UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Politically fueled ethnic violence in South Sudan since mid-December has led to the brutal killing and abuse of thousands of civilians and sparked a government campaign to vilify the United Nations and harass U.N. personnel, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said Tuesday.
Herve Ladsous told the U.N. Security Council that despite a Jan. 23 cease-fire agreement, forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel soldiers loyal to dismissed former vice president Riek Machar "continue to prioritize the pursuit of military gains over talks towards a comprehensive political settlement."
Fighting that broke out Dec. 15 among presidential guards in the capital Juba quickly spread across the country and took on ethnic dimensions between the dominant Dinka tribe who support Kiir and the Nuer tribe loyal to Machar.
"Political polarization that has been caused by the conflict now affects the lives of every single person in South Sudan as well the operations of the government and country as a whole," Ladsous said.
He said prelimiary inquiry reports indicate that atrocities and very severe human rights violations were committed by both sides in the conflict, and he warned that the longer the fighting goes on "the more chances for further regional intervention will grow."
Ladsous also warned that there will be no "meaningful progress" in talks organized by the regional group IGAD to resolve the crisis until the opposition's key demand for the release of four remaining political detainees is resolved. The four went on trial for treason on March 11.
Ladsous urged the Security Council to condemn the campaign against the U.N. peacekeeping mission — which is sheltering 75,000 of approximately 800,000 people displaced by the ongoing violence — and to demand that Kiir condemn it and instruct government officials and his party to stop it.
The anti-U.N. campaign has brought the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid "almost to a standstill," which is extremely critical as the rainy season will begin soon, he said.
"The security and humanitarian situation in South Sudan will continue to deteriorate until the parties fully engage in the political talks, respect the cessation of hostilities and allow freedom of movement for the United Nations and its partners," he said.
Ladsous said the negative campaign against the U.N. peacekeeping mission known as UNMISS by some local and national officials has included public demonstrations, media articles, and harassment of U.N. personnel "including to the point of putting their lives in danger."
A confidential note from the peacekeeping department to Security Council members, obtained by the Associated Press, lists dozens of violations of the U.N.'s status of forces agreement with South Sudan's government. They include government forces restricting the movements of UNMISS patrols and helicopter operations, blocking contractors and supplies, assaulting an UNMISS national staff member, and harassing and detaining U.N. staff.
In response, Ladsous said, the U.N. needs to consider reducing its staff and limiting its activities "to the absolute minimum related to protection, human rights monitoring and support to humanitarian assistance."
South Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Francis Deng attributed the "negative outcry" against the U.N. mission known as UNMISS "to the trauma, frustrations, pain and anger caused by the devastating violence that broke out on Dec. 15."
Luxembourg's U.N. Ambassador Sylvie Lucas told reporters after closed council consultations that violations of the status of forces agreement and harassment of U.N. personnel "are unacceptable and agreed on the need to send a strong message."
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended that the council increase UNMISS' strength for a year to the levels in temporarily agreed to in December - 12,500 troops and 1,323 and to re-prioritize its mandate to focus on protecting civilians, delivering aid and monitoring human rights.
Lucas said "questions were raised about the appropriateness of a new mandate for UNMISS."