South Sudan civil war: Rights reports slam both sides as leaders go to talks

UN and Amnesty give clear evidence of crimes against humanity, including rape as a weapon of war – and point a way forward. The reports are based on more than 1,000 interviews with victims, witnesses, and others.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
South Sudan's rebel leader Riek Machar smiles as he meets his friends at Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa May 9, 2014. South Sudan's President Salva Kiir arrived on Friday in Ethiopia's capital for the first face-to-face talks with Machar to try to end four months of conflict and avert a possible genocide.

In one of two much-anticipated human rights report released Thursday, the United Nations said both sides in South Sudan’s civil war have possibly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, and called for international justice.

A striking feature of investigations on the brutal warfare in the world's newest country is evidence of widespread use of sexual violence, including gang rape and forced abortion, by all parties.

The accusations come as South Sudan's President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar today traveled to Ethiopia for peace talks amid continued fighting. 

"From the very outset of the violence, gross violations of human rights and serious violations of humanitarian law have occurred on a massive scale," reads the UN report.  "Civilians were not only caught up in the violence, they were directly targeted, often along ethnic lines."

The UN report came out on the same day as another damning investigation by advocacy group Amnesty International.  Both reports document shocking abuses by both the government and the rebels since the war began in mid- December.

The conflict emerged out of a power struggle between President Kiir and his former vice president, Mr. Machar, that widened largely along ethnic lines. Kiir is an ethnic Dinka, and Machar is a Nuer.  Thousands have been killed, and more than a million civilians have fled their homes.

Totaling 130 pages and based on more than 1,000 interviews with victims, witnesses, and others, the two reports present the most credible and comprehensive documentations of human rights violations since the conflict began.

They describe in detail the slaughtering of hundreds of civilians in police stations, hospitals, places of worship, and UN compounds, and the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war.

In the Amnesty report, titled “Nowhere Safe: Civilians Under Attack in South Sudan,” a Nuer woman in Unity State recounted an attack on a group of women by pro-government forces.

“I was three months pregnant, but because I was raped by so many men, the baby came out,” she said, adding that the soldiers forced wooden sticks into women who refused sex, killing them.

Such horrors have driven thousands of people into UN bases for protection.

Here in Juba, 30,000 Nuer civilians have lived for months in two cramped, disease-ridden camps.  They sleep in makeshift tents that flood when it rains with latrine overflow, but are too afraid to leave UN protection.  Elsewhere in the country, thousands of Dinka also shelter under the UN in similarly squalid conditions.

Both reports demanded perpetrators be brought to justice.

“Accountability is critical to end the legacy of impunity in South Sudan and prevent similar atrocities in the future," said the UN's chief in South Sudan Hilde Johnson in a statement.  "There can be no reconciliation without accountability."

The UN recommended the creation of hybrid or special court, perhaps similar to what was set up after atrocities in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

“The main thing is not so much the findings and the documentation, but that it recommends a way forward for accountability,” says Jerome Tubiana, senior Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, who advocates the special Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal as a model.  

But in the short term, the UN’s accusations and the specter of international justice may add another layer of pressure for the belligerents to stop fighting.

In the past week, the US levied economic sanctions against top generals on both sides, and a string of high level regional and Western diplomacy has pushed Kiir and Machar to meet in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, in what could be a first step toward peace.

Even so, fighting continued Thursday near the contested town of Bentiu in the country's north, following a major government offensive last weekend.

South Sudan’s leaders have previously bristled at foreign criticism and analysts say the release of the reports could spur further animosity toward international organizations in South Sudan.

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