The Guardian view on South Sudan: don’t punish the starving | Editorial

Editorial
More than 7.5 million people need assistance and Unicef says a million children are acutely malnourished. Photograph: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty

Even in the context of years of obscene crimes against its citizens, the news that South Sudan’s government is threatening to hike the cost of work permits for foreigners a hundredfold, from $100 to as much as $10,000, is horrifying. Without permits, aid workers trying to feed civilians who are starving in a famine caused by three years of vicious conflict cannot operate. What began with a rift between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, has fractured the country along ethnic lines. Atrocities have been committed by all parties; civilians and their livelihoods have been deliberately and repeatedly targeted. In December, the chair of the UN commission on civil rights in South Sudan warned that the country stood on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war. Aid workers already face harassment and attacks and are blocked from areas in desperate need. Now the government is trying to profiteer from efforts to save the lives put in peril through its own self-interest.

The danger is that instinctive revulsion to the move will make people turn away from the suffering in the world’s youngest country. It may compound a sense that the situation is beyond hope or resolution – this war is only the latest outbreak in half a century of regional conflict – and that there is no point in more aid when so much has already been given to apparently so little effect, and when it may end up lining pockets instead of stomachs. Such sentiments are understandable, but wrong.

More than 7.5 million people need assistance and Unicef says a million children are acutely malnourished. This is one part of what the United Nations described on Friday as the biggest humanitarian crisis since the organisation was founded in 1946. More than 20 million people in four countries (the others are Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria) are at risk of starvation; conflict has played a major role in each case. The UN says it needs donations of $4.4bn by July. But warnings of impending famine began months ago and the money is still dripping rather than pouring in. There is no time to waste. People are already dying in South Sudan, and aid workers say roads will be cut off and airstrips may become unusable once rains arrive in April.

Everyone knows that the war is the real problem. The international community has nothing to show for its attempts to engage with the government of South Sudan, a government which has been further emboldened by the security council’s failure to pass an arms embargo in December. The African Union, which issued a damning report on atrocities in South Sudan two years ago, needs to play its part too; the surge of refugees entering Uganda may concentrate minds. And, in the longer term, people must be held accountable for their crimes.

But renewed diplomatic efforts are not an alternative to providing emergency aid. Even a ceasefire tomorrow would not meet the immediate need for food, water and sanitation. The war has increased the cost of delivering basics. Rising levels of malnutrition are stoking the conflict. It is the ordinary people who are suffering. The government has already shown it has no concern for them. Its attempt to extort cash from aid agencies is not a reason to turn away, but further proof that South Sudan, a country so optimistically created by popular vote just six years ago, needs our help more than ever.

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