JUBA – The witness accounts remain appalling. One South Sudanese man returned home after hiding from government soldiers to find they had gouged out his mother’s eyes with spears. She had tried to stop more than a dozen soldiers from raping her 17-year-old daughter. Seventeen soldiers then raped her. Her husband was beheaded.
The latest report on human rights abuses in South Sudan’s five-year civil war, released on Friday by a United Nations commission, for the first time identifies more than 40 senior military officials, including three state governors, “who may bear individual responsibility for war crimes” and crimes against humanity.
“I did not expect to be confronted with so much ritual humiliation and degradation deliberately done for multiple reasons. The suffering and cruelty was worse than anyone could have imagined,” said Andrew Clapham, a commission member and international law professor.
One South Sudanese woman told the commission that her 12-year-old son was forced to have sex with his grandmother to stay alive, the report says.
The findings, with “sufficient evidence” against both President Salva Kiir’s government forces and rebels, will be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council next month. They also will be made available to judicial mechanisms such as a hybrid court for South Sudan, which long has been urged by the international community but has never appeared.
The names of alleged perpetrators, kept private to help protect witnesses, are being given to the U.N. human rights office in Geneva.
Untold tens of thousands have been killed in South Sudan since the conflict erupted in December 2013, just two years after independence from Sudan. More than 2 million people have fled the country, the largest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide 24 years ago. Millions who remain at home face hunger.
The new U.N. report is an account of the gang rapes, castrations, ethnic violence and other abuses that have left much of the impoverished East African nation in despair while international frustration with the warring sides grows. An attempt at a cease-fire in late December was violated within hours. Disgusted, the United States announced a largely symbolic arms embargo and urged the U.N. Security Council to do the same.
South Sudan’s government on Friday said it was asking the U.N. commission for the names of the accused senior military officials and will investigate. “We can’t condone anyone committing crimes and taking the law in their own hands,” spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said, though he added that such reports “can sometimes be cut-and-paste and based on hearsay.”
Opposition spokesman Lam Paul Gabriel said, “The human rights body should start putting the blame directly on the regime instead of blaming both sides.”
The report, based on 230 witness statements and other materials, is the second since the U.N. commission was established in 2016 and the first since it was given a stronger mandate to preserve evidence and conduct investigations instead of simply monitoring and reporting.
South Sudan’s conflict is splintering into chaos, the new report says. What began as a “power struggle” between Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar has fractured into an estimated 40 armed groups across the country, with many fighting each other.
But consistent patterns stand out, such as government attacks on unarmed, fleeing civilians in areas where no opposition forces were present, the report says. “There is a clear pattern of ethnic persecution, for the most part by government forces,” Clapham said.
Despite the latest accounts of abuses, South Sudan experts are skeptical that anything will change amid what the report calls a “grave” lack of accountability.
“The recommendations of these human rights reports have not been implemented in South Sudan, making them useless,” said Jacob Chol, senior political analyst and professor at the University of Juba. He said human rights abusers should be barred from the South Sudan peace talks in neighboring Ethiopia.
The talks reached a stalemate a week ago but are expected to pick up again next month.