New evidence is emerging of ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both government and opposition forces in South Sudan, Amnesty International said as the country marks its third Independence Day on 9 July. On a mission to Juba this month, the organization interviewed internally displaced people who described recent atrocities and an imminent humanitarian crisis.
Since the conflict began in December 2013, more than 1 million people have been displaced, with 400,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries. Around the country 3.9 million people face an alarming risk of food insecurity, as fears of an impending famine loom. More than 100,000 people are in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps at UN bases – some have been trapped in these compounds for months, afraid they will be attacked if they leave.
One local human rights defender told Amnesty International: “What is there to celebrate when I don’t feel free?”
“Both sides in the conflict have demonstrated a near-total disregard for the laws of war, with civilians left paying the price,” said Michelle Kagari, Deputy Regional Director for Eastern Africa at Amnesty International.
“All sides must immediately cease attacks on civilians. All states must suspend international arms transfers to South Sudan, until there are guarantees they will not be used to commit or facilitate serious abuses.”
Even before the current conflict erupted, South Sudan was already awash with small arms, a legacy of decades of civil war. The wide availability of arms has fueled violent crime and intercommunal conflict, with a significant human toll. The government has made numerous attempts at civilian disarmament – these have been ineffective in improving security and have often been marred by violence themselves.
Since the internal armed conflict erupted in December, yet more arms have reportedly flowed into the country.
South Sudanese government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition forces under Dr Riek Machar have spectacularly failed to make good on promises to cease attacks on civilians, sexual violence, destruction of property and violence against children, and to facilitate humanitarian access and hold perpetrators accountable.
A ceasefire – initially agreed on 23 January and renewed twice, on 5 and 9 May, has not been honoured by either side. Clashes continue in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states.
“The international community must pressure the South Sudanese authorities to bring to justice all those who have committed serious violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law during the conflict, or sadly there will be more Independence Days with little to celebrate,” said Michelle Kagari.
The South Sudanese authorities have so far made no concrete effort to deliver justice for the crimes against civilians committed during the conflict. The government has demonstrated a lack of commitment to conducting prompt, independent and thorough investigations with a view towards prosecuting perpetrators of abuses and violations.
Though triggered by a political dispute, South Sudan’s internal armed conflict has taken on a markedly ethnic dimension, with mainly Dinka members of government forces loyal to President Kiir, and mainly Nuer army defectors and their allied militias loyal to ex-Vice-President Machar. Both sides have been systematically targeting members of the other’s ethnic community. An Amnesty International report, Nowhere Safe: Civilians Under Attack in South Sudan, based on field research undertaken in March 2014, documented cases in which Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk civilians have been targeted on the basis of their ethnicity and assumed political affiliations.
Crimes against humanity and war crimes have happened against a backdrop of pervasive human rights violations.
A clampdown on freedom of expression has added to the repressive and fearful climate. Members of civil society and journalists have been summoned and questioned by National Security Service officers about their activities and articles. In March, the Arabic language paper Almajhar Alsayasy was ordered to shut down because of articles critical of the government. Last week, National Security Service officers gave verbal orders to media outlets not to publish articles about federalism – a topic of wide public debate. On 2 July, National Security Service officers seized copies of the Juba Monitor, a daily paper. On 7 July, armed National Security Service officers confiscated 3,000 copies of The Citizen.
On South Sudan’s first Independence Day President Kiir pledged that South Sudan would quickly accede to international conventions and abide by international law.
After three years of independence, South Sudan has failed to complete the ratification process of core human rights treaties. The African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights were approved by parliament and have been awaiting presidential assent since before the conflict erupted. South Sudan is the only member state of the African Union that has not ratified the African Charter.