South Sudan suffering on ‘unimaginable scale’- UN relief chief

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A young South Sudanese refugee cooks food at a camp in northern Uganda Photo: UNHCR/Will Swanson

People are suffering “on an almost unimaginable scale” in South Sudan, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock has said.

The UN official welcomed the announcement by the U.S. reviewing the amount of assistance it provides to the war-torn country.

Speaking in Geneva, Lowcock, who is also UN Under Secretary-General for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that five years of civil war had left 7.1 million people, or more than half the country’s population, in need of humanitarian aid.

Repeated negotiations have broken down to resolve fighting between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, including recent peace talks in Addis Ababa, held under the auspices of the African regional forum, Intergovernmental Authority on Development.

“Things are still getting worse”, Lowcock said, highlighting “scorched earth tactics” by belligerents, which had rendered formerly fertile areas of the country barren, amid murder, rape and other grave human rights violations.

He noted “another round of failed talks” in Ethiopia and declarations of ceasefires which were “a fiction because the fighting continues”.

On the issue of international funding, Lowcock said that he believed that there was no question of cutting aid, although donors wanted to be sure that the funds were not “instrumentalised” as he put it, by the warring parties.

“I really welcome the announcement made by the White House a couple of weeks ago that the U.S. is going to conduct a review of its assistance to South Sudan” Lowcock said.

Foreign Governments, including the combined countries of the European Union, are also seeking to improve safety for humanitarian workers and get the “men with guns to behave differently”, he said.

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He added that in spite of the insecurity, aid workers still managed to reach “about two million people” in May.

Without this assistance, the situation “would be much worse”, Lowcock said, adding that South Sudan remained “the most dangerous place to be an aid worker”, having claimed the lives of 100 humanitarians since fighting began in 2013.

While visiting South Sudan in recent weeks, the UN aid chief said that many high-level country representatives had told him that “things can’t go on like this”.

Lowcock said above all, there needed to be a change “in the way that belligerents are behaving”.

“I really welcome the announcement made by the White House a couple of weeks ago that the U.S. is going to conduct a review of its assistance to South Sudan,” he said.

Asked which measures might encourage the warring parties to negotiate or at least curtail the destructive activities of armed groups, Lowcock noted that an arms embargo would be a matter for the UN Security Council, where he had been told “informally” that some members were considering it.

Some Governments also had mechanisms to investigate the private wealth of political appointees, he said adding that visa bans and financial sanctions have been used to apply pressure on those suspected of using natural resources for personal gain.

To date, the UN’s 1.7 billion dollar humanitarian response plan for South Sudan is less than a quarter funded.