South Sudan: UN peacekeeping chief says attack on base sheltering civilians 'sets dangerous precedent'

South Sudanese fleeing fighting, find refuge inside the UNMISS compound in Bor, Jonglei state. Photo: UNMISS/Tina Turyagyenda

23 April 2014 – Warning today that the surging violence in South Sudan is clear evidence that the United Nations can no longer operate in “business-as-usual” mode in the county, the Organization's peacekeeping chief declared that the fighting must stop immediately; the Government has a duty to protect civilians; and the warring parties should negotiate a genuine ceasefire that will be respected by all sides.

“We are not and cannot be in a business as usual format. The cycle of violence…must stop immediately,” Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary-General for UN Peacekeeping Operations, said this evening, speaking informally to reporters following a two-hour closed-door briefing to the Security Council on the spate of “terrible violence” that erupted in South Sudan over the last 10 days.

His comments come as the UN Mission (UNMISS) has confirmed that anti-Government forces killed “hundreds of South Sudanese and foreign civilians” after determining their ethnicity or nationality when they captured Bentiu, the capital of Unity state last week. Violence also broke in Bor, the war-torn capital of Jonglei state, when a mob of armed civilians forced their way into an UNMISS facility and opened fire on displaced persons sheltering inside.

Over the past two months, thousands of people are believed to have been killed by fighting that began in mid-December 2013 as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy president, Riek Machar. Since last Thursday, as fresh violence swept towns in the northern and central parts of the country, clashes and reprisal attacks have forced thousands of people to seek refuge at UNMISS bases throughout the country.

Noting that UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic also briefed the Council this evening, Mr. Ladsous said that while the message is clear – the ongoing violence is unacceptable and must stop – neither party appeared ready to cease hostilities, the ceasefire agreed three months ago “has never been implemented [and] neither side has given any indication that they will seriously participate in the peace talks” being facilitated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

“The attack on UN compound last Thursday and the killing of civilians within it denotes a serious escalation. It creates an extremely dangerous precedent and cannot happen again,” declared Mr. Ladsous, emphasizing that while the UN is doing everything it can to protect civilians fleeing the violence, primary responsibility for such protection rests with the South Sudanese Government.

Calling the IGAD mediation process “the only game in town” he said the UN continues to support the talks with a view towards reinvigorating the process, which news reports suggest may resume later this month in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

At the same time, Mr, Ladsous cautioned that “unless there are serious consequences for the parties to ease the violence and engage seriously in talks, “the toll on civilians will continue to rise. And this is unacceptable,” especially as the rainy season is about to begin in earnest. If the violence did not cease, a humanitarian catastrophe is all but certain.

Responding to questions, he said he was sorry to report that the UN status of forces agreement (SOFA) with South Sudan continues to be violated and the Mission is being impeded from movement and “in many other ways [kept] from doing our jobs. This is something the Council is very much aware of.”

Asked if he could expand on any “serious consequences” that the parties might face or if he had proposed any changes to UNMISS' operating mandate, he said any such decisions would be up to the Council. For the time being, the Mission would continue to focus on its core priorities: civilian protection; supporting humanitarian access; protecting human rights; and supporting the IGAD mediation.

“This is what it's all about now. Other tasks have been put on hold because we simply cannot to anything else under the circumstances,” Mr. Ladsous concluded.

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UN mission in South Sudan condemns ethnic killings in Bentiu

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