Remarks at a UN Security Council Meeting on the Situation in South Sudan

By Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City


Samantha Powers, US ambassador to the United Nations is one of the co-chair of the diplomats visiting Juba on humanitarian ground, Sept 2, 2016(Photo: file)
Samantha Powers, US ambassador to the United Nations is one of the co-chair of the diplomats visiting Juba on humanitarian ground, Sept 2, 2016(Photo: file)

Nov 18, 2016(Nyamilepedia) ——- Thank you, Mr. President. Let me start by paying tribute to Special Representative Loj for your briefing, but above all for your more than two years of service in one of the most difficult missions on the Earth. We could tell on our two trips to South Sudan – one at the beginning of your deployment, and the other recently at the tail end of your deployment – just how much of yourself you invested in this mission. The kind of relationship you had with local staff, South Sudanese staff, many of them terrified by the events unfolding around them; the relationship you managed, even through difficult times, to have with government and opposition actors; the respect that people in civil society had for you. I think by watching you dodge bullets in July and stay to be there with the people of South Sudan; the way you opened the UN’s gates, with the support, it must be said, of the Secretary-General and DPKO; and the way you’ve sheltered local staff who feel they have no place to go and no place to sleep other than under their desks because they’re so afraid, I think are all reflective of your bravery, but also your compassion for the people of that country. And you are going to be missed by a lot of people. Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Dieng, thank you for taking the trip that you took, when you took it, and thank you for your candor and the level of detail in your briefing, but also the knowledge you bring from other contexts and from history. I think it is chastening for us all. And thank you, Ambassador Seck, for your leadership of the South Sudan Sanctions Committee and your dark briefing, I think in keeping with the general tenor here today.

South Sudan is a nation at the precipice. As Mr. Dieng said upon completing his visit to the country last week – there is “a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.” When the UN’s designated Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide reaches the conclusion that genocide could be imminent, it should serve as a wake-up call for us all. As he so aptly put it last week in Juba, “all the ingredients exist” for the already horrific violence to escalate dramatically.

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Let me briefly touch upon a few of those ingredients.

First, as has been stressed by our briefers, we have seen violence escalating not merely on political lines, which was bad enough, but also now dramatically escalating on ethnic lines. This is not an assessment anybody reaches lightly; it is an empirical assessment from a range of credible sources: the Panel of Experts, the Secretary-General, serious, independent human rights groups, independent journalists. We ourselves heard this with our own ears from petrified and thoroughly unscripted civilians.

To give just one example, and there are, unfortunately, too many – Sarah Kakuni, who fled her village on the outskirts of Yei, is now living in a refugee camp in Uganda. And this is where a lot of the information is coming from, because reporters are able to debrief those who arrive – often with nothing more than the shirts on their backs – in Uganda. This young woman told a reporter that she and her two young daughters were kept awake at night by gunshots. She said, “When it stops, that’s when they are slaughtering people with knives and pangas. Dinkas will open your door and kill you if you don’t have their tribal scars.” This is the ethnic dimension.

Second, we do not have adequate forces in place to stop mass atrocities, should the violence continue to escalate – as all those who watch South Sudan closely deem likely.

The Secretary-General has said that, even if the soldiers and police deployed in the UN Mission in South Sudan were to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians under attack – as this Council has mandated them to do – they “do not have the appropriate reach, manpower or capabilities to stop mass atrocities.” And that is a big if, because – as we all know – the South Sudanese government continues to block peacekeepers from conducting the basic operations, such as routine patrols, that are necessary to even have a chance of protecting civilians. Many troop contributors can’t get access to their equipment – they’re just delayed or blocked. These are capabilities that are being systematically denied those who are there. And even if they had them, the Secretary-General assesses, it wouldn’t be enough.

The shortage of appropriate manpower is in part because the South Sudanese government also continues to stand in the way of the deployment of the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force to Juba, which this Council authorized more than three months ago – a force whose deployment would give an important and much-needed boost to the 14,000 soldiers and police that are currently deployed.

Third ingredient: we have seen a growing climate of incitement, fear, and intimidation. Government officials openly threaten journalists, as when the Minister of Cabinet Affairs Martin Lomuro, who we met with in Juba, told journalists at a September press conference, “If you are going to say something which is not correct… we will go after you, whichever hole you are in.” When this Council visited the country that same month, we heard directly from civil society leaders the palpable sense of fear they felt, and in many instances, the threats that they received for their work. A group that calls itself the Angry Youth of Former Northern Bhar El Ghazal posted this message on Facebook, directed at civilians who live in the southern Equatoria region: “We are going to take a quick revenge attack against Equatorians anywhere, any place from now on. We will find you and kill you. We will despicably and barbarically kill you.” Now, if these were just words, incitement – that would be one thing. But again – to just offer another recent example, and there are, as I continue to stress, too many – 20-year-old Abraham Aloro was recently interviewed by a reporter in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, shortly after fleeing an attack on his home town of Yei, the same one that Miss Kakuni was from. Aloro said, “About two weeks ago, soldiers came to my brother Emmanuel’s house at night and demanded that he open the door. They accused him of joining the rebels. He hadn’t, but they cut him to death with pangas,” or machetes. Aloro’s brother was 24 years old.

