South Sudan's civil war risks escalation toward genocide, UN adviser warns

Ethnically based violence in South Sudan began in 2013, just two years after the country became independent. 

Jok Solomon/ Reuters
Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) forces patrol the camp of Lalo following heavy fighting over the weekend that killed dozens of people, close to Malakal, South Sudan, on October 16, 2016.

South Sudan's festering civil war risks spiraling into genocide, according to the United Nations's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, who cited recent examples of ethnically targeted rape, civilians being killed with machetes, and villages being burned to the ground.

Adama Dieng warned Friday of a "strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines with the potential for genocide," speaking at a press conference in Juba after visiting South Sudan for five days.

Dieng said South Sudan is awash with weapons, has an undisciplined military, and is in a humanitarian and economic crisis in which civilians are desperate for employment.

"Genocide is a process," said Dieng, adding that all the elements are present for a disaster.

The accusation that South Sudan is at risk of genocide is "very unfortunate," Minister of Information Michael Makuei told The Associated Press.

"I don't agree with him. It is a negative report and it won't be of any help. Here in South Sudan what is happening has nothing to do with genocide," he said.

South Sudan is the world's newest country and there were high hopes that it would have peace and stability after its split from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But the country plunged into ethnic violence in 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer.

Since then, the UN has debated how best to protect the country's civilians. At the start, in "an unprecedented decision," the mission "decided to open its logistics hubs across the country and use its blue-helmeted peacekeepers as human shields, saving countless lives in a civil war that has killed at least 50,000 people," as The Christian Science Monitor reported in September:

But when the camps were created, "most people thought 'OK, here is a temporary measure…. Let's give them help right now and find a more durable solution when things settle down,' " said a UN official who work on the protection of civilians.

Instead, nearly three years later, six Protection of Civilians sites, as they are called, are still home to nearly 200,000 people. They are like cities unto themselves, complete with schools, churches, and cafes. And the UN is worried they have become too permanent, too difficult to defend, and a resource drain, according to an internal review of these camps obtained by The Christian Science Monitor.

A peace deal signed in August has not stopped the fighting. Kiir said in a recent speech that the army was mostly comprised of his Dinka tribe because other ethnic groups are part of the rebels.

To stop South Sudan's slide into ethnically based violence, Dieng proposed a strategy of reconciliation and dialogue to build trust in the East African nation.

But even as Dieng, the UN expert on genocide, spoke, a radio station was shut down by South Sudan's National Security Service.

Eye Radio is one of South Sudan's largest national radio stations and known for its reggae music and messages of unity and peace. It is funded in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

On Friday three officials from the country's security service seized the keys to Eye Radio's studios, told journalists to leave, and ordered the head of the station to report to security officials, said Nichola Mandil, a senior journalist for the station.

A spokesman for the security service declined to give an explanation for the shutdown.

When informed that Eye Radio had been shut by the government, Dieng's voice rose with ire and he recalled how radio had been a tool for spreading hatred during the Rwandan genocide.

He said the South Sudan government "should have encouraged, congratulated and used (Eye Radio) as a model and said from now onwards that is the message we want." Instead, some of South Sudan's media and social media have spread hate speech, Dieng said.

Across the country, charities and other non-governmental organizations have received gruesome threats of violence against civilians from the southern Equatorian region of the country, according to letters they have shown The Associated Press. There has also been a rise in Facebook posts that extoll ethnic violence.

"We are going to take a quick revenge attack against Equatorians anywhere, any place from now on. We will find you and kill you. We will despicably and barbarically kill you," said one letter by a group calling itself the "Angry Youth of former Northern Bhar El Ghazal," a self-proclaimed watch group whose members are unknown.

In September, the Nation Mirror Newspaper was shut after it reported on government corruption.

South Sudan ranks 140th in the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, and seven journalists were killed in 2015.

"Press freedom has not been OK for a long time. This closure now indicates the situation has not changed and the government is still hostile to the national media," said Alfred Taban, Chairman of the Association for Media Development in South Sudan. Earlier this year, Taban himself spent time in prison for writing an article critical of the country's leaders.

Minister of Cabinet Affairs Martin Lomuro gave a warning to journalists at a press conference in September.

"If you are going to say something which is not correct, something which is going to affect a whole nation and cause harm to the nation, we will go after you, whichever hole you are in," Lomuro said. "Believe me we will go after you."

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