kerry-kiir-south-sudanIt is a rare occasion to hear the word genocide uttered by a U.S. Secretary of State. Yet that is exactly what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did while visiting South Sudan to address the “very disturbing leading indicators of the kind of ethnic tribal targeted nationalistic killings taking place.”

Responding to the violence that has torn South Sudan since December and recent massacres targeting UN peacekeepers and civilians, Kerry warned that this violent trend could “really present a very serious challenge to the international community with respect to the question of genocide.”

Since fighting began, thousands of people have been killed and a million displaced by violence in South Sudan and the UN has warned about a looming famine and humanitarian catastrophe. In the last couple of weeks peacekeepers and civilians have been killed in a UN compound attacked in Bor.

Reminiscent of Rwanda, hundreds who sought refuge in churches, mosques and hospitals were killed as hate speech was broadcast via radio in Bentiu. A cessation of hostilities agreement signed in January is being ignored by both sides and though the UN Security Council acted relatively quickly after fighting initially broke out, authorizing an increase in peacekeepers to 13,200, the actual number currently deployed is far lower – around 8,500.

The visit of such a high-ranking, high-profile official, especially one with a history of engagement on South Sudan, is important in pressuring South Sudan’s leaders to take steps to protect civilians and fully engage in peace negotiations.

Even more important is the message that Kerry is bringing to South Sudan and the rest of the world about the urgency of the situation, the need for regional peacekeepers to be deployed to protect civilians and the willingness of the United States to apply targeted sanction on those leaders who stand in the way of peace.

Kerry’s visit appears to have had some effect with tentative agreements among neighboring countries including Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to supply troops to work with the UN peacekeeping forces and to apply sanctions on South Sudanese leaders with homes and other assets in those countries. South Sudanese President Salva Kiir also expressed willingness to meet face to face with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar in the interest of peace.

The visit of John Kerry is a welcome and important one, demonstrating the concern and personal commitment to the world’s newest nation, one that the United States helped to bring about just three years ago. But if the specter of genocide in South Sudan is to be avoided, the momentum his visit has created must be backed by rapid deployment of peacekeepers, renewed peace talks and a real demonstration of the threat of sanctions against those who would act as spoilers.

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UN peacekeepers and NGO staff survey the debris outside a mosque in Unity state capital Bentiu, the scene of an alleged massacre after rebel troops regained control of the strategic town on April 15.

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