13. September 2013

I. Background

Failure to Address Recurring Inter-ethnic Violence

Pibor is the largest county in South Sudan’s largest state, Jonglei, and one of the least accessible areas of South Sudan. Pibor County has few roads, and those that exist are mostly impassable during the rainy season. In this wild land, violence and impunity for violent crimes have become the norm.

Jonglei’s Murle, Dinka Bor and Lou Nuer ethnic groups have been locked in a bloody cycle of cattle raiding and revenge attacks for generations, but since 2009 the pattern of cyclical dry season ethnic conflict has worsened. Devastating attacks and counter attacks increasingly target women and children, including in villages, rather than just cattle camps. [1]

The government of South Sudan has repeatedly failed to prevent the outbreak of inter-ethnic conflict in Jonglei in which civilians have been harmed or hold criminals, including the ringleaders of mass attacks, to account. Allegations that soldiers, police and government officials have been involved in violent inter-ethnic attacks have not been investigated. [2] Sometimes the government has deployed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) or other security forces to intervene in fighting and protect communities but often they have not, angering communities. [3]

In late 2011, despite being informed of an impending attack, neither the government nor UN peacekeepers halted a massive attack by some 6,000 armed Lou Nuer on Murle areas. The attack, which was preceded by brutal Murle attacks on Lou areas between July and August 2011, resulted in at least 612 Murle killed. [4] Over 270 Bor Dinka and Lou Nuer were killed in revenge attacks by Murle in late December 2011 and early 2012.

An All-Jonglei Peace Conference held in early May 2012 called for perpetrators of violence to be brought to justice. But the government has not investigated the ethnic violence or taken steps to prosecute those responsible for the massive attacks. Rather than ensuring accountability for the crimes in 2012, the government delayed the swearing in of seven members of an investigation committeeto investigate the violence, and failed to provide it with funding so it could function[5] The committee never began its work.

Inter-ethnic conflict has continued between the three groups. Research by UNMISS found that in February 2013 an attack, widely presumed to have been by Murle fighters, on Lou Nuer in Walgak, Akobo West sub-county, killed at least 85 people. [6] This and other Murle attacks have been cited by Lou Nuer fighters as the reason why, between July 4 and 13, 2013, they conducted a large-scale attack on Pibor County, including on a SSDM /A camp. The full extent of the attack is not known but Murle leaders have said that that 328 people from 16 villages were killed by the Lou Nuer. [7]

The government’s most vigorous response to inter-ethnic conflict in Jonglei has been a series of sometimes brutal community disarmament efforts. In March 2012 the SPLA started “Operation Restore Peace” during which soldiers committed serious human rights violations, including beatings, rape and torture in Pibor County. [8]

The SPLA’s abuses generated resentment among Murle, which in turn encouraged support to a Murle rebel leader, David Yau Yau who started his first rebellion against the government in 2010 after he failed to win a parliamentary seat in elections that year.

David Yau Yau’s 2012 Rebellion and South Sudan’s Counterinsurgency

Yau Yau’s first rebellion ended in June 2011 when he agreed to an amnesty offer and the integration of himself and his forces into the SPLA. But in August 2012, Yau Yau defected and again took up arms against the government. Yau Yau’s second rebellion has been far more significant, in terms of the number of fighters he claims to command, the number of clashes, and their impact on the Murle population.

Yau Yau reappeared in Pibor County in August 2012 with a small group of about 50 men. Since then an estimated 4,000-6,000 largely Murle youths, looking for weapons but also revenge against the government for abuses committed during the disarmament, have either joined Yau Yau or have been armed by him. [9] Exactly how many of these fighters are directly under his control remains unclear. South Sudan’s government has said that Yau Yau receives military support from Sudanese sources looking to destabilize South Sudan, widely believed to be true. [10]

On August 21, 2012, when South Sudan’s army was still in the midst of the “Operation Restore Peace,” disarmament campaign, Yau Yau’s forces ambushed SPLA forces, leaving 102 SPLA soldiers dead. Yau Yau’s forces attacked SPLA positions over the following months including in the largely Murle towns of Likuangole, Pibor, Gumuruk and Manyabol causing mass displacement. The SSDM/A issued a statement in early May, 2013, saying they had captured Boma town. [11] The SPLA recaptured the town on May 19, 2013. Not all the fighting has taken place in towns; SPLA have also made offensives into SSDM/A held rural areas.

The fighting displaced tens of thousands of civilians in the latter part of 2012. In August, fighting in Likuangole town forced 10,000 people to flee. [12] Many of the displaced ran to Pibor town, around 30 kilometers away. In September fighting in the town of Gumuruk pushed at least 8,000 residents to Pibor town. [13] In mid-November, fighting in Pibor town displaced 10,000 people from their homes. [14]

Peacemaking efforts are ongoing. The Government of South Sudan has supported Murle leadership and other mediators to persuade Yau Yau to end his insurgency.[15] South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has, as recently as July, said the amnesty offer for Yau Yau initially made on April 24, 2013, is still open. To date, and to the frustration of many Southern Sudanese, Yau Yau has declined the offer.

