Civilians gather in front of a sign celebrating the second anniversary of South Sudan's independence as they prepare to flee from renewed attacks in Bentiu, Unity State, on April 20, 2014.

© Reuters 2014

I read my first Human Rights Watch report in 1994 – almost 10 years before I began working here. Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan” described in great detail many human rights violations committed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A): indiscriminate attacks on civilians, abductions, torture, disappearances, summary executions, and forced recruitment of children, among other crimes.

At that time I was working in southern Sudan for UNICEF, trying to stop the SPLM/A factions, who were fighting against the government in Khartoum, from abusing civilians. I used the report’s detailed documentation of terrible abuses to try and convince the rebel commanders and their soldiers that the world was watching and that they would face justice for their crimes.

A displaced child tries to get mud off his hands as displaced women wait for food distribution to start in the IDP camp in the UN base in Bentiu, Unity State, June 19, 2014. Around 39,000 people have found shelter in the UN base in Bentiu. About 1.5 million people have been displaced, including 378,000 who fled to neighboring countries, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

© 2014 Reuters/Andreea Campeanu

More than 20 years later, on the 4th anniversary of its independence from the north, South Sudan is experiencing another conflict. Arguably even more brutal than the 1990s war of independence, this is also characterized by killings of civilians, sexual violence, forced displacement, recruitment of children, and many other crimes.

 
If South Sudan is to celebrate its 5th independence anniversary in better shape than it is today, its people need to see perpetrators of the most serious crimes taken to court for fair, credible trials.

Iain Levine

Deputy Executive Director, Program

Human Rights Watch researchers visiting Unity State found government forces and allied militia had killed dozens of civilians, burned villages, and looted livestock – abuses detailed in a report to be released next week. My colleagues documented brutal violence against women, including gang rapes and public rapes. They heard that some women were so seriously injured by sexual violence that they were not physically able to make the journey from the bush where they had been raped to the safety of the nearest UN camp. These latest crimes have forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes.

Many of those in charge now – notably Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, and Riek Machar, leader of the group fighting against him – held command positions back in the 1990s. I was horribly wrong when I told the commanders they would face justice.

A decades-old culture of impunity has contributed to a cycle of extraordinary violence against civilians in South Sudan. It is clear such violence won’t end unless and until those responsible for the worst abuses are finally held to account.

Given predictions of famine potentially affecting hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese, it’s understandable that the international community is focused on how to prevent these deaths. But it’s also time that the UN, African Union, and other key actors recognize that a lack of accountability lies at the heart of South Sudan’s many problems.

If South Sudan is to celebrate its 5th independence anniversary in better shape than it is today, its people need to see perpetrators of the most serious crimes taken to court for fair, credible trials.