South Sudan on verge of catastrophe – Pillay
Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference in South Sudan, Juba, 30
“Good morning and thank you for coming.
As you may be aware I visited South Sudan almost exactly two years ago, in early May 2012. The new state was less than a
year old, and while there were many human rights issues to discuss, and problems that needed rectifying, there was still
plenty of optimism.
It therefore greatly saddens me that this second visit is the result of a drastic deterioration in the situation with a
full-blown internal conflict taking place accompanied by numerous grave human rights violations. After the horrendous
mass killings in Bentiu and Bor two weeks ago, the Security Council requested my Office to undertake an investigation,
and the Secretary-General subsequently requested me personally to come and talk to the country’s leaders. He also
requested his Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng to visit South Sudan at the same time.
The murder of hundreds of people, many of them civilians, in Bentiu, and the retaliatory assault on displaced people
sheltering in the UN 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. Without the strong intervention of Indian peacekeepers, hundreds more
might have been killed.
The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech, and revenge killings that has developed relentlessly over the past four
and a half months seems to be reaching boiling point, and 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 now is.
Unfortunately 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
Mr Dieng and I have conveyed the Secretary-General’s and our own concerns to President Salva Kiir, and five senior
Ministers in his Government – namely Ministers of Cabinet Affairs, Defence, Justice, Finance and Foreign Affairs – here
Yesterday, with the assistance of UNMISS we flew by helicopter to Nassir, where we held similar talks with the
opposition leader Riek Machar. On the way, we visited the UN camp in Bor which was attacked by an armed mob on 17 April
and listened to the concerns of some of the survivors and heard their descriptions of this brutal assault which appeared
to have the sole aim of killing as many civilians in the camp as possible, on the basis of their ethnicity. We were
unfortunately not able to visit Bentiu on this visit, but we discussed the attack there with Dr. Machar, since the mass
killings in Bentiu were carried out by forces associated with the SPLA in Opposition which he leads. He assured us that
he is carrying out his own investigation into what happened and that he will do his utmost to stop his forces from
committing similar revenge attacks on civilians.
I welcome this commitment to investigate, as well as the investigations the Government says it is undertaking into the
mass killings of civilians in Juba in mid-December which set off the escalation of ethnic-based revenge killings that
have ensued over the four and a half months since then. But, if the people of South Sudan are to believe that there is
accountability, these investigations must move swiftly beyond statements of intent to action: in other words arrests and
prosecution after investigations conducted by an independent body, in a transparent process consistent with
international standards and principles. This must be carried out quickly and the outcome must be published. Without
accountability, there is nothing to deter others from committing similar summary executions and mass killings. Ordinary
people – those who are most defenceless – and the civil society organizations and religious leaders whom I and my team
met all speak of their great fear, and their despair at the situation their political leaders have inflicted on them.
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. Many such attacks have gone largely unnoticed or unreported at the
international level, but have served to accentuate the spiral of hatred and violence within South Sudan itself, with the
Bentiu and Bor killings setting off further shockwaves in various tense ethnically-mixed areas around the country, and
in the diaspora.
The towns of Bentiu and Malakal, situated in the oil producing region near the border with Sudan, have changed hands at
least six times each since fighting broke out in mid-December, and there have been dozens of other violent incidents
across a vast swathe of territory spanning the north, north-east and south of the country. These, and an increasing
number of examples of incitement to violence on the basis of ethnicity carried out by elements on all sides, should ring
loud alarm bells and inject much greater urgency into the peace talks being carried out under the auspices of the
regional East Africa bloc, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Addis Ababa.
It is essential that the South Sudanese people and the international community impress on the country’s political
leaders that they must stop blindly dragging their people down the path of self-destruction. Mr Dieng and I have warned
those same leaders that current and future investigations will inevitably examine the extent to which political and
military leaders either knew, should have known, or failed to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent war
crimes and crimes against humanity committed by themselves or by subordinates under their effective authority and
With the rainy season just starting, we also urged the leaders to show more concern both for the 1.2 million people
displaced inside South Sudan, or in neighbouring countries, and the many other South Sudanese who are now in real danger
of facing famine, because the conflict has meant that this planting season will almost certainly be missed with
devastating results on the country’s food supplies. If famine does take hold later in the year – and the humanitarian
agencies are deeply fearful that it will – responsibility for it will lie squarely with the country’s leaders who agreed
to a cessation of hostilities in January and then failed to observe it themselves, while placing all the blame on each
I was appalled by the apparent lack of concern about the risk of famine displayed by both leaders, when I raised the
issue. The reaction to a call for 30 days of tranquility to allow people to go home to plant – although it may already
be too late for this with the rains starting – was luke-warm: both leaders said they would if the other did, then made
it clear they did not trust the other’s words. The prospect of widespread hunger and malnutrition being inflicted on
hundreds of thousands of their people, because of their personal failure to resolve their differences peacefully, did
not appear to concern them very much.
If, in the very near future, there is no peace deal, no accountability, no space to rebuild trust and promote
reconciliation, and insufficient funds to cope with a looming humanitarian disaster, I shudder to think where South
Sudan is heading. After so many decades of conflict and economic neglect, the South Sudanese deserve better than this,
especially from their own leaders – but also from the international community, which has been slow to act. To give just
one example: in December, the Security Council agreed that the number of UNMSS peacekeepers should be increased from
7,700 to 13,200, but the contributing countries have still not supplied some two thirds of the extra desperately needed
I also urge donor countries to respond quickly to the humanitarian agencies appeal for funds, as well as applying their
full political weight to the peace effort. The UN estimates that there are already 4.9 million people in need of
humanitarian assistance, and that number is likely to climb, and their needs are likely to become more acute, if the
fighting and violence are not halted immediately, and the international community does not lend more support.
The list of alarming statistics is long. Here are a few more: UNMISS unquestionably saved thousands of lives, when it
opened the gates of several of its compounds to people fleeing deadly attacks. Some 80,000 people are now sheltering in
these compounds. UNICEF reports that more than 9,000 children have been recruited into armed forces by both sides. 32
schools have been taken over by military forces, and there have been more than 20 attacks on clinics and health centres.
Many women and girls have been raped, often brutally and sometimes by several fighters. Others have been abducted.
Children have also been killed during indiscriminate attacks on civilians by both sides.
How much worse does it have to get, before those who can bring this conflict to an end, especially President Kiir and
Dr. Machar, decide to do so?”