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World UN chief accuses South Sudan’s government of ignoring famine

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks at a meeting about climate change and sustainable development at UN headquarters, on March 23, 2017.

Seth Wenig/AP

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres accused South Sudan's government on Thursday of refusing to express "any meaningful concern" about the plight of 100,000 people suffering from famine, 7.5 million in need of humanitarian aid and thousands more fleeing fighting.

The UN chief delivered a sharp rebuke to the country's president, Salva Kiir, saying that most often the international community hears denials – "a refusal by the leadership to even acknowledge the crisis or to fulfil its responsibilities to end it."

Guterres told the Security Council that Kiir's intention to hold a national dialogue "is not convincing" in the absence of consultation with opponents, the "systematic curtailment of basic political freedoms, and restrictions on humanitarian access."

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South Sudan's deputy ambassador Joseph Moum Malok said the government "takes issue with the accusation" that it is responsible for the famine in two counties and said other parts of the country are affected by drought. He said the government "will spare no efforts to help address the situation and calls upon the international community to help address this urgent matter."

There were high hopes that South Sudan would have peace and stability after its independence from neighbouring Sudan in 2011. But the country plunged into ethnic violence in December 2013 when forces loyal to Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice-president who is a Nuer. A peace deal signed in August 2015 has not stopped the fighting and the three-year civil war has devastated the country, killed tens of thousands, and contributed to a recently declared famine in two counties.

The United Nations has a 12,000-strong peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and the Security Council last year approved an additional 4,000 peacekeepers from the region to help protect civilians after a series of reported gang-rapes and other assaults when fighting erupted in Juba last July.

Guterres said the UN continues to work for the deployment of the regional force and restoration of the peace process, but he stressed that "no such force, and no amount of diplomacy, can substitute for the lack of political will among those who govern the country."

"There is a strong consensus that South Sudanese leaders need to do more to demonstrate their commitment to the well-being of the country's people, who are among the poorest in the world," the secretary-general said.

Guterres said greater pressure is needed if there is any hope of the leaders changing their approach, which means "first and foremost that the region and the Security Council must speak with one voice.

At the moment, the council and the region remain divided over two key ways to step up pressure – an arms embargo and slapping sanctions on additional people blocking peace.

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U.S. deputy ambassador Michele Sison said the UN doesn't need any more warnings "about the prospect for further mass atrocities," calling the ongoing violence and atrocities "beyond acceptable." She reiterated the Obama administration's support for an arms embargo and sanctions against additional individuals including those blocking UN peacekeeping or humanitarian missions and expanding the conflict.

Guterres urged leaders from countries in the regional group IGAD who will be meeting in Nairobi in two days and council members to support three objectives: achieving an immediate cessation of hostilities, restoring the peace process which means consulting and ensuring representation of the opposition, and ensuring unrestricted humanitarian access.

The top monitor of South Sudan's peace deal, former Botswana President Festus Mogae, echoed Guterres' call for a unified approach that also includes the African Union and the international community, saying the security, economic and humanitarian situation in the country "has steadily deteriorated to an unacceptable level."

"Across the board, there is a heightened sense of alarm over the fact that the situation is slipping out of control," Mogae told the council. "We must now stand together to do something about it."

South Sudan's Malok warned that an arms embargo and additional sanctions "would further aggravate the situation and would hit hard the vulnerable groups, as the previous experiences had proved."

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