The United Nations hopes to have peacekeeping reinforcements on the ground in strife-torn South Sudan within the next 48 hours, including both troops and critical assets such as helicopters, as it seeks to protect civilians in a conflict that is already estimated to have claimed well over 1,000 lives, the top UN official in the country said today.
“We are in desperate need for improved capacity and strength to be able to implement the mandate (to protect civilians) in a much more proactive way,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative Hilde Johnson told a video news conference from Juba, South Sudan’s capital, noting that over 50,000 civilians have already sought refuge at UN bases and stressing the need for “unprecedented speed” to bring in additional troops and helicopters.
“But let me underline: all peacekeepers are under the instruction to use force when civilians are under imminent threat.”
Two days ago the Security Council authorized almost doubling the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to nearly 14,000 personnel through the transfer of units if necessary from other UN forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Darfur, Abyei, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia.
Tensions within South Sudan, the world’s youngest country which only gained independence in 2011 after seceding from Sudan, burst out into open conflict on 15 December when President Salva Kiir's Government said soldiers loyal to former deputy president Riek Machar, dismissed in July, launched an attempted coup. Mr. Kiir belongs to the Dinka ethnic group and Mr. Machar to the Lou Nuer. The conflict has been increasingly marked by reports of ethnically targeted violence.
“We are working round the clock to get assets in that can assist us in the current crisis as quickly as ever possible. We’re working on 48-hour delivery of several of the critical assets that we need,” Ms. Johnson said, adding that such assets include both troops and critical assets such as helicopters.
“We are assisted by very good colleagues in New York and in other missions that now understand that the scale and the challenge of South Sudan need to be met with unprecedented speed.”
She said UNMISS is investigating reports of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, mistreatment, abuses and mass rapes, stressing that it is essential that all perpetrators be held accountable. “We are expecting action to follow,” she added, welcoming Mr. Kiir’s order two days ago for the arrest of anyone involved in atrocities and for them to be held accountable.
Ms. Johnson noted that UNMISS had been unable to verify reports of a massacre and of a mass grave being found in Bentiu in the north with 75 bodies, but that in any case the number had been exaggerated from between 30 and 50.
“I call upon the political leaders of South Sudan to order their forces to lay down their arms and to give peace a chance and to do so urgently,” she said, recalling the decades of violent struggle that have marked South Sudan’s march to independence and stressing that its ethnic diversity should be a source of strength and unity, not of discord.
“These past 11 days have been a very trying time for South Sudan and for all citizens of this new-born nation,” she declared. “What happened this last week has for many of them brought back the nightmares of the past. The nation that was painstakingly built over decades of conflict and strife was at stake. And for us one of the most important things is to have those nightmares end.”
Despite the challenges, she said UNMISS is “maintaining and increasing our footprint across the country,” moving available assets to the most volatile areas.
“At this point in time the military is overstretched with current protection obligations related to the civilians in our camps and making sure they are safe,” she noted. “We are also doing some patrols now by day and night in the neighbourhoods in Juba to try to create a more protective environment to people so that they can return to their homes.”
Ms. Johnson also reported that fighting was currently going on in Bor, capital of Jonglei state north of Juba, where Government forces control the airport and key crossroads, and added that the Mission fully supports the efforts of President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who visited Juba today in a bid to broker a peace.
Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is warning that children in the country are in grave danger. “An estimated 81,000 civilians have fled their homes, the majority of them women and children, but we believe that with the situation changing so rapidly the actual numbers are likely to be higher,” according to UNICEF’s country representative Iyorlumun Uhaa.
He voiced particular concern for those around Bor. “There are desperate shortages of food and clean water at the UN compound there and the lack of sanitation facilities poses a high risk of disease,” he said. “Children, always among the most vulnerable in conflict, are spending their days without shelter in the intense heat and sun, and sleeping in the open during the cold nights.”