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South Sudan: “What I saw was a horror,” says top Human Rights Official

JUBA/GENEVA/NEW YORK (17 January 2014) – Fighting in South Sudan has turned into a horrifying humanitarian and human rights disaster with mass atrocities committed by both sides, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović said on Friday at the end of a four-day visit to the country.

“The conflict has now reached the threshold of an internal armed conflict, causing untold suffering for thousands of civilians,” said Šimonović.

“Mass atrocities have been committed by both sides. During my visit, I have received reports of mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, the widespread destruction of property and the use of children in the conflict,” he said. “One month of conflict has set South Sudan back a decade.” 

“Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands are now displaced, with some 70,000 people seeking protection in UN camps and 30,000 in the two UN compounds in Juba alone,” he added.

“Clearly the crisis, which started as a political one, has now taken on an inter-ethnic dimension that urgently needs to be addressed. People on both sides are absolutely convinced that the other side is to blame, which makes the situation even more dangerous. This highlights the need for an independent fact-finding commission to establish the truth of these terrible events,” said Šimonović.

“The worst affected communities are in Juba and in communities which have changed hands several times, like those in Bentiu and Bor. This has led to widespread communal violence and destruction. I have not been able to visit Malakal, so I cannot comment on the situation there,” Šimonović highlighted.

The Assistant Secretary-General visited the town of Bentiu, Unity State, which has been the scene of heaving fighting over the past few weeks.

 “What I saw was a horror. Destruction and death is everywhere in Bentiu, which has now become a ghost town,” he said. “I myself saw some 15 bodies lying on a road. The extent of the looting, burning and destruction is hard to grasp for anybody who hasn’t been there.”

Šimonović also visited Bor, which is located in Jonglei State. “All civilians have fled the city which was a ghost town. I spoke to the leader of the anti-government forces, Peter Gadet, to remind him of his and his forces' obligations to protect civilians.”

In Juba, the Assistant Secretary-General also received allegations of a mass atrocity at a police station in the Gudele neighbourhood of the city where large numbers of civilians were reportedly rounded up, taken to a building and killed because of their ethnicity. “We are continuing our investigation into this very serious incident,” Šimonović said.

In Juba, Bor and Bentiu, the Assistant Secretary-General met senior government officials, anti-government forces, armed groups, UN officials, the diplomatic community and a wide range of civil society actors, including traditional and community leaders. He also met displaced people and victims of the fighting.

“Accountability is key. An independent and impartial fact-finding commission should be established as quickly as possible.  Those who committed these terrible crimes, who ordered them or those who did nothing to prevent them while they were in a position to do so, all these people should be held accountable without delay,” he said.  “I made this very clear to military leaders on both sides.”

The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has played a key role in protecting civilians over the past few weeks, Šimonović noted. “If UNMISS had not opened their gates to protect civilians fleeing the violence, there is no doubt that killings on an even larger scale would have happened. Their impartial presence is also of great importance to help prevent further atrocities from being committed and for the protection of civilians. The reinforcement of their human rights monitoring capacity is a positive step forward. Independent monitoring and public reporting is vital. Within the coming weeks the UN will be issuing a public report on human rights violations committed after 15 December,” he said.

“I call on all parties to the conflict to allow unhindered access to UN human rights monitors to places of detention, conflict zones and other locations to allow them to do their work,” Šimonović said.

“I will continue to alert the international community to the terrible human rights situation currently prevailing in South Sudan and the need for accountability.

Upon my return I will brief the UN Secretary-General and the Security Council and provide suggestions on action to be taken to prevent further human rights violations.”

The Assistant Secretary- General’s mission from 14 to 17 January was aimed at assessing the human rights situation and the impact of the fighting in the country, and at identifying areas for improvement in the situation of the affected civilian population.

ENDS

Ivan Šimonović assumed his functions as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights on 17 July 2010, heading OHCHR’s New York Office. To learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/ASG.aspx

For further information and media requests, please contact Rupert Colville (+ 41 79 506 1088 / rcolville@ohchr.org), Cécile Pouilly (+41 22 917 9310 / cpouilly@ohchr.org ) or Ravina Shamdasani (+41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org)

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