The Civil War in South Sudan that has been raging since December 2013 has largely fallen off the international radar. Many major news outlets have no coverage at all of the ongoing fighting across the region, but this week has seen the release of a new UN report into the conflict and damning evidence of widespread violence against civilians by the government militia.
The conflict broke out on December 15th 2013 following a split within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). After opposition leaders within the SPLM voted to boycott a National Liberation Council meeting, President Salva Kiir ordered that all troops in the capital Juba be disarmed. However, Army leaders later returned arms to troops of Dinka ethnicity, which led to fighting breaking out after many troops of the Neur ethnicity questioned the decision by leaders. Dinka and Neur people have been in conflict throughout the 19th and 20th century, partly as a result of disagreements over British colonial rule in the region, but this conflict has now descended into warfare between the SPLM led by Kiir, and supported by Uganda, and the SPLM-IO (In Opposition), which is led by Riek Machar, and also supported by a movement called the Neur White Army.
Just a fortnight ago, Al-Jazeera reported that unnamed UN sources were estimating that up to 50,000 people have been killed so far in the conflict. A ceasefire was agreed last year, and in January Machar was re-appointed Vice President of a transitional government. Despite the ceasefire, fighting is still ongoing but on a smaller scale than in the last two years, and details are now coming out violence that has taken place against civilian populations.
An Amnesty International report released on March 10th has revealed that civilians in the Guat payam province of South Sudan had been arbitrarily detained by government forces. Many of these civilians had brought their cattle to the capital Leer on the orders of the government, who then detained them under suspicion of being opposition agents. The report goes on to claim that these civilians were not just detained, but also tortured by government forces. Government troops are accused of having forced up to 25 men into shipping containers, and allegedly executing some of them at gunpoint before depositing the bodies in a pit around a kilometre north of the airbase at which the men had been detained.
This allegation follows on from accusations by the United Nations Office for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict in 2015 that there had been 617 children recruited by both sides during the conflict. The same report alleges that killing and maiming of children was commonplace during the 2013-15 period of conflict, and that mass graves have been found around the city of Bor, with up to 490 bodies being discovered, although these reports have not been fully verified.
The most damning evidence released, however, is another UN report released on March 11th, which alleges systematic killing of civilians by government forces, both in the detainment containers which the Amnesty report focused on, and by a variety of other methods including hanging, mutilation with machetes, and immolation. This report also suggests that alongside the killing of civilians has been a systematic programme of rape against civilian women carried out by government forces.
This allegation is particularly serious, as the trial of Jean-Paul Akayesu in 1998 following the Rwandan Genocide, ruled that systematic rape can constitute a genocidal crime if it can be proved that it was intended to be against a targeted group, which could in this case be the Neur ethnic minority. It is likely that the evidence at present would not be enough to justify a charge of genocide against the government, but the fact that it could even possibly be considered as such demonstrates the seriousness of the allegations against government forces.
These claims demonstrate just what has been missed by much of the media over the last two years. The conflict in South Sudan has the fledgling nation in near ruins, and the tentative ceasefire agreement may not be enough to hold the country together. If it can hold, however, it remains to be seen if the government will allow any investigation of the claims against their forces, given that the Presidential spokesman has rejected any government complicity in violence committed by their forces.
The most worrying aspect of this whole story is that this may just be the beginning, with UN Commissioner for Human Rights Rupert Colville suggesting this could be ‘the tip of the iceberg’ as regards the potential cases of violence and killing across the country, but it must now be hoped that the ceasefire holds and that no more violence occurs.