The United Nations' human rights chief, Navi Pillay, lashed out Wednesday at South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar, saying the two men have allowed their personal differences to bring the young nation to the edge of disaster.
"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," Pillay told reporters in Juba.
"The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech, and revenge killings that has developed relentlessly over the past four and a half months seems to be reaching boiling point," she said. Pillay voiced concern that neither South Sudan’s political leaders nor the international community understand "how dangerous the situation now is."
Pillay was speaking on the final day of a three-day visit to South Sudan, which she made at the request of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The U.N. leader asked her to "personally to come and talk to the country’s leaders" and investigate mass killings in the towns of Bentiu and Bor.
Ban's Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, accompanied Pillay on the trip. The two U.N. envoys held talks in Juba with Kiir and members of his government before travelling to an undisclosed location where they met with Machar.
En route to the meeting with the opposition leader, they stopped at the U.N. base in Bor, where scores of civilians were killed two weeks ago in an attack.
"We listened to the concerns of some of the survivors and heard their descriptions of this brutal assault (in Bor), which appeared to have the sole aim of killing as many civilians in the camp as possible on the basis of their ethnicity," Pillay told reporters.
At the meeting with Machar, the U.N. officials and opposition leader discussed the killings of civilians in Bentiu, which have been blamed on rebel forces. Hundreds of people, including civilians who sheltered in a mosque, a church and a hospital, are said to have been killed in attacks when the Unity state capital fell to opposition forces two weeks ago.
Pillay welcomed Machar's assurances "that he is carrying out his own investigation into what happened and that he will do his utmost to stop his forces from committing revenge attacks on civilians."
She also said government officials gave her assurances that they have launched an investigation into the mass killings of civilians in Juba, where the conflict first erupted in in mid-December.
Pillay called for the investigations to be swift and thorough, and for those found to be responsible for the violence to be held accountable.
"Without accountability, there is nothing to deter others from committing similar summary executions and mass killings," she warned.
Dieng echoed Pillay's call for "those responsible for serious violations" to be held accountable.
"The world is watching," he said, calling for an immediate end to the violence.
Leaders appear unconcerned about famine risk
Pillay said she was "appalled by the apparent lack of concern she saw in both Kiir and Machar about the risk of famine" in South Sudan.
"The prospect of widespread hunger and malnutrition being inflicted on hundreds of thousands of their people because of their personal failure to resolve their differences peacefully did not appear to concern them very much," she said.
She also chastized the international community for failing to respond to a U.N. call for more funds for humanitarian aid for South Sudan, and for falling short in providing troops for a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeping force in the war-torn country.
According to Pillay, only a third of the extra 5,500 troops that the U.N. Security Council gave the green light to in December have been deployed in South Sudan.
How much worse does it have to get before those who can bring this conflict to an end, especially President Kiir and Dr. Machar, decide to do so?
Having more peacekeepers on the ground could save lives, as did "the strong intervention of Indian peacekeepers" at the U.N. base in Bor, which Pillay credited with saving hundreds of lives during the attack two weeks ago.
She also singled out UNMISS for praise, saying the U.N. Mission had "unquestionably saved thousands of lives when it opened the gates of ... its compounds to people fleeing deadly attacks."
But even with the life-saving actions of the U.N., the statistics about South Sudan are grim, Pillay said.
Some 80,000 people are sheltering at eight U.N. compounds; more than 9,000 children have been recruited by both sides to fight in the conflict; 32 schools have been taken over by military forces, and more than 20 attacks have been launched on clinics and health centres, Pillay said.
"Many women and girls have been raped, often brutally and sometimes by several fighters. Others have been abducted. Children have also been killed during indiscriminate attacks on civilians by both sides," she added.
"How much worse does it have to get before those who can bring this conflict to an end, especially President Kiir and Dr. Machar, decide to do so?”
Pillay and Dieng left Wednesday for Addis Ababa, where slow-moving peace talks for South Sudan resumed this week.