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Dispatches: South Sudan Should Investigate Bor Attack

US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Juba today. One message he should have carried in private if not publicly is for the government to follow through on its promise for a proper investigation into the attack on the UN base in Bor.

Two weeks ago, a large group of armed young men assaulted the compound that shelters around 5,000 people, mostly from the Nuer ethnic group. Around 50 people were killed according to the UN, dozens more injured. The government condemned the attack and promised investigations, but so far nothing has happened.

The assault was another of many potential war crimes, one in a devastating cycle of ethnically motivated reprisal attacks during a conflict that began in December between government forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and mostly Nuer opposition fighters loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar.

Both Dinka and Nuer civilians have time and time again been targeted and killed for their ethnicity. In Bor itself I was shown dozens of bodies and many more places where Dinka, according to neighbors and eyewitnesses, were shot dead by Nuer gunmen in opposition forces in early January.

A government investigation in Bor matters. Prosecuting those responsible would send a strong message that ethnically motivated reprisal attacks will not be tolerated, and specifically that persecution of Nuer in government controlled areas is unacceptable. Failing to do so sends the message that attacks on Nuer and on UN bases is condoned by the government, a recipe for further ethnically motivated killings.

Tens of thousands of Nuer live in UN camps, too afraid of being targeted to go to their homes. During periods of relative stability in the towns of Bor, Bentiu, and Juba, Nuer displaced to the UN camps have been targeted by government security forces while moving just outside UN bases. For months, they have been harassed, shot at, arrested, and detained. Ahead of the April attack on the Bor UN camp, tensions between the mostly Dinka and Nuer in the IDP camp were growing, with security forces harassing and arresting Nuer trying to leave the camp and preventing Nuer patients from leaving on medical evacuation flights.

A failure by the government to provide accountability for the Bor UN attack would follow a failure to provide accountability for widespread killings of Nuer men in December by Dinka government security forces during and after fighting there.

Both sides have committed terrible violations as ethnically motivated killings continue to spiral. But the government should not miss this opportunity to clearly state that such attacks are unacceptable, and back this up with deeds, not just words.

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