On the morning of July 21, three women left a United Nations base on the outskirts of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to buy food for their children. They are among thousands of people taking shelter in U.N. bases because of the country’s on-again, off-again conflict.
Though the government knew what was happening, sexual assaults in Juba continued for at least two weeks. U.N. peacekeepers did not live up to their mandate to protect civilians either. Staff inside the Terrain compound also called the U.N. when under attack, but peacekeepers did not respond. On July 17, soldiers dragged a woman away within the line of sight of U.N. peacekeepers, who did nothing.
When I met Chief of Military Justice Henry Oyay at his office in the Bilpham army headquarters in Juba on July 21, he told me the army had formed a court martial to deal with soldiers who committed crimes during and after the fighting. But when I asked Oyay about rapes by government soldiers around the U.N. camps, he told me: “These are isolated incidents.”
In fact, the incidents were neither isolated nor difficult to find. On August 4, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, announced that the U.N. had documented 217 cases of sexual violence against women and girls in Juba between July 8—when the latest round of fighting broke out —and July 25, long after hostilities officially ceased. Government soldiers carried out most of the rapes and gang rapes, al-Hussein said, and the victims were primarily Nuer—the ethnicity of opposition leader Riek Machar and many of his supporters—though women and girls from other minority tribes were also targeted.
More than 100 of the incidents the U.N. documented took place on a single stretch of Yei Road, which leads to the U.N. base where civilians were taking shelter on the outskirts of Juba. This stretch of road is clearly under military control and within a few minutes’ drive of the army’s central command.
Responding to U.N. reports of rape, military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang asked: “Why are they [the U.N.] not coming forward with the evidence they have collected for us to act? We need this evidence to be given to us that our men in uniform took part in the alleged crimes in order for us to bring charges against them.”
But that self-serving answer cannot satisfy the military’s clear legal obligations to investigate and hold its officers to account for rape, as well as other crimes. So far, the court martial has charged 24 soldiers for looting or indiscriminate shooting. The military, however, has not referred a single soldier to civilian courts for rape.
On August 15, following intense media scrutiny of the Terrain compound attack, President Salva Kiir finally announced that the government had launched an investigation into sexual assault cases. Such an investigation should seek not only to identify attackers, but their commanding officers as well. Commanders who knew, or had reason to know, that their subordinates were committing crimes such as rape and did not take all necessary and reasonable measures in their power to prevent the crimes, or fail to punish those who committed them, are themselves responsible for war crimes.
In addition, South Sudan’s leaders should prove their commitment to justice and accountability by reaching out to the African Union Commission—tasked with setting up a hybrid court to try the most serious crimes—to establish the tribunal without delay. Human Rights Watch research on the justice system in South Sudan underscored serious obstacles to fair, credible cases involving the most serious crimes, including widespread rape. Recent events only emphasize how urgently this court is needed. Mary, Nyabol and thousands of other survivors deserve justice to its fullest degree.
*The real names of the interviewees have not been used to protect their identities.