The people of South Sudan are preparing to mark the fourth anniversary of their country’s founding amid ongoing suffering, unconscionable levels of violence and unspeakable sexual abuse, according to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In a statement issued earlier today and ahead of the country’s milestone – which will officially be observed on 9 July – the Secretary-General recalled the sense of joy and hope felt across South Sudan in the early days of 2011 as it became the world’s youngest nation – a stark contrast to today’s reality when hope across the African State remains “in short supply.” The security situation in South Sudan has deteriorated steadily over the past year since political in-fighting between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice-President, Riek Machar, and their respective factions erupted in December 2013. The hostilities subsequently turned into a full-fledged conflict, resulting in reported atrocities and possible war crimes. According to the latest estimates released by the UN refugee agency, more than 730,000 people have fled into neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan, which has seen the highest arrival rate this year. Meanwhile, another 1.5 million remain internally displaced, often relocated to increasingly overcrowded ‘protection-of-civilians’ sites run by the UN’s Mission in South Sudan, also known as UNMISS. “The violence that has ravaged South Sudan over the past 18 months proves that there can never be a military solution to this conflict. I therefore call on all leaders of South Sudan – particularly President Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar – to prove their leadership by investing in a political solution and immediately concluding a comprehensive peace agreement,” Mr. Ban declared. “At the same time, the international community must take decisive steps to help end the fighting.” “Political leaders on both sides must make unequivocal public statements that the targeting of civilians will not be tolerated. All parties to the conflict must know that those responsible for serious human rights violations will be held accountable for their actions,” he added. To that point, the Secretary-General reaffirmed the UN’s commitment to support a political solution while continuing to make every effort to provide vulnerable populations with protection and humanitarian assistance. This latter task, he stated, was all the more critical as “brave and dedicated” humanitarian workers and UN staff continued to operate in “dangerous and dire conditions.” “It is important that we show the parties a single way forward, with the full support of the region and the international community,” he continued. “Peace, development and human rights are the birthright of all the people of South Sudan. The promise of a new nation that they celebrated four years ago must finally be redeemed.”Echoing similar concerns in a separate statement, Leila Zerrougui, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, said that while the world had stood with the country as it entered into nationhood full of hope, with internal divisions escalating into violence by the end of 2013, and with that violence having shown little sign of abating to date, “this anniversary is now the second in which bloodshed replaces the formerly hoped-for bright future for South Sudan and its citizens.”“I am particularly alarmed by the loss of so many innocent children’s lives amid the hostilities,” she continued, noting that with children subjected to a raft of violations – from killing or maiming and recruitment or use of child soldiers, to sexual violence and abduction – she had expressed horror at some of the new atrocities that have come to the world’s collective attention in recent weeks.“It behoves me, therefore, on this fourth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, to call ever more emphatically on the country’s leaders – in Government and in opposition – to show leadership, and fulfil their responsibilities to protect the South Sudanese people, halt the violations, and end the conflict,” said Ms. Zerrougui, stressing that there will be no peace without justice and accountability, “and so I also call on the Government of South Sudan to hold to account those responsible for the violations.” Meanwhile, addressing a press briefing yesterday in Geneva, spokesperson Adrian Edwards, of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), warned reporters that political efforts to bring an end to the conflict had so far failed and that the outlook for the affected populations remained “grim.” “This is a volatile and insecure situation which prevents humanitarian access,” Mr. Edwards declared. “Ongoing hostilities and a reported increase in human rights violations and abuses have contributed to additional displacement.” The UN agency spokesperson added that recent weeks had seen an escalation in violence across South Sudan’s Unity and Upper Nile states, with heavy fighting reportedly forcing tens of thousands of people to flee to the bush, swamplands and other “difficult to reach” areas. In addition, reported atrocities – including the alleged raping and immolation of women and girls – have further contributed to the massive displacement of South Sudanese populations. Humanitarian efforts aimed at helping those affected by the surge in fighting have also been impeded by funding shortfalls. UNHCR has explained that its refugee assistance programmes – launched in collaboration with 38 other partners – are currently requesting $810 million but remain only funded at 13 per cent. At this rate, the agency has noted, resources remain insufficient to provide adequate food and water rations and health services to hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese.