Ambassadors, bons vivants, commanders, dignitaries and excellencies. They were all there, at UN House in Juba. Yet they had all left the parade ground when the celebration of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers began in spontaneous, playful earnest.
“This makes me feel proud of what I do”.
As most higher-ups were mingling with soft drinks and finger food in hand, several variations of what a younger peacekeeping colleague has just said can be overheard around the usually insignificant parking lot. The joy, spirit, camaraderie, sense of belonging and serving for a greater good, up till that point reined in by solemn salutes, protocol and speeches, are suddenly free to be released and revelled in.
Small groups of brothers and sisters from a motley lot of contingents are milling about, greeting and embracing each other when their paths cross. Smiling civilian staff and volunteers, most of a younger vintage and normally at an office desk’s distance from United Nations symbols, are taking hundreds of group shots and selfies, more often than not with a UN flag, banner or wreath honouring fallen peacekeepers in the backdrop.
If pride is indeed a cardinal sin, sinners were everywhere. They were blissfully unrepentant as well, because this is a day when words turn into a sentiment, a day when peacekeepers with or without uniforms truly count, and stand up to be counted.
By now, they have done that for a while. At 71, UN peacekeeping may have reached and passed retirement age but remains very much alive. It is currently “as relevant as ever”, as remarked by Moustapha Soumaré, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.
Sadly, individual peacekeepers do lose their lives in the service of humanity, and honouring the memory of those who have fallen in the line of duty continues to be the main objective on this day, 29 May.
Since 1948, a total of 3,842 of the more than one million men and women who have served with peacekeeping operations around the world have given their lives. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan has lost 67 soldiers, police officers, civilian staff and volunteers since its birth in July 2011, twelve of whom in the past year.
Yet, untold efforts to keep peace must be made, almost always in the most difficult of operating environments, because “for millions in conflict-affected situation around the world, peacekeeping is a necessity and a hope,” Mr. Soumaré said, quoting the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres.
The Deputy Head of UNMISS also singled out the ever-growing contributions of female staff for special praise.
“Having more women deployed in police, military and civilian components has made an impact on peacekeeping environments, both in supporting the role of women in building peace and protecting women’s and girls’ rights,” he observed.
Human rights were on the mind of the guest of honour as well. South Sudan’s Deputy Minister of Defence, Lieutenant General Malek Ruben Riak, pledged the government’s “continuous guarantee of the security and freedom of movement of UN-associated personnel” and that cases of sexual and gender-based violence will be investigated and perpetrators persecuted.
“The government has already taken drastic steps to arrest and court martial the suspects involved,” the Deputy Minister said. He also praised the professionalism and bravery of the UN’s peacekeepers in the country.
”I wish you success in the diligent execution of your mandate,” he added, and stressed that the government will honour its commitment to implement the revitalized peace agreement and its efforts to engage with non-signatories of that deal.
All parts of the ceremony to mark the day of peacekeeping were indeed diligently and flawlessly executed.
The colourful parade, made up not only of military and police contingents from various countries but also of national and international civilian staff and UN volunteers, displayed an effortless mix of reverence, pride and joy. Flags were expertly handled, wreaths were laid, and a minute of silence to pay tribute to peacekeepers lost was perfectly observed.
And then, there was the build-up to the party atmosphere that would follow: stunning cultural performances.
Female Chinese troops showcased a piece of free-flowing, traditional dancing from their home country, South Sudan’s very own Anyuak Youth Cultural Group sang beautifully, and Ethiopian peacekeepers, in a particularly vigorous, shoulder-shaking display, had the crowd purring. After all, if the Eskista dance is good enough for Beyoncé it will do in Juba as well.
The true icing on the cake? If the wishes of Moustapha Soumaré are fulfilled, the best still awaits around the corner.
“It is my profound hope that 2019 will be the year that lasting peace will be achieved.”
Facts & figures
More than 100,000 military, police and civilian personnel from 125 countries are currently serving fourteen United Nations peace operations on four continents.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan has almost 15,000 military, more than 1,800 police and corrections officers and 2,800 civilian staff, including 410 United Nations Volunteers.
The International Day of UN Peacekeepers was celebrated in similar ways in the South Sudanese regions covered by the nine field offices of UNMISS.