Earlier this month, a U.N. human rights monitor warned that "ethnic cleansing" is under way in parts of South Sudan, and warned the country is on the brink of a genocide.
After a 10-day visit to South Sudan, Yasmin Sooka, head of a U.N. Human Rights Council team, said people are being displaced from their homes through a process of starvation and gang rape, and the burning of villages.
On Thursday, panelists gathered by the United States Institute of Peace and the Holocaust Memorial Museum discussed how to prevent mass atrocities in the country where many observers have said that type of violence is being used for ethnic cleansing.
Justin Lynch, an Associated Press reporter who has been covering the South Sudan conflict since July, was deported by South Sudan to Uganda on Tuesday.
Appearing via Skype, Lynch told the audience in Washington that he recently witnessed several acts of brutality and deadly violence in Yei, a former Central Equatoria state town, which forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
"It's not only Yei that is at risk of further violence, it's also happening in Unity state,” Lynch said. “I was scheduled to go to Leer tomorrow. We've seen that most of the civilians are fleeing that area as well, and they're talking about the same things that I saw in Yei.”
Fear of genocide
Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the Holocaust museum, cautioned observers on the scenarios that could trigger a genocide in the country. Hudson said one trigger is the vacuum being created in Washington with President Barack Obama leaving office next month, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon leaving office.
"There's a huge vacuum across Africa, across the international community, and certainly in Washington," Hudson said.
John Prendergast, founding director of the Washington-based Enough Project, said U.S. policy on South Sudan is not working. He urged Obama to take action before he leaves office by sending in a new, high-level, bipartisan diplomat to Juba who could "shake things up."
"Now when [former] President [Bill] Clinton saw the Eritrea war break out, he sent his former National Security Adviser Tony Lake. That's the kind of level we need to see there," Prendergast said.
Duty of peacekeepers
Panelist Akshaya Kumar, deputy U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan has been forced to take a long, hard look at itself after making mistakes in the country.
"If peacekeepers are not willing to do basic things like get out of their armored vehicles and patrol on foot, engage with communities, work to dispel rumors, make their way to places like Yei, challenge the arbitrary restrictions that are being put on them by the SPLA or the government of South Sudan, then there really is no hope for them to have an impact on the situation in South Sudan," Kumar said.
Kumar added that even if a regional protection force is deployed to South Sudan, they're not going to have results unless they are "able to get out there and have an impact."
Efforts to establish a Transitional Government of National Unity have largely failed after a surge in fighting broke out in July between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar in the capitol Juba.
An increase in hate speech and threats against certain ethnic groups in the greater Equatoria region has increased the risk of targeted mass violence in South Sudan, according to the United States Institute of Peace website.