Amnesty International says both sides in South Sudan’s conflict have committed horrific atrocities against civilians. It says the attacks have been ethnically motivated and amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The rights group has released the results of its investigation called Nowhere Safe: Civilians under Attack in South Sudan.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Africa Michelle Kagari says deliberately attacking civilians is a war crime.
“We found consistently wherever we went – whether it was a conflict area where the government troops were in control or whether it was the armed opposition that were in control – civilians had been specifically targeted. And they had been killed. We found evidence of abductions, evidence of rape, including rape of women, who were pregnant, and young girls, which is an additional crime.”
She said there is also evidence of the killing of soldiers, who had laid down their weapons and were no longer taking part in the fighting.
There are no safe havens, Kagari said, even in places typically considered sanctuaries.
“We found that there was no regard whatsoever to the protection that these places have. And that civilians were being targeted and killed in hospitals, in churches and within the UNMISS bases. And all these are war crimes,” she said.”
When fighting started last December, many observers, NGO officials and international leaders refrained from calling it an ethnic-based conflict. But Kagari said that a tipping point has been reached since then. She noted that South Sudan’s own human rights commission said earlier this year that the ethnic-dimensions of the conflict cannot be ignored.
“Certainly when we went on the ground that seemed to be the primary motivation for killing. So people were being killed on the basis that they were either Nuer or Dinka or Shilluk. And the political affiliation had certainly become secondary and that would have been a shift maybe as opposed to when the conflict first started in December,” Kagari said.
The Amnesty International report said that civilians are frightened and traumatized.
Kagari said, “We had one civilian tell us that South Sudan is destroyed. There’s nothing left. Everything they have has been destroyed, which is another war crime. There’s been deliberate looting and razing of villages. And the looting has been so widespread. One person told us that she left in advance of the pro-government forces and when she went back her house was completely cleaned. And this was pretty similar with everywhere else in that neighborhood.”
U.N. compounds are sheltering only a small number of South Sudan’s displaced. If they leave those areas, they are subject to attack and gang rape. Kagari said UNMISS forces lack the capacity to protect civilians just outside compound walls.
“We would like UNMISS’ mandate to change so that there’s much stronger focus on protection of civilians. And we would also like the Security Council resolution that was passed in December to be fully enforced so that UNMISS has the capacity to ensure protection of civilians.”
Most of the hundreds of thousands of displaced South Sudanese are in the countryside.
“They are not able to plant. Now, if they are not able to plant – they are not able to get their foods in – really we’re looking at famine being inevitable if they are not able to plant by the end of this month,” she said.
The rainy season is making many roads impassable, meaning food truck convoys cannot reach those in need.
She said both the African Union and U.N. should investigate and document cases of potential war crimes. But evidence may be washing away.
“We are concerned that with the rains evidence of these crimes is being lost. We already found that a number of sites where there had been mass killings bodies had already been buried and the evidence is already being lost. So, we are really concerned that investigations should be expedited in order to ensure that there is accountability for these crimes,” said Kagari.
Amnesty International said, “All parties to the conflict must immediately cease all violations of international human rights and humanitarian law – and allow unfettered access for humanitarian assistance to those in need.”