An Environment Ripe for Abuse

The counterinsurgency in Pibor county has taken place in an environment ripe for abuse. A former rebel army still struggling with restructuring into a national army, the SPLA has also absorbed thousands of armed militias in the past five years whose soldiers also lack training. Illiteracy is high and conditions for soldiers in Pibor county are poor. [16] Deficient command and control is a pervasive problem and abuses by soldiers have been reported across South Sudan. [17]

These factors likely played a role in the number and severity of abuses committed against Murle civilians. The complex history of violence in Jonglei, including inter-ethnic violence, and anti-Murle sentiment may have also contributed to the frequency of SPLA targeting of civilians.

Ethnic tensions between Murle and other ethnic groups were heightened by years of conflict and suspicion fuelled by shifting allegiances at the time of the Sudanese civil war, during which Khartoum supported a Murle militia that fought the SPLA. The emergence of a new apparently Khartoum-supported Murle armed group has angered many. Murle leaders have admitted that large numbers of young Murle men joined or were armed by Yau Yau including from South Sudan’s army, police and wildlife services. This has made SPLA soldiers “paranoid about all Murle.” [18]

Politicians acknowledge that all actors are partly to blame in inter-ethnic fighting in Jonglei State but Human Rights Watch has often heard the Murle being singled out as especially problematic, ungovernable and aggressive by members of other ethnic groups. Politicians have expressed exasperation at large numbers of Murle attacks, Murle refusal to disarm and say child abduction is frequent.

Human Rights Watch has heard from several sources, including senior government officials, on various occasions since 2008, derogatory comments about the Murle as an ethnic group by government officials. UNMISS human rights officers recorded instances of hate speech, including threats of annihilation, made by Lou Nuer fighters about Murle in 2012 and by Nuer diaspora groups.[19] Although incitement to hatred or violence is illegal in South Sudan, overall no action has been taken in response to such speech. The President only very recently called for an end to derogatory and hate speech. [20]

Human Rights Watch was unable to find an ethnic breakdown of South Sudan’s national army in Pibor County but was informed by various sources, including government, SPLA, and UN sources that high numbers of Nuer, including from former Nuer militias, have been stationed there. Two commanders whose forces are alleged to have committed many of the serious abuses that Human Rights Watch documented, Brigadier Peter Ruach and Brigadier James Otong, are both from the Nuer ethnic group. [21] Murle victims of looting or physical or verbal abuse by soldiers often said in interviews with Human Rights Watch that perpetrators were Nuer or Dinka soldiers, recognizable because of traditional facial scarification markings or because they spoke Nuer or Dinka.

It is unsurprising that many in South Sudan’s army are from the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups as these are the largest in South Sudan. But given the many years of ethnic conflict and animosity in Jonglei between the Murle and the ethnic groups of the Dinka Bor and Lou Nuer, greater efforts by the SPLA to ensure the forces stationed in Pibor county were more ethnically neutral may have diminished the likelihood of abuses. Humanitarian aid workers as well as Murle civilians said Gumuruk town was relatively stable in 2013 because the SPLA commander was from the Equatoria region.

In both 2012 and 2013 Murle intellectuals and politicians requested politicians and the SPLA to assign Murle commanders in Pibor, but SPLA has not done so. This could reflect the lack of Murle SPLA commanders of the correct rank. The SPLA did however send a group of four Murle SPLA commanders, including one very senior official, to Pibor to mend frayed relations between the SPLA and civilians between August and November 2012. However according to SPLA members who Human Rights Watch interviewed, the commanders were not part of the chain of command and control of the particular units based there and had only an advisory role. [22] The four Murle commanders were recalled to Juba towards the end of 2012 and a group of Murle commandos—elite forces in the SPLA—were removed from Pibor county in June 2013.

The apparently unlawful killings of up to 27 Murle from the SPLA and the wildlife forces by the SPLA in May, and intimidation of Murle security forces by non-Murle forces, have exacerbated the perception that the army is partisan. [23]

[1] Human Rights Watch, No One to Intervene: Gaps in Civilian Protection in Southern Sudan, June 21, 2009, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2009/06/21/no-one-intervene-0. Despite warnings that an attack was imminent, the government and army in 2009 failed to halt an attack in March by the Lou Nuer on 17 Murle settlements in which 453 men, women and children were killed and 120 women and children abducted. These were revenge murders for previous Murle attacks. After the Lou Nuer attack hundreds of armed Murle conducted counter-attacks on 13 Lou Nuer settlements, burning villages and killing more than 250 people.

[2] Human Rights Watch, No One to Intervene, 2009, p. 7; International Crisis Group, “Jonglei’s Tribal Conflicts: Countering Insecurity in South Sudan,” Africa Report No. 154, December 23, 2009, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/horn-of-africa/sudan/154-jongleis-tribal-conflicts-countering-insecurity-in-south-sudan.aspx; UN Mission in South Sudan “Incidents of Inter-Communal Violence in Jonglei State,” June 2012, http://unmiss.unmissions.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=SGtPtDHFvJ0%3d&tabid=4969&language=en-US, p. 5.

