South Sudan on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war

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South Sudan is “on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war which could destabilize the entire region,” the head of a team of UN investigators told the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday, describing a shattered country where children as young as 2 have been raped.

Yasmin Sooka addressed the council at a meeting in Geneva requested by the United States as alarm grows about the rise of hate speech by South Sudanese officials and others as civil war grinds on.

Tens of thousands have been killed in fighting in South Sudan, and more than a million people have fled the East African country. Sooka said thousands of women have been raped.

The recent visit by the UN team of investigators found indications that “a steady process of ethnic cleansing is already underway in some parts of the country,” Sooka said. She said fighting is expected to “begin in earnest” now that the dry season has arrived in South Sudan.

The Human Rights Council approved without a vote a resolution expressing concern at “ethnically motivated incitement to hatred and violence by all sides,” condemning sexual violence and calling on all involved to end rights abuses.

South Sudan’s representative said the council meeting to discuss his country wasn’t necessary.

Also Wednesday, South Sudan President Salva Kiir in a speech to parliament called for a national dialogue that would attempt to redefine the country’s national identity. Kiir again called for a cease-fire in the civil war but offered few details on how it would work with multiple opposition groups across the country.

Kiir also urged an end to expressions of ethnic hatred.

“I am calling upon all of you to forgive one another,” he said.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, told the council meeting that “there may still be some space for consequential action to pull the country back from a worst-case scenario,” noting that when local leaders intervened recently to halt hate speech, threats of violence decreased.

South Sudan’s government remains under international pressure to quickly allow the deployment of an additional 4,000 peacekeepers to help protect civilians.