South Sudan on Brink of ‘Cataclysmic Event’, Top United Nations Officials Warn Security Council, Calling for Targeted Sanctions

SC/12642
19 December 2016
7846th Meeting (AM)

South Sudan on Brink of ‘Cataclysmic Event’, Top United Nations Officials Warn Security Council, Calling for Targeted Sanctions

Government Demonstrating Political Will, Commitment to Dialogue, Effecting Peace Accord, Permanent Representative Argues

The deteriorating situation in South Sudan, one of the world’s most urgent crises, was on the brink of a cataclysmic event, and the responsibility for that tragic state of affairs lay squarely with the leaders of that country, top United Nations officials warned the Security Council today.

“They have betrayed the public trust and continue to show a perverse sense of entitlement, seeking to retain power and wealth at all costs,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, speaking of the South Sudanese Government. He also reiterated his call for the imposition of an arms embargo in order to stem the capacity to wage war on all sides.  Those weapons also directly threatened the safety of civilians and humanitarian workers.

Words alone were no longer enough, he emphasized.  They should be matched by practical actions that demonstrated a strategic shift to fully cooperate with the United Nations and all partners for peace.  The conflict had already assumed an ethnic dimension, he said, underscoring that hate speech from many in leadership positions had been witnessed.  In addition, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) continued to face restrictions on its freedom of movement throughout the country, which was in clear violation of the Status of Forces Agreement. 

“South Sudan is on the brink,” cautioned Stephen O’Brien, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, noting that a political solution was needed to avert a humanitarian crisis that was spiralling out of control.  Humanitarian assistance had been provided to half of South Sudan’s population in 2016, and that figure was expected to rise an additional 20 to 30 per cent next year.  Approximately 3.1 million people had been forced to flee their homes, with children accounting for around half of that number.

He also called for a commitment to protect humanitarian workers, and that those who killed, attacked and raped those workers should be prosecuted.  It was vital to stop the current trajectory and, instead, collectively help South Sudan and its people avert a “cataclysmic” event, he said.

The Security Council had not delivered on the requested arms embargo, said the representative of the United States, a fact that should be taken into account in the face of graphic briefings and eyewitness testimony.  One account was of a 28-year-old mother and her children who barely escaped death, fleeing after two men came to her door and shot her husband in the head.  Accounts such as those, she said, were too numerous to tally. 

However, the representative of the Russian Federation stressed that targeted sanctions or an arms embargo would not serve peace in South Sudan.  Proponents were ignoring the Africa Union’s stance against such a decision, he said, adding that colleagues should also refrain from interpreting events as a prediction of genocide.

Responding to the characterization of the conflict as an ethnic war, the representative of South Sudan called that description “a bit far-exaggerated” and one that did not reflect reality.  The Government was, in fact, demonstrating political will, including the recent acceptance of the deployment of the Regional Protection Force without conditions.  Furthermore, the proposed arms embargo and threats for sanctions were indicative of the failure to distinguish between a legitimately-elected Government and an armed rebellion intent on overthrowing that Government, he said, emphasizing the Government’s full commitment to support political dialogue and fully implement the peace agreement. 

During the meeting, Council members also expressed their condolences to the Russian Federation, whose Ambassador to Turkey, Andrey G. Karlov, was shot dead in Ankara earlier Monday.

Also speaking were representatives of France and Uruguay.

The meeting began at 4:08 p.m. and ended at 5:14 p.m.

Briefings

BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that the deteriorating situation in South Sudan was one of the world’s most urgent crises.  That nation was engulfed in yet another civil war, where tens of thousands of civilians had been killed, while its economy was in ruins and millions of people were homeless and displaced.  The responsibility for that tragic state of affairs lay with the leaders of South Sudan.  

“They have betrayed the public trust and continue to show a perverse sense of entitlement, seeking to retain power and wealth at all costs,” he said.  Meanwhile, reports suggested that President Salva Kiir and his loyalists were contemplating a new military offensive in the coming days against the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-In Opposition), and there were clear indications that Riek Machar and other opposition groups were also pursuing a military escalation.

He reiterated the call for an arms embargo on South Sudan, which would diminish the capacity of all sides to wage war.  As efforts to revive the political process continued, the international community should stop the flow of more weapons, which posed a direct threat to the safety and security of civilians and humanitarian workers.  Furthermore, parties should also be prevented from launching any military operation with the beginning of the dry season. 

