Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday warned that South Sudan is edging closer to genocide and famine, lending urgency to the Obama administration's decision-making about when to impose sanctions against the warring factions in the world's newest nation.
Kerry, speaking from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, described "very disturbing" signs of escalation in the the conflict between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels backing former vice president Riek Machar.
Both sides are implicated in atrocities such as rapes, massacres, using child soldiers and staging attacks on U.N. bases. UNICEF has warned that some 50,000 children could die of malnutrition this year as a result of the conflict.
"Leadership is needed," Kerry said, calling on Kiir and Machar to condemn the violence and work toward peace.
"Yesterday, the United Nations commissioner was here, spoke out about the potential of famine," Kerry said. "I would echo those warnings, but more so I would even go further and underscore that a kind of personal violence, a personal anger between two leaders, should never be permitted to take an entire nation in the direction that South Sudan is currently spiraling downwards."
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay wrapped up a three-day tour to South Sudan - a visit at the request of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon - with blistering criticism of Kiir and Machar.
"The deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech, and revenge killings that has developed relentlessly over the past four and a half months seems to be reaching boiling point," she told reporters in Juba.
President Barack Obama last month authorized punitive sanctions against anyone in South Sudan that U.S. officials determine to be threatening to peace efforts. There have been no official proclamations on when such sanctions might be imposed, but close monitors of the crisis expect an announcement while Kerry is in South Sudan, which he's expected to visit this week on an Africa tour that includes Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
The humanitarian aid group Oxfam criticized the Obama administration's "go-slow" approach, saying it's "simply not working."
The statement from Oxfam American President Raymond C. Offenheiser said it's no longer accurate to describe South Sudan as a country "on the precipice" when thousands have been killed, 5 million are in urgent need of aid and fighting continues throughout much of the country. That, he said, is "a full-scale crisis, worse than anything the country or its people have seen in more than a decade."
"Secretary Kerry's visit is coming at a crucial time and cannot serve as an empty gesture or a photo-op," Offenheiser's statement said. "This visit and subsequent follow through by the administration must demonstrate to all that the U.S. will not tolerate a prolonged conflict that neither side can win and in which civilians are the clear losers."
Here's an excerpt from an AFP report that helps explain why - apart from general humanitarian concerns - this conflict is of concern to the White House:
The U.S. was instrumental in helping South Sudan gain independence from Khartoum in 2011, and Kerry's visit to the region has been taken as a sign of growing unease in Washington over how the country has collapsed in such a short period time.Thousands of people have already been killed -- and possibly tens of thousands -- with at least 1.2 million people forced to flee their homes in the the world's newest country.