In South Sudan, the world’s newest country, insecurity and protracted fighting has created a need for humanitarian assistance for eight million people, including 4.3 million children, whose essential needs are not being met. Hundreds of thousands of these children are suffering from extreme malnutrition, do not have access to safe water and are being deprived of education. Too many children have died and continue to die from preventable diseases. Too many children now find themselves alone, separated from their families and vulnerable to exploitation and violence.
I met many such children during my recent trip in South Sudan, and I feel their suffering. We cannot, and must not, stay on the sidelines and allow this suffering to continue. They are children like Edward, who was kidnapped and forced into service with an armed group. After two years he managed to escape and return to his family. He is afraid to leave his home because he doesn’t want to be kidnapped again.
The humanitarian crisis is all the more tragic because it is manmade. Fields, crops, and villages have been deliberately destroyed by armed groups, obliterating the sources of income for thousands of civilians, and forcing them to leave their lands to flee the violence.
Giving these vulnerable communities the help they need is a monumental task, both because of the scale of the crisis and the obstacles we must overcome.
Driving in South Sudan is nothing short of a miracle. It is difficult and expensive to get around in a country where there are less than 300 kilometres of paved roads. Infrastructure, when there is any, is lacking, and in the rainy season 60 per cent of the roads are unusable. Bringing provisions by plane may cost eight times more than by road, but we are left with no choice.
What’s more, many South Sudanese have had to hide to escape, making them even harder for aid workers to identify and reach with support. But if only the challenges were merely logistical.
Civilians, humanitarians in danger
In addition to the logistical nightmare, South Sudan has become a place of insecurity for the population as well as the humanitarians who are trying to help.
The country has become a living hell for the children—at least 2,500 children have been killed or injured since the conflict erupted in December 2013, and many more have been mutilated or kidnapped. More than half of the children in the country no longer go to school. Girls are the victims of sexual violence, which is being used as a weapon of war, while boys are being forced to take up arms. As many as 17,000 children are believed to have been recruited by armed groups over the past four years. Despite UNICEF’s efforts, which have led to the release of some 1,900 children in recent years, another 1,300 children were just recruited in 2016. The people’s dream of a new independence has become a daily nightmare, a never-ending struggle to survive persistent violations of human rights.
As for humanitarian workers, at least 79 have been killed in the last four years, putting at serious jeopardy the ability of agencies like ours to deliver life-saving support in the future.
What can we do?
First, we need greater support to re-establish the severely weakened humanitarian response and put an end to the food crisis. It will take a renewed human intervention to end this crisis. This requires the international community, including Canada, one of the world’s biggest humanitarian supporters, to take political action and negotiate access for humanitarian and development workers to the most vulnerable children and their families, to provide them with the help they so desperately need. They must be guaranteed safe passage.
It will then take continuous, sustainable funding. Yes, the crisis has logistical expenses, but the human costs are even greater. Supporting the efforts of those dedicated to bringing relief calls for financial commitment to meet both short- and long-term needs. Our response in South Sudan must focus on two areas: humanitarian aid and sustainable development.
Finally, we must ensure compliance with the rule of international law. Long-term development of a new, healthy South Sudan is impossible if the people’s basic rights are not protected. We need to firmly condemn and denounce violations of international law and international humanitarian law committed by all sides in the conflict, whether they involve the use of child soldiers, hunger as a weapon of war or sexual violence.
Civilians, particularly children and women, are in constant mortal danger. They need protection—and that begins with respect for international law and the mandate of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission.
To not denounce is to be an accomplice to the crime.
David Morley is president and CEO of UNICEF Canada. He recently returned from South Sudan.
The Hill Times