He went on to urge regional leaders and the international community to make it clear to President Kiir and Riek Machar that any initiation of a military offensive would carry serious consequences.  A national dialogue could be a positive step if all stakeholders were able to participate with freedom and in safety.  However, that environment did not exist in South Sudan.  Commending the work of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) and the African Union, he called upon the Security Council to complement those efforts. 

The conflict in South Sudan had already assumed an ethnic dimension, and hate speech from many in leadership positions had been witnessed, he said, citing his Special Envoy for the Prevention of Genocide who said that genocide was not one event, but a process.  In addition, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) continued to face restrictions on its freedom of movement throughout the country, which was in clear violation of the Status of Forces Agreement.  The Secretariat had provided the Security Council with a list of those violations on a monthly basis, but that had not resulted in any action to restore the freedom of movement.  The Government of South Sudan should also fulfil its pledges of unconditional acceptance of the deployment of the Regional Protection Force. 

Words alone were insufficient, he said.  They should be matched by practical actions that demonstrated a strategic shift to fully cooperate with the United Nations and all partners for peace.  He had spoken with President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya on Saturday to exchange views on the South Sudan peace process, he said, adding that the people of South Sudan had suffered too much, and their country could be on a trajectory towards mass atrocities.  He appealed to the Security Council to act in fulfillment of its responsibility and in support of ongoing regional efforts.

STEPHEN O’BRIEN, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, noted that in the current year, half of South Sudan’s population — approximately 6.1 million people — had required humanitarian assistance.  That number was expected to rise by a further 20 to 30 per cent in 2017 due to the destructive violence on the ground and forced displacement, compounded by food insecurity, economic decline, destitution and a breakdown of basic services.  Approximately 3.1 million people in the country had been forced to flee their homes, many of them displaced multiple times. 

He went on to say that children accounted for around half of those, and more than 17,000 were believed to have been recruited by armed actors since the beginning of the conflict.  One in four schools had closed and learning in general had been disrupted by the displacement of both teachers and students.  More than 1 million children under the age of five were now estimated to be acutely malnourished, he said, adding fewer than half of the country’s health facilities were operational.  Women and girls continued to face heightened risks of sexual violence, particularly by armed groups, with rape being used as a weapon of war. 

As needs were growing and deepening, the ability of humanitarian partners to provide life-saving assistance was diminishing at an alarming pace, he continued.  At least 67 humanitarian workers had died, 12 of them since July, and in recent months, reports of harassment had become numerous and routine.  Aid organizations were also facing increasing levels of bureaucratic obstruction and intimidation, mainly from the South Sudan Government but also by parts of the opposition, he said, calling for an end to such incidents.  Humanitarians had delivered life-saving aid to nearly 4.7 million people in 2016, including nearly 3.6 million with food assistance or emergency livelihoods support.  The assistance had been delivered based on assessed needs, targeting people in severe need in all areas. 

However, he reported, access to those most in need continued to be restricted in some areas of the country.  In November, 100 reports of humanitarian access incidents were documented — the highest number in any month since June 2015 — and 67 per cent of those incidents involved violence against humanitarian workers or assets.  Aid workers continued to face major challenges reaching people in need in towns controlled by one party to the conflict and surrounded by another.  While he welcomed steps taken by the Government to address some of the challenges, including the establishment of the Humanitarian High Level Oversight Committee, it was vital that commitments be translated immediately into concrete and effective action. 

“South Sudan is on the brink,” he warned, adding that if a political solution was not urgently found to stop the violence, the humanitarian crisis in that country would cascade beyond control.  Collective leverage must be exerted to ensure the facilitation of unhindered access to all those requiring assistance in all areas.  He also called for a real commitment to protect humanitarian workers, adding that those who killed, attacked and raped those workers must be prosecuted and held accountable, just as the impunity of those who attack civilians must end.    It was imperative for all to act within their power to stop the current trajectory and collectively help South Sudan and its people avert a “cataclysmic” event.

Statements

SAMANTHA POWER (United States) said that in the case of South Sudan, an arms embargo had been requested and the Security Council had not delivered.  That should be taken into account in the face of graphic briefings and eyewitness testimony, for example the account of one family, a 28-year-old mother and her children, who barely escaped death.  Two men came to her door and shot her husband in the head, while she fled.  Two women were trapped and raped by men, while infants were used as sticks to beat those women.  Many accounts in that region contained that kind of savage detail, she said, and they were too numerous to tally.  An arms embargo and targeted sanctions should be adopted, as more of the same was not working.

