In South Sudan, children are carrying weapons, and the levels of violence “have already surpassed” those documented in December 2013, when civil war erupted in the troubled country.
UN Human Rights Council-appointed investigators at the weekend warned that the bloodshed faced by civilians is “the worst recorded” since the country’s civil war began in December 2013.
According to the investigators, extreme violence and attacks involving thousands of fighters at a time have engulfed more than three-quarters of South Sudan.
Highlighting a continuing lack of local and national infrastructure almost a year since the formation of the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity in South Sudan, Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in the country notes that although the signing of the Revitalised Peace Agreement two years ago had “led to a reduction in hostilities at the national level”, the country seen “a massive escalation in violence” locally.
Echoing that finding, Commission member, Barney Afako, explains that signing the cessation of hostilities ceasefire had left “a vacuum” at the community level.
“There are no governors in place or no county commissioners in place. So, there is nobody to deal with those cleavages which had remained. Instead what we saw, was that the weaponry that has been left in the community as well as that which is now supplied by others fuelled this communal violence”, he said.
Other worrying developments include restrictions and self-censorship among journalists and pressure groups.
New level of fear
“The level of state suppression and inability of civil society or journalists to operate is now completely different”, said Commission member, Andrew Clapham. “There is sort of levels of fear and the State suppression and the fact that you can be picked up and tortured and killed is rather different”.
In its latest report, the Commission describes “waves of attacks and reprisals” that have left hundreds of South Sudanese women, men and children dead, maimed or destitute in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.
Ms. Sooka told journalists via video conference that the armed groups and militias had mobilized along ethnic lines, often with the support of armed State and opposition forces.
She highlighted clashes last year between allied Dinka and Nuer militias and Murle pastoralist militias with massive violations against civilians, including killing and displacement.
“We have documented the new levels of militia violence engulfing more than three-quarters of the country at a localised level in which children carry weapons and women are traded as spoils of war like chattels”, Ms. Sooka said.
‘Children all have guns’
The Commission Chairperson said that civilians described combatants using weapons that they had never seen before.
“One man told the Commission, ‘I went to Pibor town and I saw guns being sold there. There the black guns used by the NSS were being sold for 25,000 South Sudanese shillings, each less than a few hundred dollars.’ He also said that children all have guns”, she recounted.
Ms. Sooka also described as “shocking” the high number of fighters involved in localized conflicts and highlighted that women were traded as “spoils of war”.
Describing attacks in Jonglei and the Greater Pibor area, she pointed to “systemically and deliberately torched” homes, murders, forced displacements, abductions, rapes, sexual enslavement and, in some instances, forced marriages to captors. Abducted boys have been forced to fight and, sometimes “forcibly assimilated into rival armed groups”.
These victims have had their ethnic and other identities “completely erased”, according to the Commission’s report, which noted that as of December 2020, hundreds of abductees were still missing, with hundreds of thousands displaced by the violence and recurrent flooding.
The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan is due to present its report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 10.
In the third week of September, 2018 UN investigators told the UN Human Rights Council the plight of South Sudan’s women and girls “should no longer be ignored”, citing the disturbing testimonies of sexual abuse victims who have been treated by soldiers and militias as the “spoils” of the more than five-year conflict then.
Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Sooka, said the Council heard testimonies of wanton killings and numerous accounts of brutal sexual violence.
“Women in South Sudan have been treated by government soldiers and armed actors to the conflict, including local militias, as spoils of the conflict”, she said.
In Yei county, women community leaders told the UN panel that many had been abducted by government soldiers and raped. The resulting stigma the women faced led them to abandon their babies, Ms. Sooka said, their testimonies marking yet more trauma linked to the infighting that grew out of the country’s declaration of independence, in 2011.
In her update to the Human Rights Council, the UN-appointed rights expert also noted that Government soldiers attacked a college in Goli, Yei county, in May, raping young women and leaving 10 people dead – including five schoolchildren.
In addition to highlighting testimonies of killings and sexual violence in South Sudan, the UN panel also found food shortages at crisis levels.
According to its findings, six million people face “desperate” food insecurity – a 20 per cent increase from last year, Ms. Sooka said.
“Given the acute levels of food insecurity in the country, one would imagine that the Government of South Sudan would do its utmost to facilitate unimpeded access to UNMISS and the humanitarian organisations”, she explained.
“Instead, there is constant bureaucratic stalling of access and more alarmingly, targeted attacks against humanitarian convoys which makes it almost impossible to deliver emergency relief.”
In a call for the Government to tackle impunity, the UN Commission chair welcomed a recent ruling by a national military tribunal in the high-profile Terrain Case, in which 10 soldiers received sentences for their part in the murder, rape, sexual harassment, theft and armed robbery of aid workers, some of them foreign nationals.
“Under pressure by the international community, the Government of South Sudan was able to muster the political will to combat impunity”, Ms. Sooka said, before noting that “only the foot soldiers were prosecuted, while those with command responsibility have gone unpunished”.
It should be remembered, she continued, that UN forces documented the gang rape of more than 217 South Sudanese women by government forces in 2016 and none of the perpetrators has been held accountable or received any compensation for their ordeal.
It is a matter of regret, the UN Commission chair continued, that President Salva Kiir has yet to sign fast-track the establishment of a special court to address impunity in South Sudan, as it had recommended in March 2018.
“The failure to punish the perpetrators of serious crimes in South Sudan has led to many to believing that they can continue to commit these crimes with total impunity,” she said.
Established by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 according to resolution 31/20, the UN Commission has a broad mandate to investigate wrongdoing in South Sudan, and seek to clarify who is carrying out alleged gross rights violations.
Since 2013, South Sudan’s civil war has led to the displacement of more than 1.7 million people inside South Sudan and created 2.5 million refugees – including more than 65,000 unaccompanied minors.
In response to the Commission’s findings, South Sudan insisted that the security situation in the country had improved and would continue to do so, following the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement, just last week.
At its core was a permanent ceasefire agreement, according to Paulino Wanwilla Unango, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, who also noted that sporadic skirmishes had also occurred.
Turning to the UN Commission’s call for a hybrid court, the minister said that a ministerial committee had been set up for this purpose, but that discussions had been superseded by the need to push ahead with the peace deal.