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UN: South Sudan on 'brink of ethnic civil war'

The UN's human rights envoy for South Sudan has called for troops to be deployed in the African country. Ongoing violence is raising concerns about a looming genocide similar to the one in Rwanda.

UN experts called for a strengthening of peacekeeping forces in South Sudan during a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, warning that the country was on the verge of slipping into further violence.

Speaking before the council, Yasmin Sooka, the UN's chief human rights expert for South Sudan, said signs pointing toward mass atrocities in the east-central African nation were already apparent, such as increasingly polarized ethnic identities and a culture of denial.

"South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilize the entire region," Sooka said. She added that the steady process of ethnic cleansing was already underway in some parts of the country.

Schweiz UN verurteilen brutale Massenvergewaltigungen im Südsudan Yasmin Sooka (Reuters/P. Albouy)

Yasmin Sooka, the UN's human rights chief for South Sudan

The country has been in the grip of a three-year civil war that has already seen the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of 3 million more. The conflict erupted in December 2013 after a split between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar and has often been fought on ethnic lines. Many in the international community see in the South Sudan conflict a reflection of what occurred in Rwanda in 1994, when Hutu extremists slaughtered around 800,000 Tutsis.

Calls for regional protection force

Growing international pressure on Kiir led him to agree in November to a UN peacekeeping mission to be deployed there, though the fighting has continued. The opposing army factions, led by Kiir and Machar respectively, are both stationed in the capital of Juba.

During the session, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said that special attention had to be paid to the levels of sexual violence in the country. He noted that all armed actors in the country appeared to be responsible for gang rape, and that other human rights violations like abduction, arbitrary arrests and forced displacement of civilians were also being carried out.

Schweiz UN verurteilen brutale Massenvergewaltigungen im Südsudan (Reuters/P. Albouy)

UN Human Rights Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein (r) speaks with a colleague

To counter the growing instability in the country, Sooka called on more troops to be sent there. "We urge the immediate deployment of the 4,000-strong regional protection force for South Sudan...People all across the country asked that it not be restricted to the capital if it is to protect civilians across South Sudan," Sooka said.

South Sudan's government has agreed to the deployment, which hasn't arrived yet. The UN also called on the creation of a tribunal to hold those responsible for war crimes accountable.

The session comes amid criticism from various human rights groups who say that their work has been hampered by both the government and the rebels. The Norwegian Refugee Council has said several of its staff members have been expelled from the country recently.

blc/mm (dpa, Reuters)

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