A United Nations special commission sounded the alarm Wednesday that “ethnic cleansing” is now underway in South Sudan and if there is no international intervention it is likely to descend into a “Rwanda-like” genocide.
The chairperson of the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said targeted displacement of citizens in the country is already going on, with looting, rape and killing along ethnic lines spreading.
The fear, said Yasmin Sooka, chair of the commission, is that a lack of international interest will be taken as a sign that the civil war can continue to intensify. Since the war started in 2013, more than one million people have fled the country for safety.
Sooka recommended 4,000 peacekeepers be sent to South Sudan immediately, fanning them out across the country because atrocities are being committed across the entire country.
The commission also asked that a hybrid court be established by the African Union and government of South Sudan to handle the situation, and that the U.N. start investigations and gathering evidence immediately of the atrocities being committed as proof is being concealed or destroyed.
“There is an increase in polarized ethnic identities, a culture of denial, and in some areas, systematic violations that have been planned. The Commission’s recent visit to South Sudan suggests that a steady process of ethnic cleansing is already underway in some parts of the country,” Sooka said in an address to a special gathering of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. “We don’t use that expression lightly.”
South Sudan’s civil war started in 2013 when the country’s president, Salva Kiir, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup to drive him from power. The two hail from different ethnic groups — Kiir is Dinka and Machar is Nuer — which led to sectarian violence as they appealed to each of their tribes for support.
Sooka said on the commission’s first trip to South Sudan in September, ethnic polarization in the country was obvious and concerning.
On their most recent trip, in November and December, members of the commission traveled through South Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia finding that “all the early warning signs for mass atrocities in South Sudan are there.”
While genocide can still be avoided, Sooka said, South Sudan stands on the brink of all-out ethnic civil war. A larger, even worse war could destabilize the region and has citizens worried it could turn into a Rwanda-like situation, which resulted in the death of more than 800,000 people based on their ethnicity.
“People are tiring of the UN holding inquiries and mandating reports after the event, ascertaining blame for its failures in the past once it’s already too late,” Sooka said. “With South Sudan we have a rare chance to avert further catastrophe. Our Commission has issued the warning and we are definitely not alone in this.”