Preliminary United Nations investigations into the recent fighting in South Sudan reveal Government security forces carried out killings and rapes, and looted and destroyed properties, the UN human rights chief said today, calling on the Security Council to take stronger action.
The recent fighting between rival forces – the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) loyal to President Salva Kiir and the SPLA in Opposition backing First Vice-President Riek Machar – erupted in and around the capital city, Juba, on 7 July.
“Tensions remain very high, and violations continue to take place in Juba and other parts of the country,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein in a new release, after providing a written update on the preliminary findings, or a “snapshot” of the incident, on Tuesday to the 15-member Council.
He said that information received by UN human rights officers suggests hundreds of fighters and civilians were killed during the initial fighting. While some civilians were killed in crossfire between the fighting forces, others were reportedly summarily executed by Government (SPLA) soldiers, who appear to have specifically targeted people of Nuer origin.
In two separate incidents on 11 July, SPLA soldiers reportedly arrested eight Nuer civilians during house-to-house searches in Juba's Munuki area and took them to two nearby hotels, where they shot four of them. On the same day, SPLA soldiers broke into another hotel where they shot and killed a Nuer journalist.
At least 73 civilian deaths have been catalogued so far by the UN, but it is believed the civilian death toll may turn out to be much higher. The UN was denied access to some of the hardest-hit areas in the days following the conflict and a number of restrictions on movement remain in place.
“The fighting also resulted in widespread sexual violence, including rape and gang rape by soldiers in uniform and men in plain clothes,” Mr. Zeid said, adding that Nuer, Dinka and women from the three Equatorian states were all targeted, along with foreign nationals. Many victims were minors.
Sexual violence seem to have been committed by mostly SPLA
“We have documented at least 217 cases of sexual violence in Juba between 8 and 25 July,” he said. “In a few areas, women from various ethnic groups were raped by heavily armed youth believed to be affiliated to the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA/IO).”
However, according to the information gathered so far, those most affected were displaced Nuer women and girls and “those responsible seem to have been mostly SPLA,” Mr. Zeid said.
Sexual violence continued after the initial fighting subsided and over 100 women and girls are reported to have been raped or gang-raped on the road leading out of Juba towards Yei.
On 18 July, 35 women and girls were reportedly raped in two separate incidents: 28 women, including 12 minors, were allegedly assaulted at an SPLA checkpoint at the Jebel Junction on the Yei Road; and also that day, seven other women were reportedly raped on the road between two Protection of Civilians sites, where people – mostly Nuer – displaced by earlier rounds of fighting are protected by peacekeepers of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
Witnesses and victims interviewed by human rights officers reported that women and girls were also robbed of their belongings, beaten up and verbally abused by SPLA soldiers and other security officers at these and other check points across the city.
The High Commissioner expressed concern about allegations that some peacekeepers may have failed to assist women and girls who were reportedly raped and assaulted near their positions, took note of UNMISS measures to address this situation and urged strong action in those instances where UN military personnel defaulted over their duty to protect civilians.
During the five days of fighting in July, thousands more people were forcibly displaced, and many civilians were denied access to safety in UN compounds by SPLA soldiers manning the various checkpoints that sprang up across Juba. There have also been reports of forced recruitment by the SPLA, including of children, in Bor.
Noting that in the wake of the violence the Government has severely restricted the right to freedom of expression and clamped down on journalists, Mr. Zeid urged it to concentrate instead on justice and accountability.
“The Government says it has established a court martial to try SPLA soldiers accused of committing crimes against civilians, including 'looting, murder and other forms of human rights abuses,'” he noted. “It has made similar promises in the past, but the violations continue unabated.”
He urged the Transitional Government of National Unity to restore dialogue and take steps to ensure justice and accountability, and called on the international community to put real pressure on the Government, halt violence and respect the life of all South Sudanese. “The severity of the recent violence, and the very dangerous ethnic undertone, call for urgent action by the Security Council,” he said.