Both sides in the spiraling South Sudan conflict have dismissed the suggestion of a 30-day cease-fire to allow people to plant their fields as the risk of widespread famine looms, the U.N.’s top human rights official said Friday.
“Shockingly, their reaction indicated that this was not an overriding concern,” Navi Pillay told the U.N. Security Council after a visit this week to South Sudan, where the U.N. has warned that up to a million people could face famine within months amid mass displacement by the ongoing violence.
Security Council members suggested a range of options including sanctions, an International Criminal Court referral and an arms embargo in hopes of stopping a cycle of revenge killings that has sparked fears of genocide.
Action is needed “to bring the parties to their senses,” said Luxembourg Ambassador Sylvie Lucas. Thousands have been killed in months of fighting, and the council has expressed “horror” over recent mass attacks on civilians.
Pillay’s briefing came hours after South Sudan’s president tentatively agreed to revitalize long-stalled peace talks. It was not clear whether his main rival would attend. A ceasefire in January quickly fell apart, and Pillay said more people have been killed since the ceasefire than before it.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power warned that the country’s leaders have made many unfulfilled promises before, and she pressed the council to urgently consider sanctions, as the U.S. is doing, against individuals responsible for atrocities.
The violence has largely broken down along ethnic lines between rival Dinka and Nuer tribes, but diplomats and U.N. officials have openly worried that both sides are playing on ethnic tensions in what is fundamentally a power struggle in the world’s newest country over its oil and other natural resources.
Pillay said that in her meetings with leaders of both sides, including President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar, she warned that “they will inevitably be the subject of international investigations regarding the extent of their knowledge of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by subordinates under their authority” and their failure to stop it.
The U.N. human rights chief also stressed that thousands of additional peacekeepers that the Security Council in December said were needed in South Sudan still had not been supplied and are “desperately needed.”