Amid ethnically targeted killings, arbitrary detentions, rising displacement and now the discovery of mass graves, the United Nations human rights chief today urged the South Sudanese leadership to curb the escalating violence in the world's youngest nation and make it absolutely clear that those committing abuses will be held accountable.
South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in July 2011, has been rocked by growing violence over the past 10 days that has displaced over 80,000 people, with some 45,000 taking refuge in the compounds of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
The conflict, sparked by an alleged coup attempt by loyalists of former vice president Riek Machar against the Government of President Salva Kiir, has been increasingly marked by ethnically targeted killings pitting the Dinka against the Lou Nuer.
"There is a palpable fear among civilians of both Dinka and Nuer backgrounds that they will be killed on the basis of their ethnicity," UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a news release.
"There need to be clear statements and clear steps from all those in positions of political and military control that human rights violations will not be tolerated and those responsible will be brought to justice."
Mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented in recent days, Ms. Pillay noted. "We have discovered a mass grave in Bentiu, in Unity state, and there are reportedly at least two other mass graves in Juba."
She called on the leadership on both sides to protect civilians and refrain from instigating violence based on ethnic grounds.
The High Commissioner also voiced concern about the safety of those who have been arrested and are being held in unknown locations, including several hundred civilians who were reportedly arrested during house-to-house searches and from various hotels in Juba.
Hundreds of members of the South Sudan National Police Service were also reportedly ordered to be disarmed and arrested from police stations across Juba.
Ms. Pillay reiterated her call on the authorities to reveal the whereabouts of all those who have been detained, including political leaders, and to refrain from conducting further arbitrary detentions.
She urged all senior leaders, both within and outside the Government, to take immediate steps to prevent further human rights violations, and called on the international community to strengthen its efforts to assist in the protection of civilians and the UN presence, including through a strengthened UNMISS.
The Security Council is scheduled to vote later today on a draft resolution strengthening UNMISS with an additional 5,500 troops and some 400 police, as well as additional assets such as attack and utility helicopters, as recommended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
"UNMISS is doing everything it can, within its means and in a very fluid situation, to protect civilians, as well as United Nations and international personnel on the ground," Mr. Ban wrote in a letter to the Council outlining his proposals to boost the capacity of the Mission so it can assist the Government in carrying out its responsibility to protect civilians.
On Sunday UNMISS said that, as a precautionary measure to reduce pressure on its limited resources, it will relocate non-critical staff from Juba to the Ugandan city of Entebbe. It has also relocated all remaining civilian staff from its compound in the Jonglei state capital of Bor to Juba. At the same time, the Mission is planning to reinforce its military presence in Bor and Pariang.
Also on Sunday, the World Food Programme (WFP) began food distributions for some 30,000 civilians taking shelter at the UNMISS compounds in Juba and Bentiu. The agency plans to assist more people who are displaced in other parts of the country in the coming days.
WFP and its partners are doing their utmost in extremely challenging circumstances to see that food reaches those in need, the agency said in a news release. At the same time, given that escalating conflict in some places has endangered the lives of humanitarian workers, the WFP-managed UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) has helped 80 humanitarian organizations bring their staff to safety - so those aid workers can, in many cases, continue their efforts to provide humanitarian relief to those affected by the conflict.
"WFP has been working hard both to provide food assistance for South Sudanese civilians affected by this crisis, and to support humanitarian workers in need of relocation," said WFP Country Director Chris Nikoi. "We call on all parties to protect the lives of innocent civilians and to respect the neutrality of humanitarian workers as they try to assist those in need."