Politicised Tourism: What You Need to Know Before You Book a Tour to the Holy Land

Mourning at Jesus' grave

 

Mourning at Jesus' grave

Mourning at “Jesus’ grave”, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem). Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

By Laurien Vastenhout -

 

 

The last time I visited Israel, and in particular the various religious sites throughout the country, I was once again struck by the vast number of organised group tours. Groups of people, singing religious songs, publicly reading from the Bible while sailing in small boats on the sea of Galilea – an area where Jesus is said to have spent a significant period of his life – are by no means an exception. Tourists who are exploring the country individually, either by car or public transport, have become a minority. Christians from all over the world organise themselves and follow a carefully planned out 10-day journey through the country, visiting the places referred to in the Bible.* Interestingly, the practical organisation of these kind of tours are in the hands of locals and the choice of sites depends on whether the group decides to take a Christian Zionist tour or a tour in support of Palestinian Christians. This article will outline the difference between these tours and argue that, 1) despite the seeming innocent nature of ‘Holy Land tourism’, organised tours are in fact highly politicised and, 2) that the confrontation between the tour guide and his/her Christian ‘clients’, although an interesting inter-religious encounter at first sight, also raises problems.**

 

One should realise that to many pilgrims, a visit to Israel is not the same as a summer holiday to Greece. The majority of Christians visit the Holy Land of Israel / Palestine as part of the experience and education of the Christian self. Christians cannot get closer to the ‘reality’ of the holy Bible than when they set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, where supposedly Jesus was crucified, or when they walk on the Via Dolorosa where Jesus is said to have carried the cross to the place of execution at Golgotha.*** Sitting on the rooftop terrace at the “Austrian hospice” in the center of the Old City, I was able to closely watch how people in groups of 20-30 walked the same path Jesus had done before he was crucified (see video below). These walks on the Via Dolorosa, with people alternately carrying the cross of Jesus – in doing so ‘reliving’ a fraction of his experience – are carefully organised. Every ten minutes a new group begins with this ‘last trail of Jesus’, halting at various stations of importance (14 in total). Every thirty minutes, Israeli buses bring these crosses back to the ‘starting point’ again, after which a whole new set of groups can commence with the same ritual. 

 

As said, the choice of tour through the land entirely predetermines the perspective these Christian groups get of the country. When you decide to participate in the Zionist Christian tour, the group visits the typically Jewish sites of Jerusalem and the country. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Christian tour centralises the Palestinian perspective and largely ignores the Jewish/Israeli element. The difference is highlighted in the make-up of the brochures. Whereas the former often shows the Western Wall in the Old City and emphasises the search for the Jewish roots of Christianity during the tour, the latter shows the Dome of the Rock (see previous article) and emphasises the Christian presence in the city, showing churches rather than paying attention to the Jewish history of the city. A closer analysis of two crucial days of the program of these two tours also shows a significant difference. Whereas the Christian Zionist tour visits the particular Jewish sites in the Holy City, passes Bethlehem (a Palestinian village and ‘birthplace’ of Jesus) and drives directly to Hebron – one of the major settlements in the West Bank – to have a festive evening with the local Jews there, the latter tour actually visits Bethlehem. Also, the choice to show the separation wall at its most problematic point (between two Palestinian villages that are entirely disrupted as a result of the wall) in the latter day-tour is telling. As a result, the tours become highly politicised. The choice of places to visit by these tour operators is crucial to the understanding and perspective of the Christian visitors on the history of the land. Also, their understanding of the nature and continuity of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is moulded. This is by no means a shock or surprise to the people attending the tour – they consciously choose one of the options with a reason, and are simply strengthened in their religious beliefs throughout their visit. Consequently, their political convictions are played upon as well. 

