TOPICS > World

Warning of genocide, Kerry urges meeting between South Sudan rivals

May 2, 2014 at 6:34 PM EST
Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to South Sudan to urge President Salva Kiir to meet the opposition and halt a four-month civil war. In recent weeks, hundreds of civilians have been slaughtered in the Bentiu, and more than a million people have fled to escape the fighting. Jeffrey Brown talks to former British foreign secretary David Miliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our final look at Africa brings us to the world’s youngest nation, where Secretary of State John Kerry traveled today, hoping to stop a brutal civil war that’s already killed thousands.

Jeff is back with this report on South Sudan.

And a warning: It contains some disturbing images.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was the secretary’s first official trip to South Sudan, and the mission was urgent: appealing to president Salva Kiir to end the four-month-old civil war.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: I told president Kiir that the choices that both he and the opposition face are stark and clear, and that the unspeakable human costs that we have seen over the course of the last months and which could even grow if they fail to sit down are unacceptable to the global community.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Kiir announced he’s agreed to meet with rebel leader Riek Machar, his former vice president, in Ethiopia as early as next week. Kerry said a meeting between the leaders is — quote — “critical,” but U.S. officials say Machar made no commitment during a phone call.

Fighting erupted in December after Kiir sacked his vice president for allegedly plotting a coup. In recent weeks, hundreds of civilians were slaughtered in the northern oil town of Bentiu, and more than one million people have fled their homes to escape the fighting.

This week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay blamed both sides.

NAVI PILLAY, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: The country’s leaders, instead of seizing their chance to steer their impoverished and war-battered young nation to stability and greater prosperity, have instead embarked on a personal power struggle that has brought their people to the verge of catastrophe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pillay also warned of famine, as many of those fleeing their homes are farmers, leaving their crops abandoned as the planting season begins.

The International Rescue Committee lost two of its workers in recent weeks during the fighting. The group’s CEO is former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Well, welcome to you.

Secretary Kerry has warned of violence that’s heading toward genocide. How serious do you see the situation being right now? 

DAVID MILIBAND, CEO, International Rescue Committee: I think that all of our information — and we have got about 600 workers on the ground around South Sudan — all the information coming to the International Rescue Committee is that this is a dire situation in terms of the violence.

And there is a very real threat that it will be compounded over the next few months by growing food shortages that already affect at least three million people. And so I think that the secretary’s words are very well-chosen and are an appropriate warning, because, after all, this is the newest nation in the world. And it threatens to become the bloodiest. And that should be a concern to all of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so we’re hearing now about these diplomatic moves. How much leverage does the U.S. have and what are the chances of bringing the two sides, not only together, because they have been together in the past, but actually to some kind of reconciliation?

DAVID MILIBAND: The U.S., alongside Norway and the U.K., were absolutely key in forging the original comprehensive peace agreement in 2006 that stopped the civil war in Sudan.

And that paved the way for the referendum three years, nearly three years ago, that allowed South Sudan to get its independence. So the U.S., both the administration, successive administrations and Congress in a relatively united fashion has played an absolutely key role in South Sudan’s development up to now.

So I think it’s important to recognize not just the stake that the United States and others have in South Sudan, but also some of the leverage. And I think you saw some of that with Secretary Kerry’s visit today.

However, the depth of the divisions mustn’t be underestimated. The rebellion has taken significant parts of the armed forces. And the scale of the slaughter that has happened — I think you reported on the hundreds of people killed in Bentiu, which is the far north of the country, quite close to Juba, the capital, where we had our two workers slain — there were 60 people killed, over 260 injured inside a U.N. compound.

And so I think it’s very important to say that there is a big hill to climb to get the fighting to stop, because the talks next week are not the first attempt to get it to stop, and so far they have not been successful.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what of the million or so people who have been displaced already? Where are they going and how much is anyone able to do for them at this point?

DAVID MILIBAND: Just for the benefit of your viewers, there are about 10 million population in South Sudan. A million have been driven from their homes. Of that million, 300,000 have gone into neighboring countries, notably Uganda, Kenya. And 700,000 have been displaced within the country and are seeking refuge in a range of U.N. compounds.

The U.N. compound in Bentiu, 25,000 civilians are taking refuge in that compound. Organizations like International Rescue Committee, we are the only NGO in Bor. We are one of two NGOs in Bentiu. And people are fearful of their lives and fearful of stepping out.

And so you have got an enormous level of tension with armed gangs roaming around and in some cases storming the U.N. compound. That’s why there’s a big responsibility both on the government of South Sudan and on the rebel leader, a former vice president of the country, Mr. Machar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

DAVID MILIBAND: And I do want — sorry.

JEFFREY BROWN: No. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

DAVID MILIBAND: I was just going to say that the threat of famine needs to be understood.

The rains have come to South Sudan. That means growing numbers of people are cut off from access to food aid. And that’s why there are emergency preparations being made to drop food aid into the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s exactly what I — excuse me — that’s exactly what I wanted you to ask about, the potential for famine that you had raised.

So how imminent is that, and what is being done or can be done to avoid it?

DAVID MILIBAND: In the short term, you have got communities cut off by the rains. And so emergency response means essentially airborne drops to try and reach families in need.

However, the fact of the fighting has stopped planting, so there hasn’t been proper planting of crops for the next cycle. And that means, come the end of the year, early next year, the threat is not just that 30 percent of the population are in food shortage. That’s the situation at the moment, and U.N. estimates are that over three million people are short of food.

The danger is that, in the early part of next year, we could be facing a situation where the majority of the South Sudanese population, the majority of a population of 10 million, are desperately short of food. And that’s why the secretary has raised the point about famine. The conflict and the famine come together in a deadly combination.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee, thank you so much.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you.