And yet, those who perpetrate these attacks – who hack innocent civilians to death, who burn down their homes, who rape women, who conscript men and young boys to fight, threaten journalists and human rights defenders – enjoy near total impunity. The same goes for those who incite others to carry out such hateful acts. The message that the government sends by not holding them accountable is crystal clear – keep at it. Keep doing what you’re doing.

These ingredients that I’ve described, and others have described in more powerful and greater detail – these are ingredients that create a climate conducive to mass atrocities. With each of these factors, we are reminded of all the warning signs that the UN missed – or saw but chose to ignore – in places like Srebrenica and Rwanda back in the 90s. Given the accumulation of warnings, we have lost the right – individually and collectively – to act surprised in the face of even greater atrocities in South Sudan. None of us can say we did not see it coming.

And so the question for us is, what will we do? We can start – all of us – by acknowledging the deeply precarious situation on the ground, and the fact that the international community’s current approach is not stopping the cycle of violence. Let us not treat the leaders of South Sudan as though they are responsible and credible interlocutors, but engage them as the cynical actors that they, unfortunately, have shown themselves to be – too often putting their short-sighted personal interests over the welfare of millions of their own people who are suffering. Let us stop asking for permission to carry out a mandate authorized by the UN Security Council in the interest of peace and security, and instead start demanding it. Unite around that message, unite around that mandate. Let us stop acting as if the principle of sovereignty, as critical as it is to the functioning of the international order, as if that principle gives the South Sudanese Government – or any government – license to commit mass atrocities against its own people, or to fuel a humanitarian crisis that has left millions of lives hanging in the balance.

In the coming days, the United States will put forward a proposal to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and targeted sanctions on the individuals who have been the biggest spoilers to achieve lasting peace in South Sudan. In the interest of the people of South Sudan and the region, this constitutes an important step toward curbing the ongoing violence perpetrated by government and opposition forces against civilians. Now, let me anticipate some of the comments that I expect we will hear today about countries that have some skepticism about these steps. First, we know that no embargo can completely stop weapons getting into the country. We also know, to state the obvious, that an arms embargo will not remove those weapons already in South Sudan. But an arms embargo could have a significant impact on the ground, particularly on preventing the acquisition – which occurs daily; as we sit here, more arms are flowing into that country – the acquisition of heavy weapons, aircraft, and military vehicles, which have been used to inflict such devastating violence in this conflict – which were used, in fact, in the conflict in Juba in July, in which UN staff – including our Special Representative and others – had to shelter and duck the gunfire that was coming at them. As this crisis escalates, we should all flash forward and ask ourselves, how will we feel if Adama Dieng’s warnings come to pass? We will wish we did everything we could to hold spoilers and perpetrators accountable, and to limit to the maximum extent we can the inflow of weapons.

As we’ve learned elsewhere, an arms embargo is effective if there is a broad and robust commitment to its enforcement. Imposing new targeted sanctions designations will isolate the individuals who have consistently been responsible for the acts that have brought South Sudan to this moment, and which have caused so much suffering. These sanctions will limit the ability of such individuals to travel freely, as they are doing now across the region, or to move assets that could be used to fund further violence.

There is no good reason why we would not deprive those who have shown a willingness to commit mass atrocities of the means of doing it more efficiently. And there is no good reason why we should not try to prevent at least some weapons from getting into the hands of people who have consistently used them to kill innocent men, women, and children. Those who have argued against taking such modest steps in the face of a conflict that has so many ingredients of mass atrocities have, honestly, had months to show that an alternative approach can work, that an alternative approach can help those people on our visit who cried out for our support for these actions. But that approach, the approach we’ve been pursuing – the approach of dialogue, of patience, of waiting as we do for the next South Sudanese government cabinet meeting, or the next letter to the Security Council – letters that include happy talk; letters that include bureaucratic language but describe no material change in the government’s approach; letters that unfortunately also include falsehoods, including, as we saw yesterday and as the Special Representative just reminded us of today, blatant misrepresentations.

The United States advocates continuing our engagement. We agree with all of those who will stress that dialogue is critical, but we must compliment that engagement with steps that show a far greater seriousness of purpose; steps that show the Council means what it says and intends to actually perform the mission that was given to us, which is to enforce international peace and security, to have the backs of our peacekeepers, to take seriously the warning of multiple UN officials, and to protect civilians in desperate need. I Thank you.


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