 

The inter-religious encounters between Jewish/Israeli immigrant guides and Christian pilgrims can become an additional complex and problematic factor. The personal story of Jackie Feldman, who worked for years as a tour-guide (for which a successful completion of a two-year course is obligatory) in Israel, is telling. Feldman was a recent American immigrant in Israel and by the time he started working as a guide, he had been disappointed with his arrival in his ‘homeland’ Israel. Raised in a traditional Jewish family in New York, he believed living in Israel would feel as ‘coming home’. By contrast, he was treated as any other immigrant and the difficult bureaucratic procedures made him feel less welcome than he had anticipated. However, during the tours, in which he mainly guided American Christians, he was the representative – or ‘ambassador’ – of Israeli Jews. Through these encounters, he felt more Jewish-Israeli than ever. As more than half of the tour guides are (recent) immigrants to Israel, the interactions with the Christian tourist groups can reaffirm and even strengthen their particular identity as Jewish inhabitant of Israel, while they in reality still struggle to find a place in Israeli society. In short, these interactions inform who they are and alter their identity. Many of the tour guides have come from countries where Jews are only a minority group, opposed to the majority group of Catholics/Christians who are now visiting and guided through ‘their’ land.

 

The resulting constellation of power is seemingly harmless. There is a spirit of harmony and softening between the Jewish tour guides and the Zionist Christians who, as turns out during the 10-day tour, share a similar background. Their religions are more closely connected than anticipated. At the same time, a shared claim against Muslims/Palestinians (in cases of antagonism, often referred to as being one) starts to unfold during this process. In fact, during these Christian Zionist tours, the Palestinian story is ignored through the particular choice of sites and the strong connection between the Jewish guide and Christian pilgrims. A Jewish/Christian commonality comes into existence and is created at the cost of the Palestinians. The same is done the other way around, where tours emphasise the Palestine side of the story. This creates a problematic situation in which the antagonisms between the two groups increases. Of course, the picture is not entirely black and white. There are tours aiming to show both sides of the Old city, paying attention to both the Jewish and Muslim historical roots to the land. As a result, these tours also pay attention to the many nuances of the current conflict. However, the number of these type of tours are small. My recent visit to the country and its many religious sites confronted me more than ever with the politicisation that is inherent to the organised group tours. Although innocent on the surface, ‘Holy Land tourism’ in this form therefore only increases the already immensely complicated situation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. 

 

* Mostly, these tours have a duration of 8-15 days.

** This article is based on personal interactions when visiting Israel at various periods of time over the past years as well as the work of Jackie Feldman and his lecture at Spui 25 on October, 12 2017.

*** It should be noted that research has proven that, historically seen, Jesus can never have been buried at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also, it is impossible that Jesus walked on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ as it is currently constructed. This also counts for the sites on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ pilgrims are nowadays worshipping.

 

Video by Laurien Vastenhout

Hidden layers: ulterior motives for contributing to UN peacekeeping missions

Memorial for the killed Belgian UNAMIR soldiers, Kigali (Rwanda) - by JA ALT, via Wikimedia Commons
Memorial for the killed Belgian UNAMIR soldiers, Kigali (Rwanda) - by JA ALT, via Wikimedia Commons

Memorial for the killed Belgian UNAMIR soldiers, Kigali (Rwanda) – by JA ALT, via Wikimedia Commons

 

By Iona Mulder – 

 

While UN peacekeeping missions have the intention and mandate to bring peace and stability, they come with a cost. Since the first mission in 1948, 3.599 UN-soldiers have died. Certain countries share the biggest losses in peacekeeping soldiers under UN flag: 137 soldiers from Ghana lost their life during a mission, 163 Indian nationals, 122 Canadian, 150 soldiers from Nigeria, 142 from Pakistan, 114 Ethiopian soldiers of which 29 in a relatively recent mission in Darfur, and this list is extensive. What motivates states to send their troops to foreign places to solve conflicts that are not their own? After the members of the Security Council decided to establish a peace mission, the challenge begins to bring together sufficient troops to enable the mission. As the UN does not have its own army, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of its member states. The question whether or not to contribute troops will lead its own political life in every member state country. A good example is the debate in the Netherlands in 2013 on the contribution to the UN mission in Mali. Some parties were against the mission; the SP and PvdSD were of the opinion that the aim of the mission was too ambitious, the PVV stated that it was the responsibility of ‘the Muslim countries’ to control the extremists in the north of Mali.

 

It seems to be expected that those states that are motivated to contribute troops are states that pioneer in the protection of human rights and who are not preoccupied with conflict within their own borders. However, over the last two decades, the opposite seems to be the case, as countries in Africa and Asia were the largest contributors of troops (more specifically Nigeria, Rwanda, and Ethiopia; Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan). These countries are not particularly known for their internal stability, now and in the past, or for their good human rights records. Why, then, do these nations make such effort to bring peace and stability elsewhere?

