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(Nairobi) – The United Nations Security Council should react to horrific attacks on civilians in the South Sudan towns of Bor and Bentiu by requesting an urgent UN fact-finding mission. The Security Council should impose sanctions on individuals in both government and opposition forces who are responsible for grave abuses.

The UN Security Council is scheduled to discuss South Sudan on April 23, 2014. It should also increase the ability of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to protect civilians, including expediting the deployment of additional troops it authorized on December 24, 2013.

“The killing of more than 50 people in a UN base in Bor and the gruesome massacres of hundreds of civilians in Bentiu shows that ethnically motivated brutality against civilians is spiraling out of control,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Security Council needs to act decisively to impress on the warring parties targeting civilians in South Sudan that they will pay the price for their crimes.”

On April 17, a large group of unidentified armed people, some in security uniforms and others in civilian clothing, attacked the UN base in Bor, in Jonglei State, where about 5,000 civilians, most of them ethnic Nuer, had sought refuge. The armed group breached the perimeter and began shooting into the base, killing about 50 people and injuring scores of others. Just before the attack, members of the group gathered outside the base and gave UN officials a petition calling for all the Nuer in the camp to leave it within 72 hours. Later in the day, about 300 government soldiers and civilians threatened a UNMISS barge in the port in Bor, shooting in the air and pointing their guns at the barge.

The attack followed months of growing ethnic tensions in Bor, which has changed hands four times since the conflict began in mid-December 2013, but was triggered by an opposition attack on Bentiu, in Unity State, on April 14 and 15, 2014. Opposition fighters targeted and killed hundreds of men, women, and children seeking shelter in a mosque, a hospital, and other locations, based on their ethnicity or nationality, the UN had reported. In the mosque alone, as many as 200 people may have been killed and another 400 injured. Some opposition commanders also used a local radio station to incite killings and rape based on ethnicity.

Opposition forces have conducted gruesome killings of civilians before in the towns of Malakal and Bor. Both sides should enforce respect for the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law that include an absolute prohibition on targeting civilians, Human Rights Watch said. They should prevent further attacks on civilians, including identifying those who are responsible for abuses to date and punishing abusive soldiers.

The government of South Sudan should fully investigate the attack on the UN base in Bor and prosecute those responsible. Failure to do so may be seen to condone ethnic killings of Nuer and attacks on UN bases.

The UN Security Council should ensure an immediate investigation into both attacks. The Security Council should also impose travel bans and asset freezes on anyone credibly identified as responsible for serious violations of human rights or international humanitarianlaw. United States President Barack Obama issued an executive order on April 3 opening the way for targeted sanctions against South Sudanese individuals who have committed human rights abuses. The United States should now also identify and publicly list individuals responsible for these violations, and impose travel bans and other sanctions like asset freezes against them.

The leaders in the region and South Sudan’s donors have focused excessively on the failing peace talks in Addis Ababa, and a much-broken cessation of hostilities agreement, Human Rights Watch said. The result has been too little attention paid to the scale of human rights abuses and accountability for violations in South Sudan.

“The Bor and Bentiu attacks should be a wake-up call and commanders and leaders responsible for abuses on both sides have been let off the hook for too long,” Bekele said. “Unless they are held accountable for their crimes, the ethnic violence will continue to engulf this young country, with UN peacekeepers left to pick up the pieces.”

The attack on the UN camp in Bor highlights an urgent need for increased protection of civilians in and around the bases. In December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a three-month increase of 7,500 troops and police units for UNMISS. Few of these troops have been deployed, however.  The Security Council should urge UN member states to redouble efforts to ensure that adequate levels of well-trained and well-equipped peacekeeping troops are deployed to protect civilians at risk. They should especially focus their efforts in key towns and in and around UN bases where tens of thousands of civilians are still taking refuge and have been repeatedly subjected to targeting by government security forces, Human Rights Watch said.

South Sudan’s conflict began with gun battles in the capital, Juba, between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and the former Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer. Several towns have changed hands multiple times during the conflict. The attacks have been characterized by targeting of civilians based on ethnicity and widespread destruction and looting of civilian and humanitarian property, including food aid and numerous medical facilities.

Nuer opposition forces have also attacked and killed Dinka civilians because of their ethnicity, including in January in Bor and during at least two attacks on Malakal, in Upper Nile State, in February and in March. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, leaders in Machar’s opposition forces have made no efforts to hold abusive soldiers to account.

The Bentiu attacks followed many weeks of abuses by government forces in southern Unity State. In April, Human Rights Watch spoke to dozens of women and men who had fled numerous towns and villages looted and burned by government soldiers and allied forces from Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement in February and March. The forces often returned multiple times in military pickups to villages and swampy areas where people were taking shelter, shooting at or shelling civilians from tanks, raping women, burning homes, and looting goats and other food sources, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Some attacks were on villages and towns where there were no opposition forces, but in other cases opposition forces fleeing or living with civilians drew fire on civilians.

A new UN Security Council resolution should also require UNMISS to provide regular and timely public reporting of human rights violations committed during the course of the conflict, which the mission has not been doing. The African Union’s Commission of Inquiry, which deployed in April to investigate human rights violations, should also urgently investigate the recent attacks in Bentiu and Bor and press both sides to bring those responsible to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

The government has repeatedly promised to investigate serious abuses by government forces. But the government has arrested only a handful of security forces implicated in the Juba killings in December, when Dinka government security forces conducted widespread targeted killings of Nuer men. Most of the 13 men arrested for allegedly killing civilians and looting civilian property during the Juba killings escaped military detention on March 15, during fighting in the barracks where they were being held. The relevant authorities could not provide any details on what has been done to recapture the alleged criminals.

Media reported that the governor of Jonglei State, John Kong Nyuon, has promised investigations into the April 14 attack in Bor and that “measures” will be taken against those responsible. However, government officials have also appeared to justify the attack. The government’s spokesman, Michael Makuei Lueth, said that Nuer taking refuge in the camp provoked the attack by celebrating the opposition’s capture of Bentiu.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which security forces shot and killed Nuer close to a UN base in Juba, in March. In other incidents, also in March, security forces beat, shot at, or arrested or temporarily detained and harassed Nuer outside the base and held them unlawfully. Nuer residents in the camps have also been detained, harassed, and arrested outside the Bor and Bentiu UN bases. The government’s failure to prevent these attacks and make clear that the persecution of Nuer is unacceptable further fuels ethnic killings

“Both the government and the opposition have failed to end abuses and horrific ethnic targeting, leading to spiraling ethnic tensions and more killings,” Bekele said. “UN Security Council members now have a crucial role to play to ensure that this failure has consequences.”

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