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(Nairobi) – South Sudan’s army has unlawfully killed and committed other serious violations against civilians in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign. The action in Jonglei State has forced thousands of people to flee their homes, making them more vulnerable to attack from rival ethnic groups. South Sudan should hold all abusive soldiers to account and bolster military and civilian justice to curb further violations.

The 45-page report, “‘They are Killing Us’: Abuses Against Civilians in South Sudan’s Pibor County” documents 24 incidents of unlawful killings of almost 100 members of the Murle ethnic group between December 2012 and July 2013, constituting serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Murder and deliberate targeting of civilians during an armed conflict constitute war crimes.

The report also describes how the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers burned and looted homes, physically and verbally abused civilians, and destroyed schools, churches, and the compounds of aid agencies providing life-saving assistance.

“Soldiers should be protecting Murle civilians in Jonglei state from the fighting and the ethnic conflict,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director. “Instead, the army has been killing these vulnerable people and driving terrified men, women, and children into the jaws of danger.”

A series of unlawful killings, including of women, children, and people with mental illnesses have caused widespread terror among the Murle, exacerbating the perception that they are being targeted as an ethnic group. The incidents occurred against a backdrop of a conflict between South Sudan’s army and a Murle rebel group. Soldiers and specially trained “auxiliary” police in Pibor county of Jonglei state unlawfully killed more than 70 Murle civilians and up to 24 ethnic Murle members of the security forces, in serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

South Sudan should hold all abusive soldiers to account and bolster military and civilian justice to curb further violations. The authorities should urgently improve accountability for soldiers’ crimes, investigate the brutal ethnic conflicts in Jonglei, which continued amid the counterinsurgency, and ensure that security forces adequately and impartially protect all ethnic communities from attacks.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) provided safe haven to scores of civilians in its compounds during attacks on civilians by security forces in the towns of Gumuruk and Pibor.

But their lack of intervention during serious abuses over many months has undermined Murle confidence in the UN peacekeepers, Human Rights Watch found.

South Sudan’s army has acknowledged that its soldiers were responsible for human rights abuses in Pibor county and have taken some steps to provide accountability. However, more should be done to end the abuses, provide redress, and ensure that the army protects, rather than harms, the Murle population.

Research by Human Rights Watch in Juba and Jonglei in June and July found that soldiers had repeatedly targeted civilians beginning in December 2012, often apparently as reprisals against Murle civilians presumed to support the rebels. In one incident, on December 4, soldiers executed 13 civilians in the village of Lotho.

On January 27, 2013, soldiers opened fire on civilians and burned homes in the town of Pibor following an altercation between former Murle rebels and soldiers, killing up to seven civilians. On May 26, soldiers attacked civilians in the town of Manyabol and executed 12 men, including three chiefs, causing the entire civilian population of Manyabol to flee.

“We are not the ones going to raid, we are not the ones rebelling against the government, but we are the ones being killed,” one displaced woman told Human Rights Watch. “We feel like they [the government] want to finish the Murle,” a man said.

The conflict between the rebels and the army, and the abuses by soldiers, have caused the entire civilian population to flee from most of the main towns in Pibor county. Murle civilians fearing further abuse by the army have not returned to the towns, except to obtain desperately needed food aid, where they continue to risk attack. Soldiers killed two women collecting food on July 31 in the town of Pibor, and have harassed others. Meanwhile aid agencies have struggled to reach tens of thousands of displaced people in hard-to-reach rural areas. 

Fighting resumed in August 2012 between the army and rebels led by a Murle political aspirant, David Yau Yau, who first began a rebellion in 2010 after failing to win a seat in elections. Murle civilians told Human Rights Watch that an abusive army disarmament of  civilians in 2012 in Pibor county fuelled the rebellion as Murle men, angered by abuses and unwilling to give up their guns, joined Yau Yau.