 

What these countries have in common is that they have little political power within the UN, which is mainly in the hands of the permanent members. Moreover, they share an ambition to expand their political influence in the UN and international politics in general. They believe that delivering troops to the peace keeping mission will develop their political network, creating a political credit that will result in more inclusive politics within the UN. Another motivation for these states to participate is that the UN provides a sum of money to cover the expenses of the missions, which will help to upgrade their army through the received training, the materials and salary. Besides these shared motivations, every government has its own incentive to contribute troops based on the political situation at national level.

 

Rwanda is one of the countries which in recent years contributed a relative amount of troops to UN missions. I will use Rwanda as an example to show how political situations at the national level can motivate the state to contribute to international peacekeeping missions. In 1994, Rwanda itself was subject of a peacekeeping mission to avoid escalation of violence between Hutu and Tutsi: the mission became one of the biggest failures in the history of UN peacekeeping operations. After the killing of ten Belgium blue helmets by Hutu militia, most of the contributing countries decided to withdraw their troops, leaving the Rwandan people to their fate. Between April and July 1994 an estimated of 800.000 people, mainly Tutsi, were killed. Finally, an army composed of Tutsi refugees, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded Rwanda from Uganda, took over power and put a stop to the mass killing.

 

Since 2004 Rwanda has become one of biggest providers of troops to the UN and the AU (African Union). On their first mission, the 150 Rwandese soldiers received much respect as they were well trained, disciplined, and there is a broad inclusion of woman within their army. Within Rwanda, they are presented as national pride. During my research on how the current Rwandan government is legitimatizing its power, I found that the contribution of troops to the UN is an essential element of the government’s policy. The current government mainly consist of those associated with the RPF, its power in the country is legitimized by the effort to stop the genocide and create a climate of stability and security. At the international level, this legitimization is strengthened by the guilt of international failure to stop the genocide, which puts the RPF on a higher moral level than the international community. Many scholars have called this type of power legitimization “genocide credit”.

 

This “genocide credit” is essential for the Rwandan government for two reasons. First of all, it has made Rwanda a “donor darling”. The relatively rapid recovery of the country after the genocide and continuing economic growth has been made possible due to vast sums of donor money that were pumped in the reconstruction of the country. Now, twenty-two years after the genocide, around half of Rwanda’s national budget is still generated by donors. Much of Rwanda’s national stability is therefore dependent on the continuity of this flow of donor money. Secondly, another effect of this genocide credit is that for many years after the genocide, it was seen as politically incorrect to critically examine the Rwandan government’s policy. As a result, the international community has overlooked or ignored the fact that the Rwandan government’s policy is not as pretty as it seems at first sight.

 

A decade after the genocide the “genocide credit” started to crumble, making space for international criticism on the Rwandan government. More and more foreign countries were criticizing Rwanda for not respecting democratic values and human rights. Moreover, as many countries point out, is that the government’s reconciliation program is resulting in censorship and social inequality. It is here that the peacekeeping missions come into the picture. The Rwandan government needed to revitalize the “genocide credit” by reconfirming its high morale. The peace keeping missions provide the perfect opportunity to do so; contributing to peace and security in the rest of the world, stop genocide from happening in other countries, and help Africa to solve its own in problems. The contribution to the UN peacekeeping missions is thus a way to repaint a positive picture to the world and distract the international community from the negative elements of its national policy. It can be stated that the Rwandan government is abusing the peacekeeping mission to restore its power.

 

The question that remains: is practicing politics by means of UN peacekeeping missions by definition a bad thing? I am of the opinion it is not, only if the motivations of the contributing countries contradict the aims of the peacekeeping missions itself. More importantly, the contribution to peacekeeping missions by relatively smaller and less influential countries can provide a tool for nations to develop political power to oppose the power of the permanent member of the UN – making the UN more inclusive and democratic. The positive contribution of these countries should not be uncritically accepted as a reflection of their national politics, as there is more to it than good intentions. The case of Rwanda is the perfect example.

