War Crimes in South Sudan

(Nairobi) – Both pro and antigovernment armed forces are responsible for serious abuses that may amount to war crimes in two key oil hubs in South Sudan during recent fighting, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch researchers visited Malakal and Bentiu, the capitals of two oil producing states, between January 29 and February 14, 2014. Researchers found that armed forces from both sides have extensively looted and destroyed civilian property, including desperately needed aid facilities, targeted civilians, and carried out extrajudicial executions, often based on ethnicity.

 “The wanton destruction and violence against civilians in this conflict is shocking,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Both sides need to stop their forces from committing abuses and hold those who have responsible for their actions, and the African Union (AU) should accelerate its long promised investigations.”

Since late December 2013 Human Rights Watch researchers have investigated allegations of serious abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Juba, Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal. Researchers interviewed hundreds of victims and witnesses of the fighting and attacks, and investigated sites of attacks in all locations where security permitted access.  

The towns of Malakal and Bentiu are now extensively destroyed and mostly empty because terrified residents fled to United Nations (UN) camps and surrounding rural areas. Threat of further attacks and targeting of civilians based on ethnicity prevent the vast majority from returning. Both towns are important political and economic hubs, where residents from many ethnicities have lived together.

Despite an agreement on January 23, 2014, to end the hostilities, and signed on by both the government and antigovernment forces, now known as SPLA-in-Opposition, there have been new attacks by both sides. Credible reports indicate that government forces, in some cases supported by the Ugandan military, attacked Leer, Gatdiang, and other locations in Unity state in early February.

On February 18 opposition forces, including the so-called white army of armed Nuer fighters, attacked Malakal. Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports that on February 19 opposition forces killed civilians at the Malakal hospital, and that fighting both near and inside the UN camp in Malakal resulted in additional casualties.

A political dispute between President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnicity, and former Vice President Riek Machar, from the Nuer ethnicity, is behind the conflict. The fighting began when members of the South Sudanese presidential guard clashed in Juba, the country’s capital, on December 15, 2013. President Kiir said the fighting was a coup attempt by Machar and his allies, which Machar has denied. Since December 15, the conflict has spread to other towns and villages in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states.

In any armed conflict, murder, attacks directed at civilians, civilian property – including objects used for humanitarian relief – and pillage are prohibited and constitute war crimes. A clear pattern of reprisal killings based on ethnicity, massive destruction, and widespread looting has emerged in this conflict, Human Rights Watch said, based on its research.

In Juba, Human Rights Watch researchers found that Dinka members of South Sudan’s security forces carried out widespread killings and mass arrests of Nuer soldiers and civilians during the first week of the crisis. Human Rights Watch has also documented killings of Dinka civilians in the town of Bor, where opposition forces – including the Nuer “white army” fighters – destroyed and looted markets and homes, and killed civilians hiding in their homes or other buildings. As elsewhere in South Sudan, the attacking Nuer youths have cited revenge for the killing of Nuer in Juba as a motivation.

In Bentiu and the adjacent town of Rubkona, a majority ethnic Nuer area, there was fighting between pro and antigovernment members of the country’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) on December 20 and 21. Opposition forces held the towns until January 10, 2014. Human Rights Watch received reports that government forces, consisting of pro-government SPLA and Sudanese rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) fighters, extensively looted shops, homes, markets, and offices of aid agencies. Large areas of Bentiu and most of Rubkona were burned during the recapture of the towns.

Although most civilians fled their homes ahead of the arrival of the government forces, government soldiers shot and killed civilians who remained, residents said. Human Rights Watch also received reports that government forces burned villages in Guit county as they pursued the opposition forces in the following days.  

When opposition forces were in control, the antigovernment soldiers, together with police and civilians, looted Bentiu and Rubkona, including before fleeing the towns on and in the days before January 10. As antigovernment soldiers and civilians fled into rural areas, the soldiers also stole precious food from civilians.

Researchers also found that prior to the first clash in December 2013, ethnic Nuer – including members of government security personnel – had attacked ethnic Dinka living in Bentiu and Rubkona, including targeted killings.

In Malakal, an ethnically diverse town of mainly Shilluk, Nuer, and Dinka communities, conflict erupted on December 24 when pro and antigovernment forces clashed at SPLA barracks, the airport, and key locations in town. The government recaptured the town on December 27, but it changed hands again on January 14, 2014, January 20, and most recently on February 18, following a third attack by opposition forces.

The town has been extensively burned and looted, and almost all civilians have fled to villages, churches, the hospital, or the UN compound north of the town.

Human Rights Watch found that each side, when in effective control of the town, attacked civilians, destroyed and looted civilian property – including food and humanitarian aid – and targeted people based on their ethnicity. During a week in January when the opposition effectively controlled Malakal, for example, “white army” Nuer fighters went house to house looting and robbing residents at gunpoint, killing some in cold blood.

While government forces were in control of Malakal from January 20 through mid-February, soldiers looted and burned civilian properties and carried out targeted killings of civilian ethnic Nuer men, including inside the Malakal teaching hospital, witnesses and family members told Human Rights Watch.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) provided safe haven for tens of thousands of civilians – more than 27,000 in Malakal and more than 7,000 in Bentiu at the height of the conflict – and in some cases transported residents to safety, almost certainly saving numerous lives.

“The conflict in South Sudan is far from over, with civilians still at risk of further abuse even inside UN compounds,” Bekele said. “Military commanders from both sides have an obligation to immediately and unequivocally order their forces to stop attacking civilians and civilian property, and the commanders need to hold abusive soldiers to account.”

A thorough and impartial investigation into human rights abuses during this conflict is a necessary first step to secure justice for victims and to respond to widespread anger, in particular resulting from the ethnic targeted killings of civilians. Unaddressed, these abuses risk leading to further violence, Human Rights Watch said.

On February 21 the UN mission released its interim report on human rights abuses during the conflict, detailing abuses by both sides. The report is a positive step and should be followed by more frequent public reporting in an effort to prevent further abuses by both sides.

On December 30, 2013, the AU Peace and Security Council called for an AU commission of inquiry to report by March 30, 2014, on human rights violations and other abuses during the conflict. Despite the urgency of this task, the commission has yet to be appointed.

“The start of the AU’s promised investigation is long overdue,” Bekele said. “It is urgently needed, both to prevent further abuses and as a crucial step in the path to lasting peace.”

More details on the attacks >>