Political rivals must end dispute before South Sudan goes ‘down in flames’ – UN rights chief

Relocation of Displaced Foreign Nationals to New Protection of Civilians at UN House. UN Photo/Isaac Billy

9 May 2014 – Warning that the litany of grave atrocities committed in South Sudan and catalogued in a new United Nations report bears the grim hallmarks of genocide, the Organization’s human rights chief today called on the sparring political leaders there to take immediate steps to stop the killing, “before the fire they have ignited [brings] the entire country down in flames.”

“There can no longer be any excuse for either President Salva Kiir or his chief opponent Dr. Riek Machar continuing to avoid identifying and arresting their force commanders and other individuals implicated in the commission of serious violations, including war crimes and crimes against humanity,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

“Both leaders are due to meet in Addis Ababa for peace talks later today. It is essential they make a concerted and genuine effort to bring these talks to a speedy and successful conclusion. In the meantime, they should call an immediate halt to the fighting,” she said.

Ms. Pillay’s strong comments come in reaction to the report released yesterday by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) which provides a comprehensive account of human rights violations and atrocities perpetrated during the hostilities that engulfed the country since 15 December 2013 and follows up on an interim report released by the Mission on 21 February.

Based on more than 900 eyewitness interview, the report provides a succinct timeline of the conflict, which was sparked by a political dispute between President Kiir, who belongs to the Dinka ethnic group, and his former vice-president Mr. Machar, who belongs to the Lou Nuer, and finds that “from the very outset…gross violations of international law…occurred on a massive scale.”

“This report ... illustrates just how quickly a political struggle within the ruling party was allowed – or even encouraged – to metamorphose into an ethnic-based conflict of the most lethal sort,” Ms. Pillay said, adding that in the process, it revealed many of the structural weaknesses and leadership flaws undermining democracy and rule of law in the world’s youngest State.

As former President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Ms. Pillay said she recognized in the report “many of the precursors of genocide: hate media including calls to rape women of a particular ethnic group; attacks on civilians in hospitals, churches and mosques; even attacks on people sheltering in UN compounds – all on the basis of the victims’ ethnicity.”

Ms. Pillay warned of the gravity of the situation after visiting South Sudan two weeks ago with the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, and she said that trip, as well as the visit this past Tuesday by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have helped draw attention to the urgency of the situation and put pressure on the leaders of both sides to enter serious peace negotiations as well as to stop their followers committing more serious violations.

“There are some indications that they are starting to realize the outside world has finally really woken up to what is going on,” she said, emphasizing that after the release of the UNMISS report, for example, “it is simply not credible that the Government is unaware who, among their commanders, was responsible for organizing the slaughter of more than 300 Nuer men herded into a Government building in the Gudele neighbourhood of Juba on 16 December.”

“Similarly, it is not credible that Mr. Machar does not know which of his commanders instigated and led the mass killing of several hundred civilians in the mosque, hospital, market and other locations in Bentiu on 15 April,” Ms. Pillay continued, and added: “unfortunately these are only two of the many examples of the killing of civilians and other grave violations described in this report.”

While welcoming the increased attention given to South Sudan in recent weeks, including by the UN Security Council, the High Commissioner called on the international community – especially regional powers and processes such as the African Union, African Commission of Inquiry and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) – to focus even more attention on the dire human rights situation as part of their efforts to stop the country from collapsing into catastrophe.

Meanwhile in New York, a UN spokesman said that UNMISS hopes that the meeting between President Kiir and Mr. Machar – who have arrived in Addis Ababa – will reinvigorate the peace process, produce a political solution and put an immediate end to the violence.

And in the country itself, the Mission reports Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and opposition troop movements in and around Bentiu, including close to the Mission base.

Yesterday, the Mission reported sporadic gun fire in the proximity of its base in Bentiu, where more than 23,000 civilians are being protected. One internally displaced civilian was wounded as a result of a stray bullet, and received medical treatment within the base. The Mission added that it has been asked not to land flights in Bentiu during the next 72 hours.

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