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Women line up for food rations at a distribution site in Bentiu, South Sudan, on December 8, 2018. © 2018 Nyagoah Tut Pur/Human Rights Watch

(New York) – South Sudan’s government should urgently investigate rape and other sexual violence against women and girls traveling in the former Unity state and provide protection and services to survivors. Investigations should focus not only on the individual crimes, but also on whether the crimes were coordinated, and they should lead to arrest and prosecution of those responsible.

On November 30, 2018, the medical agency, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF), announced that its staff in the town of Bentiu, the capital of Northern Liech state, had treated 125 women and girls who were raped, beaten, and robbed over a 10-day period between November 19 and 29 alone. Human Rights Watch researchers visited Bentiu between December 7 and 12 and found evidence of a pattern of attacks on women and girls traveling to and from town for food distributions and other errands.

“Rape has long been condoned, normalized, and used to terrorize women and girls across South Sudan,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, South Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “South Sudan’s government and the United Nations peacekeepers should ensure effective patrols in the known danger spots and help facilitate effective investigations and prosecutions of these crimes.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to UN and humanitarian agencies staff, community leaders, doctors, local authorities, and survivors. Women said they had been attacked by armed young men wearing mixed military and civilian clothing, in many cases with their faces covered to hide their identities. The men raped, or gang raped them, and robbed them at gunpoint of all their belongings, including shoes, money, and even the clothes they wore.

MSF said that survivors included girls under 10 years old, women over 65, and even pregnant women. All the alleged crimes were reported to have occurred within 15 to 20 kilometers from Bentiu, primarily on the Nhialdiu and Guit roads. UN agencies reported higher numbers in subsequent statements to the media.

The MSF report provoked strong condemnations of the sexual violence from the UN, African Union (AU), and other bodies. Local authorities told Human Rights Watch that they were aware of sexual violence, but doubted the scale reported by MSF. The government formed a national commission of inquiry on December 7, led by Minister for Gender Awut Deng. The commission, which has promised to share its findings with the UN’s commission on human rights in South Sudan, announced on December 17 that the investigation was already closed and that findings would be made public.

Any investigation into these alleged rapes should be fair, impartial, and in accordance with international standards, ensuring the rights, dignity, and security of survivors and that there are no reprisals toward them or health care providers and other humanitarian agencies, Human Rights Watch said. The investigation should not focus on verifying the reported numbers but on the identity of the attackers and whether the attacks were directed by or undertaken with the knowledge of senior members of any party to the conflict. Authorities should also assess survivors’ needs for medical and psychological care, livelihood support, and reparations.

Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were attacked while walking along bush and forested paths along Bentiu-Nhialdiu road.

A 40-year-old woman from Kur Nhialdiu village said that in late November, six armed men abducted her, five other women, and two teenage girls. The attackers took them into the forest and gang raped and robbed them. The men released the six women but not the two girls, who to the women’s knowledge are still missing.

A 31-year-old woman described a December 7 attack at gunpoint as she and two other women travelled from Nhialdiu to Bentiu to buy food and do errands:

We encountered 6 young men. They took us deep into the forest. They took all our clothes and food. They had guns and wore khaki and raped me at gunpoint. The rapes happened to each of us. There were two men for each of us. It was painful. They beat us and pushed us on the ground.

Another woman in her 40s who made the trip from Nhialdiu twice in late November and early December said that on December 9, a group of armed men attacked her group of approximately 20 women in Dhor Nyadol Geah as they travelled to Bentiu and took the younger ones aside to rape them: “The men were many, they had guns. They had blankets covering their heads and shoulders leaving only eyes. They separated us, they took the young girls and young women into the bushes.... They said: ‘You old women, go!’”

As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, no one has been arrested or prosecuted for these attacks. Commuity leaders said they had been aware of ongoing sexual violence in areas within and outside Bentiu, even before the MSF report, and told the authorities, but that they had taken no action to prevent or investigate the attacks. “We have reported cases of rapes over and over to authorities,” a Bentiu community leader said. “We don’t know whether it is lack of capacity or that they don’t want to do anything to stop this.”

The identities of the attackers and their motives are unclear. While the extent to which the wave of rapes is a direct part of the ongoing conflict in parts of former Unity state is not known, the prevalence of armed youth is a direct result of the legacy of conflict in the region. A staff member of an international organization told Human Rights Watch:

These are most likely young men who were once mobilized and now have nothing to do. What we are witnessing now is the remnants of a culture of incentivized violence. This is what they know. What they have always done without consequence.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented widespread sexual violence during government-led offensives in central and southern Unity state, as well as forced recruitment of children. Attackers, including youth forcibly recruited by all parties to the conflict, were told by senior officers to loot and rape in lieu of wages during offensives in 2015 and 2016 in central and southern Unity state. UN human rights staff documented more than 120 rapes and other sexual violence during large-scale attacks on civilians in Leer and Mayendit Counties in mid-2018, calling the crimes a “weapon of war.”

The former Unity state, home to much of South Sudan’s oil production, has been the site of major atrocities since early 2014. Bentiu has changed hands multiple times between government and armed opposition, and more than 110,000 civilians are sheltering in a UN site for protection. Although South Sudan’s leaders signed a “revitalized” peace deal on September 12, fighting has continued between government and rebel forces in Guit and Koch counties, east of Bentiu. There has been no progress in establishing the hybrid South Sudanese-AU court envisioned in the deal, and impunity continues to fuel conflict.

South Sudan has yet to sign a memorandum of understanding on the court or pass domestic legislation needed to establish it. The UN secretary-general and Security Council have in response to the reports of rapes in Bentiu called on the government to establish the hybrid court. Given these long delays and little indication the government will act on its own, the AU should proceed unilaterally to establish the court, Human Rights Watch said.

“Authorities at both the national and the state level should show that they are serious about addressing impunity for all crimes,” Pur said. “They should publicly commit to ensuring justice not only for the recent rapes in Bentiu, but also for all sexual violence and other crimes, and this requires setting up the court and putting it into operation right away.”

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