Geneva/Nairobi — We have identified more than forty senior military officials who may bear individual responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in South Sudan, said the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan*.
On Friday, the Commission released its first report since it was mandated by the Human Rights Council to collect and preserve evidence for use in the Hybrid Court and other accountability mechanisms agreed under the 2015 peace agreement.
“The court could be set up straight away and the prosecutor could begin working on indictments. Under the peace agreement those indicted can no longer hold or stand for office,” said the Chairperson of the Commission, Yasmin Sooka. “Ultimately this is the only way to stop the rampant devastation of millions of human lives by South Sudan’s leaders”.
The Commission’s report chronicles appalling instances of cruelty against civilians who have had their eyes gouged out, their throats slit or been castrated. Children have been recruited by all sides in the conflict and forced to kill civilians; in many cases they have watched loved ones raped or killed. Children are also thought to make up a quarter of the sexual violence victims in a conflict where rape has reached grotesque levels. If the fighting continues unabated, only one in thirteen South Sudanese will finish primary education, blighting a whole generation.
The elderly have not been spared either. Unable to flee on foot they have been left behind in villages only to be hacked to death or burned alive. In Wau, the Commission interviewed an 85 year-old woman who was gang raped and forced to watch her husband and son killed.
South Sudan is the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis but one that’s an entirely man-made disaster,. Four million people have fled their homes since 2013 – that’s the equivalent of emptying an entire country the population size of Liberia.
“Holding those in charge in South Sudan accountable for the intentional suffering they inflict on their own people is crucial to stemming this humanitarian catastrophe,” said Commissioner Andrew Clapham. “The African Union should immediately move with South Sudan to establish the Hybrid Court”.
The Commission’s investigators focused on a number of emblematic incidents, collecting victim testimony and information about which units were deployed in the area, making the case for individual command responsibility for widespread or systematic attacks on civilians. Only a portion of the information in the 58,000 documents and 230 witness statements collected is reflected in the public report but the Commission has already identified eight Lieutenant Generals, seventeen Major Generals, eight Brigadier Generals, five Colonels and three State Governors who may bear individual responsibility for serious violations of human rights and international crimes.
The testimony gathered from survivors is devastating. A pregnant woman in Lainya County described suspected opposition supporters being detained, tortured and then decapitated by the SPLA. She was kept with the decomposing bodies, including that of her husband who was one of the victims. Another man described being separated from the women in his group when they were ambushed by government soldiers, only to look back and see a soldier lying on top of his wife, and being absolutely powerless to help her.
In cases reminiscent of Bosnia, some victims have been compelled to rape close family members. One woman said her twelve-year old son was forced to have sex with his grandmother, in order to remain alive. That was after she saw her husband being castrated. Another man described being forced to lie down and serve as a “mattress” while a woman was raped on top of him. His companion, a man, was gang raped and left for dead in the bushes.
“The Commission believes the prevalence of sexual violence against men in South Sudan is far more extensive than documented; what we see so far is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” said Sooka.
The scale of the hunger and destruction inflicted on the country by its political and military leaders defies description. By contrast, many ordinary South Sudanese have shown extraordinary courage and decency, caring for other people’s children lost in the bush while fleeing, choosing not to take revenge when they could, and growing their own food in the refugee camps. Livelihoods have been deliberately destroyed. Government soldiers, who are often no longer paid salaries, and opposition fighters have pillaged people’s entire belongings from their homes, ferrying away goods in military vehicles under escort and with the knowledge of commanders. The destruction of dwellings has also been on an industrial scale, with fighters burning thousands of homes in each town to drive rival, ethnic groups out of the area. Satellite images for example of the route from Yei town in Central Equatoria to the border with Uganda show 18,318 structures destroyed in a few months in 2017, most by fire.
“There is a clear pattern of ethnic persecution,” said Clapham, “for the most part by government forces who should be pursued for crimes against humanity”.
Following the release of this report, the Commission will take part in an interactive dialogue on South Sudan in the Human Rights Council on 13th March 2018 in Geneva.
* The Commissioners are: Yasmin Sooka (Chairperson) and Andrew Clapham.