 

Exposing “Ghosts” – An Online Hunt for Assad’s Thugs in Europe

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm
A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

By Koen Kluessien -

 

“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power – if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could […]. The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal.” This confession describes only one of many atrocities perpetrated by the Shabiha. According to a 2016 country report on Human Rights Practices conducted by the US State Department, these militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations. At least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse were perpetrated since the beginning of the conflict. These predominantly Alawite pro-Assad death squads intimidate, rape, and kill Syrians who oppose the regime. It is no coincidence that Shabiha is Arabic for “ghost” or “shadow”. The militias feel untouchable. Some of these “ghosts” have now found their way to Europe, while their crimes have remained unpunished.

The Shabiha have been around for a long time. In the 1980s and 90s they smuggled food, cigarettes, and other commodities into Lebanon, selling these products with a huge profit. The smuggling was state sponsored and seemingly innocent. However, on the other side of the border luxury cars, guns, and drugs were smuggled from Lebanon into Syria’s state controlled economy. The Shabiha were nothing short of Syrian mobsters and were known for their brutal way of protecting their own business. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, the group was said to be disbanded. However, when the Syrian protestors took to the streets, the Shabiha gangs evolved into militia groups. This time not simply to smuggle products from and to Syria, but also to beat civilians into submission.

The Shabiha are Assad’s militia on steroids, literally. The members of the death squads are often described as wearing trainers and civilians clothes, added with a military style crew cut. What stands out most is their physique. According to one physician many of the members are recruited from bodybuilding gyms and are given steroids. This results in the militiamen resembling a somewhat chubbier and far more scarier version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It must be added that many of the current Shabiha do not resemble this stereotypical look anymore. Still, they are far from ordinary men.

One question that immediately arises is: why are these fighters granted asylum? And more importantly, what are they doing here? There is not yet a clear cut answer to both questions, but open source research by human rights activists provides us with some answers. Humanitarian asylum is only granted to civilians, not to fighters. UNHCR clearly states that “military activity is incompatible with the very institution of asylum. Persons who pursue military activities in a country of asylum cannot be asylum-seekers or refugees.” Still, government militants are often not seen as a threat to the European way of life. Shabiha smoke and drink, are not devout Muslims, and wear Western clothes. With the authorities unaware of the crimes these militias committed, they are generally seen as people who would integrate into our society easily.

The militiamen are under close scrutiny of a special team within the Dutch police force. Still, even the police often has to rely on anonymous tips from refugees who have recognized war criminals. Militias have also been located by open source researchers in European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Still, they feel untouchable, even when they are not directly protected by the Syrian government. The alleged war criminals carelessly post photos of their whereabouts on Facebook and other social media. Luckily, this makes it easier for researches to locate them and link them to photos and videos of them wearing combat uniforms and committing war crimes. Already a number of researchers and organizations are posting the names and details of foreign fighters who have been geolocated in European cities. Combined with eyewitness accounts from victims who are now asylum seekers and human rights reports this information can counter impunity. More importantly, human rights activists have received intelligence that a number of Shabiha have been sent by Syrian regime intelligence (the Mukhabarat) to spy on refugees.

Layth Ayman Munshdi is one example of a fighter that sought refuge in Europe and was tracked down by open source researcher Ben Davies, simply using social media. Munshdi joined a pro-regime militia to fight in the armed conflict Moreover, he took part in executions. He also posted photos of himself standing on the bodies of the dead Sunni men he most likely murdered. Later he was located in Neustadt, Germany simply because he uploaded photos from his new life in Europe. He remained there for several months, until Syrians started posting about the crimes he committed. Munshdi consequently deleted his account, he was then lost out of sight for a while. He now resides in Damascus and rejoined the Shi’a militias in Damascus.

 

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

 

The human rights activists conducting the much needed open source research are often Syrian refugees themselves. Needless to say, these researchers are biased in one way or another. When one researchers was asked if he would also publish articles on war criminals from the Syrian opposition he stated that he had not yet found any. It is clear that there is a margin of error to the research. Still, they analyze every detail there is to be found about the individuals. The information is then corroborated with human rights organizations on the ground.