[3] International Crisis Group, “Jonglei’s Tribal Conflicts;” and UN Mission in South Sudan, “Report on the 8 February Attack on Lou Nuer Pastoralists in Akobo West Sub-county Jonglei State” April 5, 2013, http://unmiss.unmissions.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=4BAr3GgtyY4%3D&tabid=5434&language=en-US, p. 12. Lou Nuer pastoralists were under SPLA protection when attacked in February, 2013. See “UNMISS Issues Report on Walgak Human Rights Investigation,” UN Mission in South Sudan press release, April 5, 2013, http://unmiss.unmissions.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=LaGn9z9r_9k%3D&tabid=3465&language=en-US (accessed August 14, 2013).

[4] UN Mission in South Sudan, “Incidents of Inter-Communal Violence in Jonglei State,” p. i. Pibor’s county commissioner at the time, Akot Maze, said around 3,000 people were killed.

[5] Letter from Human Rights Watch to President Salva Kiir, “Violence in Jonglei State,” August 23, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/08/23/south-sudan-end-abuses-disarmament-forces-jonglei.

[6] UN Mission in South Sudan “Report on the 8 February Attack.”

[7] Joshua Kony, Pibor County Commissioner, “Report on Ethnic Conflict 2013,” on file with Human Rights Watch. Also see Andrew Green, “Over 300 killed, thousands uprooted in bout of South Sudan fighting,” Reuters, August 8, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/08/us-southsudan-fighting-idUSBRE9770SV20130808 (accessed August 26, 2013).

[8] Letter from Human Rights Watch to President Salva Kiir. Lou Nuer communities were also disarmed during 2012.

[9] Small Arms Survey Sudan, “David Yau Yau’s Rebellion,” Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA) for Sudan and South Sudan, June 4, 2013, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/south-sudan/armed-groups/southern-dissident-militias/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Yau-Yau.pdf (accessed September 12, 2013).

[10] Human Rights Watch was unable to corroborate this claim but Murle, diplomats, and South Sudanese politicians all believe it to be true. The Small Arms Survey found that weapons and ammunition used by former fighters from Yau Yau’s group were identical to those used by Sudan’s army. Murle interviewed by Human Rights Watch widely reported that they believe Yau Yau is being supported by Khartoum. Small Arms Survey Sudan, “David Yau Yau’s Rebellion,” p. 2.

[11] The SPLA also blamed the attack on Boma on Yau Yau’s forces. However Murle from the area and staff from aid agencies working there believe that at least the first attack on Boma was by Murle rebels led by a chief, Baba Majong. It is unclear to what extent Majong and Yau Yau coordinate. 

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with senior UN humanitarian aid official, Juba, June 23, 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Small Arms Survey Sudan, “David Yau Yau’s Rebellion,” p. 6.

[15] These peacemaking efforts have been controversial however. In one case SPLA allegedly attacked Yau Yau’s position soon after mediators had visited the rebel leader.

[16] Soldiers have deserted their stations in Pibor county. “SPLA soldiers desert positions in Pibor,” Sudan Tribune, May 5, 2013, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article46475 (accessed August 31, 2013).

[17] Human Rights Watch interview with international SPLA expert (name withheld), Juba, July 3, 2013. Human Rights Watch has also reported on SPLA abuses, see Human Rights Watch, “There is No Protection”: Insecurity and Human Rights in Southern Sudan, February 12, 2009, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2009/02/12/there-no-protection-0; and “Southern Sudan: Abuses on both sides in Upper Nile Clashes,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 19, 2011, http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/04/19/southern-sudan-abuses-both-sides-upper-nile-clashes.

[18] Human Rights Watch interview with group of non-Murle parliamentarians from Jonglei (names withheld), Juba, August 29, 2013.

[19] UN Mission in South Sudan, “Incidents of Inter-Communal Violence in Jonglei State,” p. 7; “UN Condemns Hate Speech in South Sudan,” Gurtong, January 20, 2012, http://www.gurtong.net/ECM/Editorial/tabid/124/ctl/ArticleView/mid/519/articleId/6356/UN-Condemns-Hate-Speech-In-South-Sudan.aspx.

[20] On June 28, 2013, the office of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir issued a statement calling on “the communities and leaders at all levels to stop all use of derogatory language and hate speech. That itself would be an important contribution to peace and security in Jonglei state.”

[21] Otong was arrested in August and replaced by a commander from outside of Jonglei.

[22] Human Rights Watch interviews with SPLA officers (names withheld), Juba, July 7, 2013, and July 10, 2013.

[23] Murle have also complained that SPLA have intimidated local Murle security forces. While intimidation by SPLA of police for example is not unusual in South Sudan this has exacerbated tensions further. A confidential UNMISS report on auxiliary police in Gumuruk and Manyabol auxiliary police, April 2013, for example included examples of intimidation of Murle police by the auxiliary police. A victim of looting in Pibor town in May 2013 told Human Rights Watch he had attempted to report the crime to local police who said they could do nothing because they were overpowered by the army presence in the town. Murle civilians from Pibor reported that Murle prison wardens and wildlife rangers fled the town in May because of widespread intimidation by SPLA soldiers.