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Letter to the Presidency of the Sudanese Government of National Unity Concerning the Situation in Malakal

His Excellency Lt. General Omar Hassan al-Bashir
President of Sudan
Office of the President
People's Palace

His Excellency Lt. General Salva Kiir Mayardit
First Vice President of Sudan, President of the Government of Southern Sudan
Office of the Vice President
People's Palace

Excellencies Bashir and Kiir,

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, an independent organization dedicated to promoting and defending human rights worldwide, I write to urge you to take immediate action to prevent a recurrence of clashes in Malakal and ensure accountability for human rights violations that occurred there in February 2009. Our concerns are based on our recent research in Malakal and our monitoring of the situation there.

The February clash between soldiers of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which together comprise Joint Integrated Units (JIUs), represents the third major breach of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement's ceasefire provisions. The previous major breaches occurred in Abyei in May 2008 and Malakal in November 2006. The clash underscores abiding concerns about the ability of the JIUs to remain integrated and exercise command and control, particularly over its members who are former militia.

The clash and subsequent violence resulted in more than 30 civilian deaths, as many military deaths, and widespread looting of civilian and government property by soldiers in the SAF JIU who are former militia members. The violence effectively polarized Malakal town into SAF-controlled northern and SPLA-controlled southern sectors, and the continued presence of soldiers who engaged in the conflict in Malakal has contributed to civilian fears of renewed violence at any time.

The Government of National Unity, which through the Joint Defense Board bears ultimate responsibility for the JIU forces that were created under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), has failed to implement agreed-upon recommendations to move JIU soldiers outside of town and to remove abusive former militia members from the SAF contingent of the JIU. Both measures could serve to reduce tensions that could lead to renewed clashes and human rights violations. 

Human Rights Watch urges the GNU Presidency to ensure that the Joint Defense Board at its upcoming meeting in May implements these measures promptly. Further, Human Rights Watch urges the Presidency to ensure the appropriate military and civilian authorities carry out a prompt and thorough investigation of human rights violations that occurred in Malakal and ensure accountability for crimes committed.


As you know, the SAF contingent of the JIU in Malakal comprises former militia from several groups led by former militia leaders. Tensions surfaced on February 23, 2009, with the arrival of SAF Maj. Gen. Gabriel Getwech Chan, known as Gabriel Tanginya ("Tang"), a notorious former militia leader whose followers include thousands of soldiers currently serving in the SAF unit of the Malakal JIU. 

Tang's arrival inspired particular panic because of his role provoking previous clashes. In November 2006, his presence in Malakal contributed to clashes between the same JIU contingents that resulted in some 150 deaths, and Tang is wanted by the Government of Southern Sudan in connection with those clashes. According to SAF authorities interviewed by Human Rights Watch, only SAF who are former militia members loyal to Tang participated in the February clash.

Fighting erupted the morning of February 24, 2009, when SPLA soldiers surrounded the SAF barracks on the north side of town seeking to arrest Tang. An initial exchange of fire escalated into fighting that lasted more than six hours and resulted in significant loss of life, injury, and destruction of property. 

High-level officials from the Government of National Unity and Ceasefire Joint Military Committee (CJMC) authorities intervened that evening to separate the forces and ensure Tang's departure from Malakal. The United Nations forces subsequently established a buffer zone to separate the northern and southern zones. CJMC resolutions also included disarmament of the soldiers, formation of a state-level committee to investigate loss of life and damage to property, and relocation of the JIU forces.

Evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law

Human Rights Watch research in Malakal revealed that during the clash and in the days following, soldiers on both sides killed scores of civilians with small arms and artillery, both in the crossfire and in targeted shootings.

According to official estimates, at least 33 civilians died and more than 60 seriously injured. An estimated 3,500 people fled to neighboring villages and other locations and many of the town's traders who originate from Northern Sudan fled to Khartoum and other locations. Soldiers in both SAF and SPLA engaged in widespread looting and destruction of civilian property. Some witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed also reported that armed civilians who were not formally aligned to either side engaged in the fighting.

Research by Human Rights Watch suggests SAF soldiers fired either deliberately or indiscriminately at civilians in violation of the laws of war. In one example, an SAF tank in the north side of town fired southward into residential areas. One of the rounds hit a small shop in Hai Assosa where civilians had gathered to drink tea, killing at least eight people. In another example, a round fired from a SAF tank killed at least one civilian in Hai Bam, destroying one house and causing serious damage to another. In both cases, Human Rights Watch found that the rounds hit locations more than a kilometer away from a military target. 

Research also suggests that SPLA soldiers committed human rights violations against civilians who appeared to be northerners. In one incident on February 24, witnesses including United Nations staff saw two SPLA soldiers shoot an unarmed man wearing civilian clothes. In another incident on February 25, SPLA soldiers entered a residential compound and shot and killed at least six northern civilians who were not armed.

Human Rights Watch also documented cases of SPLA soldiers abusing the rights of southerners. On the evening of February 24, two SPLA soldiers who appeared to be drunk shot and killed an unarmed civilian. In another incident on February 27, soldiers arbitrarily arrested, detained, beat and threatened to kill a schoolteacher from the Nuer ethnicity, accusing him of siding with SAF.

Following the clash, soldiers from both SAF and SPLA engaged in looting of shops and residences throughout Malakal. SAF soldiers who are former militia members stationed on the northern side of town looted the warehouses of humanitarian organizations, including UNHCR, and the Upper Nile University. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch they saw the soldiers carry away furniture, computers, and other valuables from the University on the night of February 26.

Current situation

As of May 2009, Malakal remains tense and divided between northern and southern sectors, with SAF and SPLA forces physically separated from each other. The situation appears volatile. A miscommunication about troop movements in early May fuelled fears of further hostilities, leading to the temporary shutdown of the market on May 4.

Meanwhile, the government has yet to investigate thoroughly or provide accountability for crimes committed. The state committee to investigate loss of life and property has not resulted in restitution to victims of violent crimes and looting. The JIU authorities and the state-level police and judicial authorities have yet to bring those responsible for the most serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law to justice.

Human Rights Watch respectfully proposes the following:

  • The Presidency should press the Joint Defense Board to urgently implement the recommendations pertaining to rotation of troops and relocation of the Joint Integrated Units, and ensure that the Sudanese Armed Forces replace abusive former militia members of the JIU with SAF soldiers who do not have a record of abuse.
  • Appropriate authorities from the Southern Sudan Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development and the Judiciary of Southern Sudan should promptly investigate and prosecute as appropriate alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by soldiers and armed civilians.
  • The Joint Defense Board should instruct the JIU commanders to fully cooperate with the authorities in the Ministry of Legal Affairs and Constitutional Development and the Judiciary of Southern Sudan to ensure accountability for all crimes committed.
  • The Government of National Unity, donor governments and the United Nations Mission in Sudan should urgently support the Joint Integrated Units in Malakal to implement the recommendations pertaining to rotation and relocation of the troops with both material and technical assistance.

We would appreciate learning about what steps you have taken to implement these recommendations. 

Thank you,

Georgette Gagnon
Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch

Chairperson, Joint Defense Board of the Joint Integrated Units
Ministry of Legal and Constitutional Development, Southern Sudan
Judiciary of Southern Sudan
Special Representative of the Secretary-General, United Nations Mission in Sudan
Chairperson, Assessment and Evaluation Commission

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