agrees that extreme poverty, conflict in the neighbouring states such as the Central African Republic and unresolved hatred between the main ethnic groups of the south have all played their part.

Two weeks ago, however, the UN’s third most senior official, Helen Clark, identified an additional cause. In a speech at the London School of Economics, she admitted that her organisation had catastrophically misread the problems facing South Sudan.

She said: “There was a focus from development partners on building a state, and service delivery, but without addressing the rather profound legacy of long-term conflict. This was never as simple as south versus north.”

She was not alone in her criticism. Many commentators, including other senior insiders, have remarked that the UN consistently ignored the dysfunctions of South Sudan’s government ever since the country gained independence in 2011.

When President Salva Kiir, a member of the Dinka ethnic group, began to entrench Dinka power at the expense of other groups, the UN did nothing. Meanwhile, the mandate of the UN’s provocatively named peacekeeping mission, Unmiss, ignored the inter-ethnic tensions and focused on human rights, democracy and development instead.

“You can’t do that if the elites are arguing and trying not to kill each other,” one official told the Guardian.

Sadly, such revelations come as no surprise to followers of the UN’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, the very criticism that UN officials levelled at their own organisation is applicable — to the letter — to the Middle East.

Last year, the UN General Assembly adopted 21 condemnatory resolutions on Israel, compared to four on the rest of the world combined. But even leaving aside that staggering statistic, every one of those 21 resolutions — whether on the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, Palestinian refugees’ property, or Israel’s nuclear deterrent — displayed precisely the same ideological myopia as the brief given to Unmiss: they failed to recognise some of the region’s biggest security threats, and failed to pay enough attention to poor governance.

Nothing on the government of Gaza — Hamas — that organises regular rocket attacks on Israel; nothing on the Palestinian Authority’s support for the ambiguous concept of “popular resistance”; nothing on the jihadi threat from Syria and Sinai; nothing on the thousands of missiles Hizbollah has lined up to fire at Israel — all of which forces Israel to be the very security-minded body that the assembly appears to despise.

Several of the 21 resolutions that had a human-rights focus concentrated on the Palestinians’ right of return, despite the fact that any reasonable observer of the conflict knows that most of the millions of Palestinian refugees will never be able to return to what is now Israel — and if they did, it would likely mean the end of Israel. So much for problem-solving.

Back in South Sudan, of the 5,500 UN troops promised to bolster the peacekeeping mission, as of last week only 25 Nepalese soldiers had arrived. Is it any wonder that, for Israel, leaving responsibility for security in the West Bank and in the Jordan Valley to any “peacekeeping” force is tantamount to accepting bloody chaos?

Yes, Palestinians have their human rights trampled on daily. And democracy and development are crucial to a lasting peace. But until the UN addresses the security of both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it has no hope of achieving anything.

Ms Clark has argued for the need to include peace and security — themes left out of the millennium goals — in the UN’s next development agenda, due to be created in 2015.

While there may yet be time for a rapid shift in UN group-think to have an impact on South Sudanese conflict, in the case of Israel and the Palestinians, it is far too little, too late.

Last updated: 8:45am, January 31 2014