Yau Yau’s rebellion has further destabilized Jonglei state, where a cycle of ethnic conflict has claimed thousands of lives over the past three years. Yau Yau, widely believed to have received arms from Sudan, has refused a government offer of amnesty.

Yau Yau’s rebels may have also been responsible for serious human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch received reports that they killed at least five civilians near the town of Gumuruk and looted humanitarian aid. Human Rights Watch was unable to confirm allegations that Yau Yau’s forces were also responsible for other serious abuses, including other killings, abduction, and attacks on civilians in heavily populated areas. These allegations are also extremely serious and should be urgently investigated.

The army has acknowledged violations by government soldiers, citing a lack of training and discipline and poor command and control in an army still struggling to restructure and professionalize former guerrilla troops after South Sudan separated from Sudan in 2011. On August 20, 2013, the army announced that it had arrested Brig. Gen. James Otong, the commander who had been stationed in the town of Pibor since April because troops under his command had killed civilians and committed other human rights violations. At least two other soldiers have also been arrested and court martialed for killing civilians.

“These arrests are a start to provide justice for serious abuses,” Bekele said. “South Sudan authorities should follow through by investigating other credible reports of abuse, and by strengthening military and civilian justice in the area.”

The lack of military judge advocates and civilian judicial personnel in Jonglei has long been an obstacle to justice for victims of serious violations. The army should report on its progress in ending violations and improving justice to South Sudan’s Legislative Assembly and the media.

The UN mission, which began patrolling more extensively in August, should increase the frequency and coverage of patrols in the upcoming dry season, and be prepared to use force to protect civilians under imminent threat, including from government soldiers. The mission should have publicly condemned soldiers’ violations much earlier and should urgently increase its human rights monitoring and public reporting to help end the abuses, Human Rights Watch said. 

Officials of the UN mission told Human Rights Watch that peacekeepers lack helicopters and high-quality military equipment to enable them to provide better protection. The UN and countries that contribute troops to the mission should ensure that the mission has sufficient equipment to do its job.

The soldiers’ abuses have taken place in an environment of cyclical violence and lawlessness in Jonglei. Over the past three years ethnic conflict has killed thousands of people from Jonglei’s Dinka Bor, Lou Nuer, and Murle ethnic groups. The government has repeatedly failed to investigate those responsible for the violence or to protect communities adequately from attacks and counter-attacks.

South Sudanese authorities should also investigate the brutal ethnic conflict in Jonglei, which continued amid the counterinsurgency, and ensure that security forces adequately and impartially protect all ethnic communities from attacks.

The counterinsurgency conflict and clear patterns of abuse have made civilians even more vulnerable to the underlying ethnic conflicts. In early 2013 thousands of ethnic Lou Nuer attacked Murle areas. That mass attack followed on the heels of what are believed to have been Murle attacks on Lou Nuer in 2012 and in February 2013, in which at least 85 people were killed. The full impact of the Lou Nuer response is still not known, but local government officials have said over 300 Murle were killed.

In July, while the Lou Nuer attack was still underway, the army spokesman told Human Rights Watch that soldiers would not leave their positions in towns to protect displaced Murle. Security forces also have not protected Lou Nuer communities adequately. However, some government officials actively encouraged young Lou Nuer men to arm themselves, and Human Rights Watch heard credible allegations that the army provided support to the Lou Nuer fighters, including ammunition, in early July. These are very serious allegations and should be investigated.

The government should investigate and prosecute ringleaders responsible for mobilizing the ethnic attacks. Authorities should also arrange for an independent and comprehensive investigation into the ethnic violence. The government agreed in 2012 to arrange for an investigation, but did not follow through. The investigation should look into the allegations of government support for ethnic fighters and should assess the adequacy of efforts to protect communities across Jonglei state, and should be assisted by international experts.

“The government needs to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians across South Sudan,” Bekele said. “It should end abuses by its own forces, improve protection of civilians from violence, and bring justice for deadly ethnic attacks.” 

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