Canada should "come off the sidelines" to take a more active role in South Sudan as that country's humanitarian crisis deepens, the head of Amnesty International's Canadian branch says.
Alex Neve made the comments after a 10-day visit to South Sudan, where a violent conflict is causing widespread upheaval in the world's newest country. South Sudan marked the third anniversary of its independence from Sudan on Wednesday amid serious concerns about food security and a rapidly growing number of internally displaced people.
The conflict began in late 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused his former vice-president, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup against him. The political dispute led to armed clashes along ethnic lines that have killed tens of thousands of people and forced more than a million from their homes.
On Wednesday, World Vision warned that famine in the country is "almost certain" and called for additional funding to help sustain current humanitarian efforts. Oxfam Canada warned as many as four million South Sudanese are at risk of severe hunger.
"There's no question that the situation in the country is grim and despairing and is, by any measure, one of the most serious human-rights and humanitarian crises the world faces," Mr. Neve said. "Yet I think the wide public awareness of that, around the world, just isn't where it needs to be."
Many South Sudanese are facing widespread conflict and difficulty accessing food, water and health care, Mr. Neve said. Sexual violence against women and girls is also a growing concern.
But despite Canada's past efforts in South Sudan, Mr. Neve said the government has remained largely absent from international efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis.
"I think there's no question that Canada is very much on the sidelines. There was a time when Canada was much more engaged on Sudan and South Sudan," he said, pointing to past appointments of special envoys to the country and to the Sudan Task Force, which was meant to co-ordinate Canada's diplomatic, military and development efforts in the region.
"We don't have any of that any more," he said. "There's no special envoys. The Sudan Task Force was disbanded last year, and certainly in terms of political involvement and influence, Canada's not there at all. We're not. We're not seen as a key backer or interlocutor with respect to any of the international processes that are under way."
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada continues to fund humanitarian and development assistance and to contribute to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. The federal government has also said that South Sudan is one of 25 low-income countries that will receive the bulk of Canada's bilateral development aid.
"Canada is concerned with the worsening humanitarian situation in South Sudan and we are in contact with our allies and regional partners," Adam Hodge wrote in an e-mail. "We will continue to monitor the situation closely."
Mr. Neve said Canada could play a particularly constructive role in working to stem the flow of arms to South Sudan and in looking at ways to assist the estimated 1.1 million people who are internally displaced in the country. Canada could also use its experience in international justice and accountability initiatives to assist South Sudan, he said.
"It's just so clear to me that the international community needs to respond much more robustly than we have," he said, "and there's every reason in the world that Canada should be at the heart of that."