NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — The rainy season is about to start in South Sudan, but war in the world's newest country has forced more than 1 million people to flee their homes, leaving few people to plant or harvest crops. The U.N.'s top official for human rights said Wednesday she is appalled by the apparent lack of concern by the country's two warring leaders that a catastrophic famine looms.
"The prospect of widespread hunger and malnutrition being inflicted on hundreds of thousands of their people, because of their personal failure to resolve their differences peacefully, did not appear to concern them very much," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay, referring to the president and the former vice president.
Pillay told a news conference in South Sudan's capital Wednesday that the country is on the verge of catastrophe because it has been in the grip of a deadly mix of recrimination, hate speech and revenge killings since December. That's when South Sudan descended into mass violence after a split between President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the leaders of two ethnic groups now carrying out mass killings against one another.
"If famine does take hold later in the year — and the humanitarian agencies are deeply fearful that it will — responsibility for it will lie squarely with the country's leaders who agreed to a cessation of hostilities in January and then failed to observe it themselves, while placing all the blame on each other," Pillay said.
Like the use of the word genocide, the use of the word famine is often seen as a measure of last resort by government and aid officials. J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said while there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands — "if not millions" — of South Sudanese will face grave food needs this year, he is also concerned that "sensationalist language aimed at grabbing headlines" could lead to desensitization.
Still, it's clear that world leaders have decided that South Sudan's situation is grave enough to warn of famine.
"Without immediate action, up to a million people could face famine in a matter of months," U.N. Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon said in April.
The World Food Program says it is facing a $224 million shortfall over the next six months of an emergency request it made to feed 1.1 million people.
Toby Lanzer, the U.N.'s top aid official in South Sudan, says the conflict has put 7 million people at risk of hunger.
"April and May are the time to plant. April is behind us. Only May is left to enable people to prepare their fields and try to ensure that they have a harvest at the end of 2014," he said.