Much of the open source research is conducted by human rights activists that are not part of a police force. They provide us with some much needed awareness on the crimes of the Syrian regime, but they lack any form of judicial power. Luckily, some of the pro-Assad militias residing in Europe are now on the radar of police forces and intelligence agencies. Special war crimes units have started interviewing eyewitnesses and victims, in case a Syrian tribunal is ever established. This pro-active attitude is essential to build a case against war criminals. Still, it is unclear if such a war crimes tribunal will ever come to fruition. Many countries see Assad as the lesser of two evils, arguing that to fight ISIL they must maintain diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Consequently ignoring that the atrocities committed by the regime forces are often as atrocious as those committed by the Islamic State. If the Shabiha escape any form of sentencing, they will forever haunt the minds of their victims.

 

Film Review: A Good Wife – The Family Life of a War Criminal

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

 

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)

Film poster to A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)


By Koen Kluessien and Marieke Zoodsma 

 

Perhaps one of the most disturbing (moving) images from the wars in the former Yugoslavia are those shot on the so-called Scorpion Tape. The tape is named after the paramilitary unit that produced the video, Škorpioni – who curiously named themselves after their favorite weapon, the Škorpion vz. 61 machine pistol. The Scorpions, founded in 1991, were a Serbian nationalist paramilitary group consisting of several hundred armed groups who were involved in multiple combat operations during the wars. The full-length 2-hour tape depicts the activities of the unit between 1994 and 1995, with the Trnovo murders in July 1995 as its disturbing climax. It shows how members of the unit transport six Bosniak men who were captured after the fall of Srebrenica, physically and mentally abuse them, and finally execute them. In Serbia, where a culture of denial about (Serbia’s involvement in) the war crimes is widespread, the video caused huge commotion after it was made public in 2005 during the trial of Slobodan Milošević, leading to several arrests of those Scorpion members captured on the tape.


So, one might ask, who kept the tape for all these years? Who knew about its existence and why did that person come forward with it after ten years? A Good Wife (Dobra Zena)
, one of the featured films of the Movies that Matter Film Festival 2016 and now On Tour, questions such as these are cleverly intertwined in the storyline. The film shows the family life of one of the members of the Scorpion unit, several years after the war. It is reminiscent of the ordinary life of a mobster that is told in the HBO series The Sopranos, in which the story focuses on the criminal activity of mafioso Tony Soprano but primarily aims to depict the everyday life of his family. This is also the aim of A Good Wife: instead of outlining the life of Serbian paramilitary Vlado (who even has an uncanny resemblance to Tony Soprano: fat, slightly balding, and with an appearance that breathes authority) it focuses on his wife Milena. The film asks the question what the family members of a paramilitary – or a mobster for that matter – know, and more importantly, want to know.


According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, this paradox of both knowing and not-knowing lies at the heart of the concept of denial (read here Marieke’s article on current day examples of denial and Koen’s article on genocide denial by Serbian politicians). Denial is intrinsically partial as some information is always registered. What is important is what one does with that information. Milena knows her husband was in the military during the war and we see her watching the news about the aftermath of the mass atrocities committed by Serbian units. However, she does not ask him any questions, not even when she sees him getting heavily agitated after watching a human rights activist comment on the war crimes on the television. She has a suspicion but does not have an “enquiring mind”, as Stanley Cohen would call it.


Alienation and demonization are often heard reactions to distance oneself from the cruel actions of perpetrators of mass atrocities. It is easier to see perpetrators of mass violence as intrinsically evil people. They can thereby remain the so-called “Other”; something that stands so far from us that we do not truly have to understand it. A Good Wife excellently depicts the opposite. It provides the audience with a unique insight into the ordinary life of a war criminal, when the violence is over and life turns back to “normal”. Yes, Vlado is easily annoyed, has a bad relationship with his eldest (progressive) daughter, and is still an overt believer of the nationalist Serbian cause – but furthermore comes across as the average husband. We see him buying jewelry for Milena’s birthday, sitting at the head of the dinner table, and going out together with friends. As the film progresses, however, coping techniques cannot hold back his lingering trauma and it starts to affect his family life.


The key scene in the storyline of A Good Wife is the moment when Milena finds a copy of the Scorpion tape in one of her husband’s drawers. Unaware of what the tape actually contains, she turns it on and sees her husband and his comrades commit the above-described crimes. Heavily upset she turns it off. The leading question of the film remains, now that she cannot deny the involvement of her husband in these crimes, what will she do with the evidence?

