August 8, 2014 (JUBA) – US-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to immediately impose individual sanctions and an arms embargo in the wake of some of the worst crimes against civilians the country has ever witnessed.
- UN peacekeepers and NGO staff survey the debris outside a mosque in Unity state capital Bentiu, the scene of an alleged massacre after rebel troops regained control of the strategic town on 15 April 2014 (Photo: UNMISS/Tina Turyagyenda)
A new report released by HRW this week entitled South Sudan’s New War: Abuses by Government and Opposition Forces found both sides and their allies are responsible for committing “extraordinary acts of cruelty” that amount to war crimes since conflict erupted in the young nation in mid-December last year.
The 92-page report documents how widespread killings of civilians, often based on their ethnicity, and the mass destruction and looting of civilian property, have come to define the conflict.
According to HRW, South Sudan has purchased large quantities of weapons since the conflict began, including from China, presumably for use in the fighting.
UNSC MUST ACT
It says the brutality of the conflict demands the UNSC, which is this week visiting South Sudan and neighbouring countries, take a tough stance.
“The scale and gravity of the abuses warrant a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan, as well as targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for serious violations of international law,” said HRW in a statement on Friday.
The calls come as the UNSC issued a presidential statement on Friday expressing concern over the political, security and humanitarian situation in South Sudan, while condemning the repeated violations of a ceasefire agreement signed by both rival parties in January and recommitted to in May.
The council also urged the two sides to uphold their commitment to establish a transitional government of national unity by the 10 August deadline.
HRW interviewed more than 400 survivors and witnesses for the report, documenting numerous attacks on ethnic Nuer civilians in the capital, Juba, during the early days of the conflict, including a massacre, unlawful killings, round-ups, detentions and torture.
The conflict was initially triggered by an internal political dispute within South Sudan’s ruling SPLM and quickly spread across the country, with thousands of Nuer joining opposition forces and targeting ethnic Dinka.
The fighting has pitted government forces loyal to president Salva Kiir against rebel troops and ethnic militia aligned with former vice-president Riek Machar, who was sacked last July.
HRW says it has documented hundreds of killings of civilians by both sides in the towns of Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal, the capitals of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile states respectively, which witnessed heavy fighting and changed hands several times at the height of the conflict.
Both government and opposition forces have also been responsible for widespread pillage and destruction of civilian property such as homes, markets and aid infrastructure.
HRW’s Africa director, Daniel Bekele, said the scale of the ethnic killings committed during recent months “will resonate for decades”.
“The violence in towns like Bentiu, Bor and Malakal has been less fighting between the forces than targeted killings of civilians who could not flee, and massive looting and destruction,” said Bekele. “The attacks have left destroyed, largely deserted towns dotted with the bodies of women, children, and men, and have resulted in mass displacement and hunger,” he added.
The South Sudanese government has yet to make public the findings of several investigations into the killings, with domestic prosecutions unlikely to succeed given both parties’ reluctance to hold abusive forces to account, said HRW.
CALLS FOR JUDICIAL MECHANISM
It has called on the country’s rival leaders to consider a hybrid international-national judicial mechanism with relevant international support and participation, while also urging the UNSC to refer the situation in South Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The African Union’s (AU) Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, initiated soon after the conflict began, has been slow to begin investigating human rights violations, with HRW calling on the body to focus on investigating individuals allegedly responsible for war crimes and potential crimes against humanity during the conflict, as well as collecting forensic evidence at alleged mass graves and other sites.
It has also urged human rights officers for the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) should continue to investigate crimes by both sides and make regular public reports on their findings.