More than half the country faced food insecurity and human rights violations were common place, as was the systematic use of sexual violence as a weapon of war, she said.  Meanwhile, the Government’s response was one of continued obstruction.  In recent weeks, four highly experienced aid workers were deported.  The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) was offered assurance by the Government that it could patrol without interference, but in reality that was not happening.  Even if UNMISS faced no obstruction, those peacekeepers would encounter challenges in stopping the ethnic-based violence on the ground.  Some in the Council argued it was not the right time for an arms embargo and targeted sanctions.  But more arms coming into the country was not the best way to look out for the safety of the people of South Sudan.

LUIS BERMÚDEZ (Uruguay) expressed serious concern over killings, rapes and attacks against civilians, medical facilities and personnel and media, while also noting that some human rights violations had taken on an ethnic dimension.  Such events could lead to mass atrocities if they continued to increase in scope.  The worsening food and economic situations were disturbing, with almost 5 million people in an acute state of food insecurity.  The international community had called for an end to the suffering of the South Sudanese people.  The South Sudan Government had a responsibility to protect all South Sudanese, no matter their ethnicity.  He urged all parties to join an inclusive and transparent dialogue process with a view of ensuring the achievement of a reconciliation process.  It was crucial for UNMISS to be able to comply fully with its mandate.  To that end, the South Sudanese Government had to lift any restrictions on the Mission.

PETR V. ILIICHEV (Russian Federation), thanking Council members for their condolences for the killing of Russian Federation Ambassador Andrey Karlov in Turkey, turned to the matter of political steps which had been taken to boost security in South Sudan.  Many security incidents were due to command issues and lack of troop discipline, he said, adding that colleagues should refrain from interpreting events as a prediction of genocide.  While expressing concern over ethnic tensions, he said those had not been part of a planned Government initiative deliberately targeting ethnic groups, nor was the violence a form of systemic action.  In addition, even a deployment of a full-fledged 4,000-strong police force, as provided for in the latest resolution renewing the mandate of UNMISS, would unlikely improve the humanitarian situation on the ground.  Moreover, new targeted sanctions or an arms embargo would not serve peace in South Sudan.  Sponsors of the arms embargo were ignoring the Africa Union’s stance against such a decision, he said, also pointing out that in the case of the Central African Republic, targeted sanctions had not had the expected outcome.  A number of Council members were attempting to step up pressure on Juba and the South Sudanese President, he said, warning that such actions would not bring the country closer to peace.

ALEXIS LAMEK (France) said that the situation required mobilization by the Security Council and by the whole of the United Nations system, as well as the region, the African Union and the Government of South Sudan.  He also said he regretted that although the arms embargo had been discussed for some time, it had not been imposed yet.  It was not a lever to obtain political advantage, but rather a measure to help a country rent asunder by war.  The protection of civilians was at the core of the UNMISS mandate.  While the Government of Transition in South Sudan had given its formal consent for that deployment, things had not moved forward.  The implementation of the mandate would require the unfettered ability to move and act.  With regard to impunity, the transition agreement adopted earlier in 2016 had provided for a hybrid court, as a mechanism to tackle crimes was required.

JOSEPH MOUM MAJAK NGOR MALOK (South Sudan) said the Government had demonstrated political will, including by recently agreeing and accepting the deployment of the Regional Protection Force without conditions.  It had also launched a national dialogue that included all stakeholders.  That dialogue was the only viable mean of solving political and socioeconomic problems.  However, it had been rejected by Riek Machar. 

Citing the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, who had characterized the conflict in South Sudan as something that “would become an outright ethnic war”, perhaps verging on genocide, he called that description “a bit far-exaggerated”.  It did not reflect the reality on the ground.  There had been no attempts on the part of South Sudanese to turn against one another.  Rebels had, however, recently resorted to killing innocent civilians because of their ethnic background.  Nonetheless, the Government had not planned or launched a campaign to target specific ethnicities.

While recognizing the importance of protecting civilians, he expressed hope that UNMISS would also pay attention to the capacity-building of Government institutions, particularly during the transitional period.  The proposed arms embargo and threats for sanctions on all parties engaged in the conflict in South Sudan were unfortunately indicative of yet another failure to distinguish between a legitimately-elected Government and an armed rebellion intent on overthrowing that Government.  To deny the Government the necessary means to discharge its responsibilities was to fundamentally undermine its sovereignty.  That was totally unacceptable, he added, emphasizing the Government’s full commitment to support political dialogue and fully implement the peace agreement.

For information media. Not an official record.