A rights group says it has documented acts of violence and cruelty in South Sudan that amount to war crimes. Human Rights Watch has released a new report called South Sudan’s New War.
The 92 page report documents abuses since fighting broke out last December between government forces and rebels. Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of the group’s Africa Division, “We conclude that based on the research that we’ve done with more than 400 victims and witnesses of abuses that both sides have committed war crimes. And very possibly these may amount to crimes against humanity. So very serious crimes under the laws of war.”
One of the worst incidents documented, she said, occurred between December 15th and 18th of 2013.
“We documented how over the course of the next couple of days government forces, mainly Dinka members of the government forces, went house-to-house rounding up people of Nuer ethnicity. Detained between 200 and 400 men in an old police station in Juba and killed most of them.”
The Human Rights Watch official said at least a half dozen men – some of whom had been shot – survived by hiding under dead bodies. The report contains their testimony on what happened. Lefkow says there were many other incidents.
“In several of the key towns where the fighting took place over the last six months – places like Bor, Malakal, Bentiu – there were horrific crimes against civilians by both sides. Often people were targeted because of their ethnicity -- again by both sides – were killed in hospitals – were shot at as they were fleeing. Elderly people were killed in their homes because they were disabled or couldn’t flee. So, really horrific violence that continues at a lower level perhaps right now, but to this day,” Lefkow said.
When the fighting first erupted, many observers and analysts were reluctant to label it as an ethnic conflict. Not now.
She said, “I think looking back there’s no question that the ethnic dimension to this conflict is very clear. I think in the early days it was unclear whether it really was ethnically-driven violence. And also there was a lot of concern about catalyzing ethnic violence by describing it that way. But I think seven months on, it’s very clear that many of these killings have been based on people’s ethnicity.”
However, she added there have been a lot of crimes based on economic motives, too, such as looting. Lefkow said there’s no evidence at this time that any of these alleged crimes were officially sanctioned by either side.
Human Rights Watch is calling for a “comprehensive arms embargo” on South Sudan and “targeted sanctions on any individuals responsible for serious violations of international law.”
“The bulk of the violence in this conflict has been directed at civilians. You know, there’s been some fighting between the warring parties, but the majority of the violence has been directed at civilians,” said Lefkow.
The report calls on South Sudanese leaders at peace talks in Addis Ababa to commit to a justice process – and agree that no amnesty be given for serious crimes.
Lefkow said an African Union commission of inquiry is currently in South Sudan. It’s expected to report its findings of alleged crimes within a few months. However, she said, no one appears to be protecting and collecting the forensic evidence needed for possible criminal prosecutions.