South Sudan pins hopes on peace deal

The fighting in South Sudan is over for now, but there's work to be done rebuilding the country.
The fighting in South Sudan is over for now, but there's work to be done rebuilding the country.

The outgoing head of South Sudan's largest humanitarian aid program is cautiously optimistic a fragile peace deal can help deliver a lasting solution to the world's youngest nation after years of deadly conflict.

Five years of violence in South Sudan has seen nearly 400,000 people lose their lives and one-third of the population forced from their homes.

But Francois Stamm, who led the Red Cross delegation to South Sudan, believes the devastating conflict has been overshadowed by the international fight against "black flags" and Islamic terrorism.

"You don't have this radical Islam dimension in South Sudan - you don't have black flags flying over the country - so you don't have international terrorism which would raise the profile," Mr Stamm told AAP in Canberra.

"You also don't have any mass migration of refugees from South Sudan crossing the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe or reaching Australia, because they tend to stay in neighbouring countries."

Mr Stamm described the dire humanitarian crisis in the "severely neglected" land-locked African nation as "a very sad picture".

After decades of violent internal struggle, the people of South Sudan voted for independence in 2011.

But just two years later, violence again erupted between pro-government forces and anti-government rebels.

"Women and children suffer most - it is a conflict not fought according to the rules - we have from all sides repeated serious violations of international law," Mr Stamm told AAP.

"Sexual violence is a very serious problem. Civilians are targeted, villages are looted and burned, cattle is stolen and people are being displaced."

After a string of failed peace deals, Mr Stamm is hopeful a power-sharing agreement struck in September between President Salva Kiir and opposition leaders including Riek Machar will deliver an enduring ceasefire.

"Hopefully this will hold but it is still fragile - I think we should be very careful - but there is some progress on the ground with a significant reduction in armed clashes between the government and opposition," he told AAP.

"It is up to the parties to make it work. I would almost say for them, the hard work just begins. They need to prove that they want to work together, that they can work together."

More than four million people are internally displaced or seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. The overwhelming majority are women and children.

Almost half of the South Sudanese population is facing food insecurity.

Australia has contributed almost $103 million in humanitarian aid since the conflict began in December 2013.

Dozens of Australian Defence Force personnel are also deployed to South Sudan as part of a peacekeeping operation.

Mr Stamm said the situation in South Sudan would be much worse without the aid, but added a permanent solution to the country's problems must come from its own leaders.

"It is a country in need of pretty much everything but it must first start with peace and stability," Mr Stamm said.

"If this peace deal doesn't stick, then it will be back to the darkest hours that this country has gone through."

Australian Associated Press