Rights group asks South Sudan to stop army abuses spread in west
March 7, Nairobi: South Sudanese government forces have carried out numerous killings, enforced disappearances, rapes, and other grave abuses in the Western Equatoria region during expanded fighting in the region. Rebel armed groups there have also committed serious abuses, including rape.
The African Union (AU) Commission should move forward to establish a hybrid court to try the most serious crime cases from the current South Sudan conflict as envisioned in the August 2015 peace agreement, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations (UN) Security Council should impose a comprehensive arms embargo on all forces in South Sudan to help curtail abuses against civilians.
Under the peace agreement, President Salva Kiir and the opposition, headed by former Vice President Riek Machar, agreed to form a transitional government and cease hostilities and abuses. Since then, however, fighting between South Sudan’s army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the rebel SPLA in Opposition, has spread to previously uncontested western areas of the country, accompanied by familiar patterns of abuses against civilians, HRW found.
In Western Equatoria, where Human Rights Watch researchers spent a week in February 2016, government soldiers have attacked civilian areas, burned and looted homes, and arbitrarily detained and summarily executed people. The abuses appear to be part of a counterinsurgency campaign targeting men and boys suspected of links to rebel militias known as “Arrow Boys.” The violence has taken on an ethnic dimension, with largely Dinka government soldiers targeting non-Dinka local armed groups.
The conflict first reached Western Equatoria in May 2015, when tensions between ethnic Dinka cattle herders and non-Dinka farming communities fueled fighting between government forces and local armed groups in the town of Mundri. In the ensuing months, fighting extended to Maridi and Yambio, two of the region’s main hubs.
The dismissal of the governor of Western Equatoria state, Joseph Bakosoro, over his suspected support of rebel forces, and his five-day detention by the SPLA, further polarized the community. The authorities re-arrested Bakosoro on December 22, 2015, and have held him without charge, with dozens of other political prisoners, family members reported. The authorities should promptly release Bakosoro and others detained without charge, Human Rights Watch said.
The most recent fighting near Yambio followed a spate of violent crimes in December attributed to the Arrow Boys, including the rape of a 67-year-old Catholic nun on December 28.
On January 21, 2016, SPLA forces attacked a rebel group, the South Sudan National Liberation Movement, in the village of Birisi, 20 kilometers south of Yambio. The fighting spread to Yambio, and at least 13 people were killed, including at least three civilians. Human Rights Watch saw evidence that government soldiers burned and looted civilians’ homes during and after the fighting in Yambio, driving thousands of people to flee. Other abuses included the enforced disappearance of at least 11 men since November 2015.
Civilians displaced from Mundri in Western Equatoria told HRW that soldiers shot at civilians and burned and looted homes, causing an estimated 50,000 people to flee. Government soldiers have prevented aid agencies and observers from reaching the affected areas. Forces have also occupied schools, displacing students and depriving them of education.
Authorities have largely failed to respond to allegations of abuses, underscoring the breakdown in law and order that has accompanied the spread of conflict, Human Rights Watch found. Researchers saw the bodies of two men, shot in the head and chest, their arms tied behind their backs, decomposing in a teak forest more than two weeks after UN peacekeepers had discovered the corpses and alerted local authorities.
Fighting has also surged in other parts of South Sudan. In one widely reported incident, on February 17, government soldiers and other armed men attacked a UN protection of civilian camps in Malakal. About 20 people were killed and at least 100 injured, and 2,700 shelters were burned. Most of the camp’s 43,000 residents were forced to flee to an older protection site or back into the city. The UN called the attack a possible war crime.
Both the government and the opposition have made commitments to support justice for crimes against civilians since the conflict began in December 2013, but if there have been any domestic investigations into alleged abuses, they have not been made public.
The August peace agreement envisions a range of steps to hold violators accountable, including a hybrid court established by the AU Commission to try the most serious crimes. Hybrid courts, which include both international and domestic judges and other staff, have been used in other countries to deliver justice where national courts lack expertise or will to try these crimes. The AU Commission has yet to make significant progress on creating such a court, which will need a statute, infrastructure agreements, and a budget before it can begin functioning. These steps can be taken in parallel to other developments, such as the formation of a transitional government, HRW said.
“Rather than seeing improvements following the peace agreement, we are seeing continuous attacks on civilians and other abuses carried out with impunity,” Bekele said. “It is high time the AU and the UN act, by moving forward with the hybrid court and implementing the long-threatened arms embargo.”
The Oslo Times