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Ban Ki-moon: South Sudan heading towards genocide if world fails to act

The UN secretary-general has warned that South Sudan "will be on a trajectory toward mass atrocities" unless the Security Council imposes an arms embargo. The US will request a vote on such an embargo before year-end.

Amid fears of an imminent genocide in South Sudan, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the United Nations' Security Council on Monday to impose an arms embargo on the country. 

"I am afraid [genocide] is about to begin unless immediate action is taken," Ban told the 15-member Security Council. An embargo would "diminish the capacity of all sides to wage war," he added.

The world's newest country has been ravaged by ethnic violence since December 2013, when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir of the Dinka tribe launched an offensive against loyalists of his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer.

Tens of thousands of people have since been killed in the fighting, while some 3.1 million have been forced to flee their homes. A shaky peace deal signed in August 2015 has done little to stop the violence, while Machar has since fled to South Africa.

Ban warned that Kiir and his loyalists "are contemplating a new military offensive in the coming days" against Machar-allied opposition groups, while "there are clear indications that Riek Machar and other opposition groups are pursuing a military escalation."

On Monday, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council that the humanitarian situation in South Sudan "has deteriorated dramatically." Some 6.1 million people - half the country's population - required some form of humanitarian aid in the past year, O'Brien told council members, adding  he expected that figure to rise "a staggering" 20 percent to 30 percent next year.

"More than 1 million children under the age of five are now estimated to be acutely malnourished," O'Brien said.

Ban and O'Brien's remarks echo similar alarms recently voiced by other UN bodies. Adama Dieng, the UN special envoy on the prevention of genocide, warned that the country was on the brink of escalating violence along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide. He said he had seen "all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide."

Südsudan Krieg - Massengrab (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Lynch)

A man collects bodies to bury in a mass grave just outside the South Sudanese city of Yei

"There is no greater urgency than to prevent this from happening," O'Brien said. "Given the clear facts and evidence, how many more clues do you, do we all, need to move from our anxious words to real, preventative action?" 

US seeks arms embargo support in Security Council

The United States - which strongly supported South Sudan's independence from Sudan in 2011 - has stepped up its drive to impose an arms embargo on the country.

On Monday, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, made the case for a weapons ban in front of the council, saying "The situation is not getting better, but worse, and we are sitting on our hands. Large-scale attacks could start at any moment."

Last month, the US presented a draft resolution for an embargo. However, it has so far struggled to secure the minimum number of votes in the Security Council. To be adopted, the resolution requires nine votes in favor and no vetoes.

Power also said she would request a vote before the end of the year, with some diplomats estimating it could be as early as Thursday.

USA UN-Sicherheitsrat tagt in New York zu Syrien (Getty Images/AFP/D. Reuter)

The Security Council is likely to vote on an arms embargo in South Sudan by year-end

However, the US faces potential opposition from veto powers Russia and China. Russian Deputy Ambassador Petr Iliichev on Monday cast doubt over warnings of genocide. The violence, he said, was the work of criminal groups and "undisciplined" troops, and not the government's policy.

"We would refrain from concluding that there is any form of targeted systemic policy," Iliichev told the council.

South Sudan's UN ambassador, Akuei Bona Malwa, also rebutted claims of imminent genocide in his country to the council. The UN's descriptions, he said, did not "reflect the reality on the ground."

"There have been no attempts, that we are aware of, on the part of the South Sudanese masses to turn against each other," he said.

The UN had already authorized a 4,000-strong protection force to support peacekeepers already on the ground in South Sudan following violent clashes in the capital, Juba, in July. However, none of the new troops have yet been deployed.

dm/tj (Reuters, AP)