 

The actual Scorpion tape was found by Nataša Kandić, a human rights activist from Belgrade, who tracked down one of the Scorpion members that was in possession of the tape. There had been twenty copies, but when Slobodan Medić Boca (the commander of the Scorpions) realized that the images could be used against him, he ordered the destruction of the footage. However, one Scorpion who was not present at the executions and did not have good relations with his former comrades made an extra copy and hid it in Bosnia. On the same day, the tape was sent to the Special Prosecutor for War Crimes in Belgrade and to the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY. When the video was played in Serbia, it was the first time Serbia was confronted with a crime committed by Serb forces in Bosnia.

 

Serbian politicians later acknowledged the crime. At that point it seemed like the Serbian “state of denial” was about to change and Serbians would be ready to deal with their past. Indeed, many people still give credit to the tape for “sending shockwaves through society”. Unfortunately, the truth is slightly different. Quickly the discourse changed back to usual statements showing the unwillingness to confront the past. The taped killings were relativized by pointing out crimes committed against Serbs that were still unpunished. When asked why the video had not had more effect, Dejan Anastasijević, a journalist for the newspaper Vreme, responded: “Public opinion [has been] cemented by now – it’s been 10 years. All I can say is that the capability of the human mind of refusing to face unpleasant facts keeps on amazing me”.

 

A Good Wife depicts the family life of a war criminal as if they were your neighbors. Hopefully, it will also prove to be not only a thought provoking film filled with well-written symbolism and moving actors but also a step forward in taking down the wall of denial in Serbia.

 

 

The power of the UN to protect Humanity Part II – The endless conflict in South Sudan

Prestident Salva_Kiir_Mayardit, UN long
President Salva_Kiir_Mayardit, UN

President Kiir speaking to reporters before the headquarters of the Security Council, (CC-Photo Credit: Jenny Rockett)

 

By Iona Mulder -

In 2011, the Security Council assigned a peace-keeping mission, UNMISS, to South Sudan to help stabilize this young turbulent nation. In my previous article, I described the bureaucratic progress of the deployment of the mission in South Sudan as the intended ideal process of the founders of UN to protect humanity worldwide. Unfortunately, this positive note does not extend to the actual results of the mission on the ground in South Sudan. There is one thing that can be stated with certainty: the UN (peacekeeping) mission so far has failed its mandate to contribute to the stability of the country, and to protect its population against violence when its government neglects to do so.

The mission started in 2011 to help the government to build the new nation, however, in 2013 the government of South Sudan split into two factions. President Kiir accused the Vice-President Riek Machar of attempting a coup and sacked him and the rest of the Parliament. Riek Machar denied the accusation, stating that the President Kirr was creating a dictatorship. The remaining government and the opposition group of Machar both mobilized their support to pick up arms and fight by their side, leading up to a civil war. As a result of the violence, tens thousands of people have been killed, and over three million people fled their home – resulting in the destruction of South Sudan’s infrastructure and economic system that was mainly based on agriculture and oil. In 2015, a peace agreement, including a cease-fire, was signed between the conflicting parties. But already from the beginning, there was little trust in the implementation of this peace agreement, as it was signed under immense international pressure and the threat of a weapon embargo. In July 2016, new fighting broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, that was being described as widespread ethnic violence by United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. There were already many previous warnings of massive food shortage all over the country, but in February this year, the UN officially declared a famine in multiple parts of the country. Little blame for the famine can be distributed to circumstances of nature. It is the result of years of fighting, in which the civilians are heavily targeted, and the unjust distribution of the nation’s sources by the government.

How is it possible that one of the world’s most powerful organization in its third largest mission, seems powerless to bring a solution on a political level or provide civilians protection or even humanitarian assistance? Even in the six safe areas that the UN has established around the country, in which an average o f 200.000 people seeks refuge, the mission has been unable to guarantee a place where its residents can feel safe. Sexual violence, as in the rest of the country, is a daily reality and in February 2016 a safe area was burned to the ground, in the outbreak of violence July of the same year the protection side in Juba was heavily attacked. After this attack, the UN-secretary general Ban Ki-moon dismissed the commander of the mission, after it became apparent that the peacekeepers had utterly failed to protect civilians during these attacks, even within the safe area. “The report from a UN special investigation found that a lack of leadership in the UNMISS ended in a “chaotic and ineffective response” during the heavy fighting in the capital, Juba, from July 8 to 11 that killed dozens of people.”

