UN human rights experts says international community has an obligation to prevent ethnic cleansing in South Sudan
The world’s youngest country, South Sudan, is on the brink of catastrophe, said the three-member* UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan at the end of a ten-day visit. “The stage is being set for a repeat of what happened in Rwanda and the international community is under an obligation to prevent it,” said the chairperson of the Commission, Yasmin Sooka, citing disturbing indicators such as an increase in hate speech, a crackdown on the media and civil society, deepening divisions between the country’s 64 tribes, renewed recruitment in a country already awash with guns and the proliferation of armed groups aligned to both sides engaging in armed conflict.
“There is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages; everywhere we went across this country we heard villagers saying they are ready to shed blood to get their land back,” said Ms. Sooka. “Many told us it’s already reached a point of no return”.
It’s widely believed that fighting will intensify during the dry season, which runs until the end of February. The Commission enumerated a number of steps that the international community should take immediately to avert mass bloodshed: expedite the immediate arrival of the 4,000 strong Regional Protection Force in South Sudan, ensure that the force is not restricted only to the capital, freeze assets, enact targeted sanctions and implement an arms embargo.
“It is also urgent to set up the hybrid court promised for South Sudan,” said Commissioner, Ken Scott. “Large parts of the country literally have no functioning courts and even the traditional reconciliation methods are now breaking down with the result that it’s a free for all”.
The Commission, which is due to report to the Human Rights Council in March, visited Bentiu in Unity State where more than a hundred thousand people are sheltering in a UN protected camp. They met one woman who described being gang- raped by soldiers just three days earlier when her village was attacked and heard reports of three women raped that very day by soldiers just outside the camp while going to collect firewood. In Malakal in Upper Nile State, though government officials said it was not in their culture to rape women, it was apparent the practice was condoned and widespread but still vastly underreported. The Commission met several displaced women in the Juba camp who were gang raped in July and four months later have yet to receive adequate medical treatment for resulting complications.
“The scale of rape of women and girls perpetrated by all armed groups in South Sudan is utterly unacceptable and is frankly mind boggling,” said the Commission chairperson. “Aid workers describe gang rape as so prevalent that it’s become ‘normal’ in this warped environment but what does that say about us that we accept this and thereby condemn these women to this unspeakable fate?”
In Wau in Western Bahr el Ghazal State, where ethnic tension remains high, civilians gave graphic accounts of how their husbands and children were robbed and murdered by soldiers from the army during violence in June in which at least 53 people were killed. Here and elsewhere victims urged the Commission to push the international community to act, not just produce more reports.
Worryingly an area of the country that was relatively unaffected by the conflict, like the Equatorias, have now become the epicentre of the conflict. “The impact of this spreading violence is much more widespread and serious than earlier thought,” said Commissioner Godfrey Musila who visited the area. The picture emerging is one of the presence of armed groups, displacement based on ethnicity, torching of houses, food insecurity and denial of freedom of movement. The Commission heard numerous accounts of corpses being found along main roads, looming starvation and people fleeing to neighbouring countries on a daily basis.
The Commission is pleased that it was able to meet the First Vice President, the Chief of General Staff of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, senior officials in the states and traditional leaders, the head of the SPLA military justice system, representatives of the African Union, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, as well as human rights defenders, UN and humanitarian agencies.
“As the UN Special Representative for the Prevention of Genocide said, many of the warning signals of impending genocide are already there – an existing conflict, resort to polarized ethnic identities, dehumanization, a culture of denial, displacement based on ethnicity and in some places indications of systematic violations and planning – but the important thing is there is still time to prevent it,” said Ms Sooka.