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U.N. Human Rights Officials Highlight Signs Of Genocide In South Sudan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ethnic cleansing is happening in South Sudan. That's according to U.N. human rights investigators who've just returned from a 10-day trip there. They say they saw signs of potential genocide in the world's newest nation, where forces loyal to the government have been warring with those loyal to the former vice president. And the U.N. team is warning South Sudan is on the brink of catastrophe. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The stage is set for another Rwanda-like genocide. That's what the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan found, according to one team member, Ken Scott.

KENNETH SCOTT: We're not there yet. We're not saying it's Rwanda yet, but we're saying that it has the potential. And if more isn't done by the government and by the international community, it certainly has the potential.

KELEMEN: He says everyone he talked to in South Sudan said the situation has gotten worse in recent months. Ethnic tensions are dividing South Sudan's 64 tribes, and the country is awash with weapons and armed groups. Scott says the violence against women is staggering.

SCOTT: Rape in South Sudan has truly reached epidemic proportions. It's happening everywhere. Women leave the protected camps. They go out to collect firewood or water or food or other necessities. And they are constantly exposed to the risk of rape or sexual assault - and by all parties.

KELEMEN: He and his colleagues met one woman who said she had been raped by South Sudanese soldiers just a few days earlier. Angelina spoke through an interpreter in this audio provided by the U.N. human rights team.

ANGELINA: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: She said it happened in my house, and they burn everything. They burn the sorghum. They burn her clothes, and they burn her house. And then they chase her away.

KELEMEN: The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, denies there's ethnic cleansing going on in his country. The conflict there began three years ago as a power struggle between Kiir, who is Dinka, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, of the Nuer tribe. There were some parts of the country and other ethnic groups that were initially spared in this conflict, but that's no longer true, says the head of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Yasmin Sooka.

YASMIN SOOKA: Any sense of national identity is crumbling, and tribal or ethnic identity is taking over.

KELEMEN: She told reporters before leaving South Sudan that there are plenty of indicators of a potential genocide.

SOOKA: That doesn't mean that it's inevitable. There are several steps that could and should be taken now to avert catastrophe.

KELEMEN: She's calling for the quick deployment of 4,000 additional African troops that have been promised, and she'd like to see an arms embargo. The U.S. has circulated a draft Security Council resolution that would ban weapon sales to South Sudan and target some of the key figures with sanctions. But U.S. diplomats are struggling to get the nine votes they need for such a resolution to pass. U.N. human rights investigator Ken Scott says the U.S. played an important diplomatic role in helping South Sudan become an independent state in 2011, and the world is watching again now.

SCOTT: As usual, the world looks to the U.S. for leadership, and I think it requires a more robust response than we've seen so far.

KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassador to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Keith Harper, is sounding the alarms about a military buildup in one province in South Sudan.

KEITH HARPER: We have credible information that the South Sudanese government is currently targeting civilians in central Equatoria and preparing for large-scale attacks in the coming days or weeks.

KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, says that should be a, quote, "huge red flag." She's calling on her colleagues in the Security Council to halt the arms flow to South Sudan. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.