The International Rescue Committee said it’s not too late to prevent South Sudan from falling into a prolonged conflict. However, the humanitarian group said it will require a lot of international pressure and greater support for the U.N. presence.
IRC Country Director Wendy Taeuber said just two-and-a-half-years-ago, South Sudan was a place of hope. Action is needed now, she says, to preserve the gains made since South Sudan gained its independence. She called it an opportunity despite the many horror stories being reported.
That said, Taeuber warned conditions of late have deteriorated.
“With the increased fighting, further displacement and the onset of the rainy season, it’s sort of a perfect storm, if you will, of complete calamity on the horizon if we don’t act now. So it’s a very important moment to do as much as we can.”
Speaking from the capital Juba, Taeuber said the many years of U.S. support have created a lot of good will in South Sudan and give the Obama administration leverage. She’s encouraged by the scheduled visit by Secretary of State John Kerry.
“We’re hoping that he can talk to all sides and encourage them to really push forward on some kind of peace agreement. I mean we don’t want to be naïve in thinking that the fighting will stop over night, but certainly there are things we can ask for – a 30-day period of tranquility. It would be wonderful if parties could at least agree to a ceasefire for the month of May, during which time people would be free to move around, plant, reunite with their families,” she said.
Taeuber said Kerry could “lend some renewed energy” to the peace process.
“The talks in Ethiopia have not been going very well, but we hope that high level engagement of someone of John Kerry’s level could give a jump start to renewed negotiations and some fresh inputs, ideas.”
The IRC country director said one of the biggest problems facing South Sudan is food insecurity.
“We do have three-point-seven-million people at immediate risk of extreme hunger. And of course the reports have mentioned that if planting season is missed completely and displacement continues over the coming months, we could see seven million people at risk by the end of the year or early next year as crops may fail and people would have nothing to eat. And of course over time that can develop into extreme starvation,” she said.
Now is the time,” she said, to pre-position emergency food stocks and distribute farming tools, seeds and fishing nets.
“A lot of people are displaced along the Nile River, which is teaming with fish. So there’s a lot that could still be done in the next month or two before the heavy, heavy rains come,” she said.
Taeuber recently described South Sudan as a place where” no one feels safe.”
“What’s been especially upsetting about the fighting of the last few weeks is that places people would normally seek refuge in any time of conflict -- anywhere in the world -- you might think of running to a hospital or a church or a mosque – and in this particular conflict a lot of people have sought refuge inside the U.N. bases – all of these have been attacked in the last two weeks you could say,” she said.
The International Rescue Committee has not been immune to the violence. Two IRC health workers were shot dead during the recent attack on the U.N. compound in Bor.
Besides health care, the IRC is also providing fresh drinking water and sanitation, as well as prevention and response programs for gender-based violence.
“Women and girls are at particular risk in any conflict as they may be running their own households if their husbands and brothers have gone off to join the fighting,” said Taeuber.
The International Rescue Committee said the May 20th donors’ conference on South Sudan in Oslo could be “critical” to avoiding a catastrophe.