Very tragic news coming out of the United Nations today. Five UN Peacekeepers with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and seven civilian staffers have been killed in an ambush in South Sudan’s remote Jonglei state. Some UN personell remain unaccounted for.

Details are sparse–I suspect we will know more in a couple of hours when the Secretary General’s spokesperson briefs the press–but this attack would be among the deadliest single incidents against UN peacekeepers in many years.

There are just over 7,000 uniformed personell deployed to UNMISS, which was created as a successor to the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan after South Sudan gained independence two years ago. Jonglei is in the eastern part of South Sudan near the ethiopian border.  In recent months, cattle rustling has lead to ugly communal violence between rival tribes; at least 85 people were killed in a cattle raid in February.

The problems of Jonglei are emblematic of the problems of South Sudan (and the UN Peacekeeping mission) as a whole. The central government is weak and unable to impose the rule of law in some of its rural outposts. The UN Mission is aimed at strengthening the South Sudanese state, in part by helping to maintain security until South Sudan can do so on its own. But there are only 7,000 peacekeepers to patrol the entire country. And, many of these peacekeepers are rightfully focused on the disputed border regions between Sudan and South Sudan to prevent the outbreak of another war.

This is an exceedingly difficult mission for the UN, but after two decades of war and two million deaths South Sudan is just starting to get on its feet.  These dozen Peacekeepers and civilians who lost their lives did so in the service of international peace and security. We mourn their loss.

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