A human rights group says appalling crimes have been committed against civilians in South Sudan for no other reason than their ethnicity. It’s calling on the U.N. to support an independent commission of inquiry to investigate alleged crimes.
Human Rights Watch began collecting reports of ethnic targeting shortly after fighting broke out in December between government and opposition forces.
“What we’re seeing, in part, is the reopening of old wounds and old scars that have really been ripped open in the past few weeks -- scars that were created by past atrocities during the long civil war in Sudan that were never adequately addressed -- either in peace negotiations -- or in the last few years when South Sudan became independent,” said Leslie Lefkow, the group’s deputy director of the Africa division.
Human Rights Watch focused primarily on Juba and Bor.
She said, “The patterns differ slightly. For example, in Juba, much of the violence was concentrated in the first few days after the conflict that started on December 15th. In Bor, civilians have been the victims of crossfire, of fighting that has swept through Bor because the town has changed hands several times in the last month.”
Lefkow gave an example of some of the group’s findings.
“We documented very serious crimes in Juba when Nuer men were being sought out in various neighborhoods by soldiers from the SPLA, who were going house to house and rounding-up and sometimes shooting Nuer men primarily based on their ethnicity.”
She said that Dinka have been targeted as well.
“In Akobo, for example, early on, the U.N. base was attacked and a number of Dinka individuals, who had gone there for shelter, were killed. The details of that attack still remain very unclear, but there’s no doubt that people were killed, partly at least, on the basis that they were Dinka,” she said.
Three U.N. peacekeepers from India were also killed in that attack.
Human Rights Watch also has documented cases of looting – not only of civilian property, but that owned by U.N. agencies.
“This can very long-term ramifications. It has serious implications for the ability of humanitarian aid agencies to operate in places -- for the WFP, the World Food Program -- and other agencies, to distribute food when their vehicles and their warehouses have been looted. And civilians desperately need this assistance in the coming days and weeks given the massive scale of displacement that’s taken place,” Lefkow said.
More than 400,000 have been displaced within South Sudan and nearly 100,000 have fled to neighboring countries. U.N. and U.S. officials said thousands may have been killed since December.
The Human Rights Watch official says several key steps need to be taken. It calls on the leaders of both sides to issue orders against targeting civilians. Next, she says an international commission of inquiry should be set-up.
“This inquiry needs to be staffed by independent experts – people who have experience with South Sudan – with human rights investigation – with arms and munitions investigations – and forensic experience. And this kind of inquiry if done credibly and independently I think would be an important step towards the long-term healing, reconciliation and justice process,” she said.
Human Rights Watch said such a commission should report to both the African Union and the United Nations. Last month, the AU agreed a commission of inquiry should be established.