Six aid workers were killed by unknown attackers on Saturday 25 March 2017 in South Sudan, as famine intensifies three years of brutal civil war and fears of ethnic genocide increase. At least 79 aid workers have been killed in the country since the conflict began in December 2013. Aid agencies are being forced to reconsider how and when they can deliver supplies to the country. Oxfam humanitarian campaigns manager, Dorothy Sang, describes South Sudan as “one of the most difficult countries to operate in” and that Oxfam will now have to re-evaluate “what is mission-critical and what is not.”
The aid workers were travelling in a vehicle clearly marked as belonging to an NGO between the capital Juba and the town of Pibor, a territory under government control but troubled by the presence of militia and armed groups. UN humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan, Eugene Owusu, declared, “I am appalled and outraged by the heinous murder of six courageous humanitarians in South Sudan,” adding, “at a time when humanitarian needs have reached unprecedented levels, it is entirely unacceptable that those who are trying to help are being attacked and killed.”
UN leaders have called on “all those in a position of power” to put an end to the escalating ethnic violence and condemned the country’s President Kiir for “squandering” the promise of peace and justice in South Sudan. Earlier in March, the South Sudanese government hindered aid to the country by increasing the costs of permits a hundredfold, from $100 to up to $10,000, when 100,000 of their people are starving and a further 1 million are on the brink of starvation. The UN Commission on Human Rights evoked the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, warning of ethnic cleansing involving massacres, starvation, mass rapes, and forced cannibalism. Tens of thousands have died and 3.5 million people have been displaced by the conflict. An estimated 16,000 children have been recruited by armed forces and militias. A man-made famine has been declared in some areas of the country and the UN says about 7.5 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. Despite this, a UN report states that the Juba government continues to spend its oil revenues on weapons. Yasmin Sooka, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, warns, “South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilise the entire region.”
The beginning of the dry season in South Sudan threatens further escalations of violence. “Weather conditions mean armed groups, militias and bandits can roam more swiftly across the landscape and there is a high potential for clashes between the government and fighters on multiple fronts,” warns UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
Immediate and meaningful action is drastically needed in South Sudan. The UN failure to impose an arms embargo in South Sudan in December 2016 should be readdressed as soon as possible. Further, despite the attack on humanitarians on 25 March 2017, emergency aid should be increased; even a seemingly miraculous ceasefire would not meet the immediate need for food, water, and sanitation. The UN appealed for $1.6 billion to help the 4.6 million people in need in South Sudan in 2015, but this was only 62% funded. Only 88% of the $1.29 billion requested in 2016 was funded. The African Union has also called for the deployment of more powerful regional forces in the country, adding to what is already the UN’s third-largest peacekeeping mission. Peace seems devastatingly elusive in South Sudan, but government moves to block aid and attacks on humanitarian workers are not reason for the international community to cut aid. To do so would only be to punish the starving and stand by as the threat of genocide and further mass atrocities loom.
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