Senior UN official witnesses humanitarian, human rights ‘disaster’ on South Sudan visit

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic (right) visits Bentiu and Bor in South Sudan. Photo: UNMISS/Patrick Morrison

17 January 2014 – Fighting in South Sudan has turned into a horrifying humanitarian and human rights disaster with mass atrocities committed by both sides, a senior United Nations official said today, wrapping up a four-day visit to the strife-torn nation.

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonovic told reporters that the month-long conflict has now reached the threshold of an internal armed conflict, causing “untold suffering” for thousands of civilians.

“Mass atrocities have been committed by both sides. During my visit, I have received reports of mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, the widespread destruction of property and the use of children in the conflict,” he said.

“One month of conflict has set South Sudan back a decade,” he stated.

“Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands are now displaced, with some 70,000 people seeking protection in UN camps and 30,000 in the two UN compounds in Juba alone,” he added.

Mr. Šimonovic said that the crisis, which started as a political one, has now taken on an inter-ethnic dimension that urgently needs to be addressed.

“People on both sides are absolutely convinced that the other side is to blame, which makes the situation even more dangerous. This highlights the need for an independent fact-finding commission to establish the truth of these terrible events.”

He noted that the worst affected communities are in the capital, Juba, and in communities which have changed hands several times, like those in Bentiu and Bor, leading to widespread communal violence and destruction.

Mr. Šimonovic visited the town of Bentiu, Unity state, which has been the scene of heaving fighting over the past few weeks.

“What I saw was a horror. Destruction and death is everywhere in Bentiu, which has now become a ghost town,” he said. “I myself saw some 15 bodies lying on a road. The extent of the looting, burning and destruction is hard to grasp for anybody who hasn’t been there.”

The city of Bor in Jonglei state, which he also visited, was a “ghost town,” with all the civilians having fled, he added.

In Juba, Bor and Bentiu, Mr. Šimonovic met senior Government officials, anti-Government forces, armed groups, UN officials, the diplomatic community and a wide range of civil society actors, including traditional and community leaders. He also met displaced people and victims of the fighting.

“Accountability is key,” the official stressed. “An independent and impartial fact-finding commission should be established as quickly as possible. Those who committed these terrible crimes, who ordered them or those who did nothing to prevent them while they were in a position to do so, all these people should be held accountable without delay,” he said. “I made this very clear to military leaders on both sides.”

He lauded the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) for playing a key role in protecting civilians over the past few weeks.

“If UNMISS had not opened their gates to protect civilians fleeing the violence, there is no doubt that killings on an even larger scale would have happened. Their impartial presence is also of great importance to help preventing further atrocities from being committed and for the protection of civilians.”

Mr. Šimonovic is slated to brief Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Security Council upon his return to New York. In addition, a report on human rights violations committed in South Sudan after 15 December will be issued within the coming weeks.