The main reason for the failing mission is the noncooperation and opposition of the government of South Sudan to the mission. The government more than often has denied peacekeepers access to areas where civilians were in need of protection or humanitarian assistance. Although the third biggest mission in the world, the mission does not have the capacity in mandate, staff or material to force such access. The UN does not have its own army but has to rely on the military of the signatory nations. The process of assembling an army or adjust its mandate is a bureaucratic and time-consuming process, making it impossible to respond to urgent matters. Moreover, although the Security Council agrees that UNMISS is necessary for South Sudan, it is unable to make a political fist to fight the Government’s resistance against the mission, because Russia veto’s any resolution that directly affects the South Sudanese Government.

The primary example of these problems is the deployment of the so-called Regional Protection Force. This force of 4000 strong was authorized by the Security Council, including by Russia, in August 2016 after the outbreak of violence in July that year. Due to the bureaucratic process of assembling this force, it was still not ready to operate almost a half year later. Primarily, the South Sudanese Government accepted the force deployment under the threat of weapon embargo. However, in December Russia vetoed a resolution for a weapon embargo, which gave the Government the confidence to refuse the deployment of the Regional Protection Force without facing serious consequences. This refusal led to a further delay, because of the logistical and bureaucratic restraints. Thus, even after hearing warnings in December 2016 that the conflict might escalate into a genocide and a new Security Council resolution for the expansion of the Mission and an urge for a rapid deployment of the Regional Protection Force, the force is now April 2017, still not operating. However, as Casie Copeland of the Crisis Group reported, the mandate for the Regional Protection Force only extents to Juba, while in the meantime the conflict has moved its center to other regions, and it is there that people are in need of protection, not in Juba.

The South Sudanese Government and its political supporters play a political game as they are unwilling to end the conflict. If the UN continues to play this game, it will always be one step behind. There could be an approach by the UN that would help to circumvent this game of the national government. The UN has to switch its diplomatic and military focus from the national conflicts to regional or local conflicts. This approach is especially suitable for layered societies as that of South Sudan. It is often assumed that the national crisis – the conflict between the two former factions of the parliament – is the motor behind most of the violence in the country. However, South Sudan consist of many communities, which are bound by clan, local, family, ethnic or religious affiliations. The national conflict is often used by local communities to sort out their local conflicts with other communities. For example, a village will support the party opposite of their rival neighboring community with whom they have a bone to pick. Moreover, these local communities are the ones with the most interest in peace. It is the civilians who are paying the price of the conflict, not the political or military national leaders.

As the scholar Séverine Autesserre concludes in an article on the conflict in the Republic of Congo, local peace-building and reconciliation will reduce the level of violence on the ground. Her evidence for this argument is the conflict in North-East of Congo that (re)started in the beginning of the nineties. In 2003 a national peace agreement was signed, leading to the withdrawal of international players in the conflict. However, the conflict continued long after, because the local conflicts between the eight different ethnic and local groups in the region were not addressed in the settlement. Thus, local reconciliation could reduce violence after a conflict broke out. Moreover, it could also have a deterrent effect, as the national conflict might still spark the violence, but local settlements minimize the change that the violence is to spread out over the country. Finally, it might even put internal pressure on the government to implement a peace agreement.

Fortunately, in a report written by Secretary-General in cooperation with the African Union, the advice is given to the UN to put more focus on political engagement on a local level, as political solutions at national level seem fruitless, because of national and international unwillingness to end the conflict. As stated in this report: “The Mission’s increased focus on strengthening mechanisms for peaceful coexistence at the community level should be understood as a front-line protection intervention and part of an overarching political strategy.” If the UN can succeed in applying this strategy on a broad basis, they might be one step ahead of those who prefer the conflict to continue and for South Sudan to remain a state in chaos.

There is one issue that remains unsolved, and that is the inability of the UN to intervene adequate to changing situation, because of the slow bureaucratic (and political) process of putting together an peacekeeping army. An analysis of this process will be the subject of the last article of this series.