U.N. officials have expressed serious concerns about the scale of ethnic violence in the country
JUBA – U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay on Wednesday expressed serious concerns about the scale of ethnic violence in South Sudan, accusing the country's leaders of engaging in a "personal" power struggle at the expense of their people.
"The murder of hundreds of people, many of them civilians, in Bentiu and the retaliatory assault on displaced people sheltering in the U.N. compound in Bor, which led to the death of at least 50 more men, women and children, have starkly underlined how close South Sudan is to calamity," Pillay told a press conference held at the end of her three-day visit to the troubled country.
According to the U.N., over 200 people were killed and 400 injured in various places of worship – at which they had sought refuge – in Bentiu, the capital of the Unity State, from 14 to 16 April.
Rebels are accused of targeting civilians based on their ethnicity amid radio broadcasts inciting men to rape women of other ethnic groups.
An April 17 retaliatory attack on the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, left 40 dead.
The attack was reportedly staged by protesters angered by the ethnic violence in Bentiu who wanted to retaliate by attacking displaced people of the same ethnicity as the rebels.
"The slaughter in Bentiu and Bor was simply the latest in a long list of similar tit-for-tat attacks in towns and villages in many parts of the country, which have increasingly involved armed Dinka and Nuer targeting each other's civilian populations, as well as foreigners," Pillay said.
"Many such attacks have gone unnoticed or reported at the international level, but have served to accentuate the spiral of hatred and violence within South Sudan itself," she added.
"I take seriously the speech of hate and civilians being targeted on the basis of their ethnicity as very similar indicators," the U.N. rights chief said when asked whether the recent violence amounted to genocide.
Pillay arrived in Juba on Tuesday, along with U.N. Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng, to inspect the country's worsening human rights situation.
"I beseech everyone: the South Sudanese, your leaders, the regional and the international community to take immediate measures to end the violence and uphold our collective responsibility to protect the populations of South Sudan from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity," said Dieng.
He went on to cite "words uttered in Bentiu, inciting and calling on men to rape women of other ethnic groups," adding that South Sudan "should not be led down this slippery slope."
The country has been shaken by violence since last December, when President Salva Kiir accused his sacked vice president, Riek Machar, of trying to overthrow his regime.
The conflict has already claimed more than 10,000 lives, with the U.N. estimating that some one million South Sudanese have already been displaced by the violence.
The two U.N. officials have held consultations with several senior government officials, including Kiir, civil society representatives, displaced people and Machar.
"The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech and revengeful killings that has developed relentlessly over the last four and a half months seems to be reaching boiling point," Pillay said.
"I have been increasingly concerned that neither South Sudan's political leaders nor the international community at large seem to perceive quite how dangerous the situation is," she added.
"Virtually everything I have seen or heard on this mission has reinforced the view that the country's leaders, instead of seizing their chance to steer their impoverished and war-battered young nation to stability and greater prosperity, have instead embarked on a personal power struggle that has brought their people to the verge of catastrophe," the U.N. rights chief said.
Dieng, for his part, agreed.
"It is clear that the conflict has taken a dangerous trajectory; civilians are being deliberately targeted based on their ethnicity and perceived political affiliation," he told Wednesday's press conference.
"What is happening in this country put the population at high risk of serious violence," added Dieng. "We don't want this country to plunge further into a situation of conflict based on ethnicity."
"As we search for peace in this young nation, we must also ensure that those responsible for crimes must be held to account," said the U.N. official.
"The level of impunity in this country is the reason for all the bad things," he added. "There can be no peace without justice."
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