23 January 2012
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Head of South Sudan Mission

 


Calling strongly today for an end to the deadly tit-for-tat violence between two of South Sudan’s main nomadic tribes, the top United Nations official for the fledgling country condemned with equal vigour the ongoing use of hate speech to sow seeds of ethnic division in the flashpoint region of Jonglei.


As she briefed correspondents via videolink from Juba, Hilde Johnson, Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said that she had just met in the South Sudanese capital with Vice-President Riek Machar, and both officials had urged the Lou Nuer and Murle communities to redouble their efforts in preventing and ending violence in and around Jonglei State’s Pibor town.


“We are also deeply concerned about messages that have been made publicly by some individuals and groups,” warned Ms. Johnson, who is also the Special Representative of the Secretary-General.  Such statements, she said, were in violation of both international law and South Sudan’s domestic laws.  “The United Nations condemns them in the strongest terms,” she stressed.


She recalled that UNMISS had been created six months ago to help usher South Sudan and its nascent Government into an era of stability and democratic ideals.  While sound governance mechanisms had been put in place with the help of the United Nations, the fighting among the Lou Neur and Murle communities that had sparked nearly three weeks ago now threatened to undermine the Government’s efforts.  Moreover, given the pattern of the attacks and their retaliatory nature, compounded by the vastness of the area — Jonglei is roughly the size of Bangladesh — she said thousands of civilians remained at risk.


Admitting the challenging nature of the situation, she said the best way to address it thoroughly was through military deterrence and large-scale deployment of Government forces.  “UNMISS has reinforced its presence in key areas of Jonglei State and is conducting continuous air patrols to deter potential violence,” she said of the response, which also included the scaling up of deliveries of humanitarian assistance to remote areas.


Responding to questions about the early January incident in which thousands of members of the Murle ethnic group who had sought refuge in Pibor in Jonglei State fled the town as it came under attack by a 6,000-strong column of armed youths from the rival Lou Nuer community, Ms. Johnson said the Mission had taken decisive measures to protect civilians when the column had been detected.  But, while early warning mechanisms had allowed large numbers of people to get to safety ahead of the deadly column, she said: “Yes, there have been casualties.  This is a grave concern; any loss of life is one too many.”


She cautioned against jumping to conclusions, however, stressing that the death toll was “nowhere near” the scale that was being reported in the wider media.  Only when investigations were close to being completed and when more people had returned to their homes, would the facts become clear.  “The instigators of the [retaliatory] attacks must be brought to justice,” she said, explaining that UNMISS had sent representatives to the three rival communities — Lou Nuer, Murle and Dinka — to work with local leaders to ease tensions.


Indeed, there was an urgent need to deploy more Government and police forces in and around flashpoint areas in Jonglei, chiefly to protect border areas, ease tensions and provide a stabilizing influence.  She said the Government’s decision to establish a “peace team” had been essential and she hoped that it would move ahead with its reconciliation mandate as soon as possible.  UNMISS would continue to support the Government and would continue to exercise its civilian protection mandate.


As for the incidents of hate speech, she said that it had been found largely on the Internet, with some of the leaders of the alleged aggressor communities strongly inciting ethnic violence against others in the region.  The Mission was not certain that the leaders had actually authored those statements, which she refused to read out for inquiring journalists.  “We are of the opinion that they are unacceptable.  A quick search on the Internet will turn up the statements we’re talking about,” she said.


Returning to questions about the role the early warning system had played in reducing the number of casualties in the attack on Pibor town, Ms. Johnson said that UNMISS had shared its information on the column’s movements with Government and local authorities, which had the main duty for planning defensive manoeuvres, evacuations and other responses.  UNMISS had worked with the authorities in Pibor town to execute their strategy and that assistance had ensured that civilians had time to get out of harms way in an orderly manner.  “We believe that it’s clear that this strategy saved tens of thousands of lives,” she said, noting that people were now beginning to return to their homes “in large numbers”, and that some 78,000 were now registered for humanitarian assistance in Pibor town.


As for the overall response capability of UNMISS, she said that the Mission had slogged through the mud to get armoured personnel carriers in place ahead of the attack on Pibor.  The Mission had also been encouraged that the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which had opened fire on the column, had demonstrated it was prepared to protect civilians in cases of inter-communal violence.  UNMISS was encouraging the Government to urge SPLA to continue to protect civilians.


She noted that UNMISS suffered from the all to common shortage of military helicopters, and though it had been able to acquire two from the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), it remained at half capacity — “a major gap”. 


To a final question about her role and the independence of her mandate, she assured correspondents that she would continue to investigate human rights abuses in South Sudan and would work to see that grave violations were reported to the Government and the Security Council.


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For information media • not an official record