JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - The U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations said Thursday that she was disturbed by the humanitarian situation in South Sudan and called on its leaders to end the conflict now.
Bintou Keita called on the country's government and opposition leaders to put South Sudanese citizens first for a change.
"Give your children a chance. Every opportunity for peace, every chance to save lives has to be seized. I am particularly appalled by the violence this conflict has brought against women and girls in South Sudan. The atrocities committed are beyond the imaginable," she said.
Keita said protection against gender-based violence was a human right and a public health issue.
"We have to be able to look at this as an emergency situation, and we have to make sure that there's a policy level which is taken into account as well as prevention," said Keita.
Makoi Philip Wol, coordinator on conflict-related sexual violence in the office of South Sudan President Salva Kiir, said the Kiir administration was committed to implementing the communique he signed with the U.N. in 2014.
"The president of the republic appointed the minister in his office to lead and coordinate government efforts and work with the SRSG [special representative of the secretary-general] on sexual violence in conflict and the U.N. and the United Nations system to ensure the full implementation of the communique on conflict-related sexual violence," Wol said.
Wol said several units of the regular armed forces stationed around the country had been trained to prevent sexual violence since the communique was signed four years ago, but funding is needed to fully implement the agreement.
At the same press conference, David Shearer, head of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan, said signing a communique was not enough. "The question really now is how do we make that a reality on the ground," he said.
Shearer said the U.N. was ready to provide the South Sudan government with technical assistance to ensure that sexual predators are held accountable — "to make sure that when people are arrested for sexual crimes that the police are able to take that evidence accurately, that the prosecution is done well, the courts function appropriately so that there's a process of justice which means impunity ends."
Despite the signing of a cessation-of-hostilities agreement last December, Keita said the warring parties have been fighting in parts of greater Upper Nile and greater Bahr el Ghazal regions in the past few weeks.
Keita spent the past four days touring the country and meeting with government officials, including First Vice President Taban Deng Gai.
The U.N. official met with aid workers and internally displaced persons in Wau, where she said she became deeply concerned about what she saw. Keita urged the warring parties to find peace at the next phase of the High-Level Revitalization Forum, as the peace talks are known, expected to get under way in May in Ethiopia.
"But peace will not be won in Addis Ababa only. It has to be won in every state of the country where politically motivated intercommunal violence has become a great source of concern and has caused numerous fatalities in the past months," Keita said.
Shearer said the remaining battalions of the Regional Protection Force would arrive in the country in the coming weeks and bring its total strength in Juba to 2,300.
South Sudan is in its fifth year of conflict. More than 2 million people have been displaced inside the country and at least 2 million more have fled to neighboring countries.