On August 8, 2022, videos and photographs circulated on social media that appeared to show South Sudan government forces executing captured fighters from an armed opposition group in Mayom county. Despite public outrage over the reported killings, no one has been held to account one year later.
One video shows uniformed South Sudanese soldiers and a National Security officer handcuffing a man in a thatched hut and discussing burning it. Subsequent photographs show a hut on fire, with local reports saying the man was burned alive inside. In another video, government forces shoot three unarmed men execution-style.
The killings took place during counterinsurgency operations launched by the governor of Unity state following apparent attacks by the South Sudan Patriotic Movement (SSPM) in which 12 people were killed, including the county commissioner of Mayom.
Both the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan and the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan have indicated that high-ranking commanders and civilian leaders were involved. Under the laws of war, captured combatants must be treated humanely, and “murder of all kinds” is prohibited.
South Sudan’s military established an investigation committee and submitted its report to President Salva Kiir in mid-August 2022. The president then formed his own investigation committee, but the findings have never been made public.
Previous committees have operated in secret, their reports rarely made public and often seemingly designed to supplant ordinary investigative and judicial processes. Governments are obligated under international law to appropriately prosecute apparent war crimes. Victims and their families have a right to a remedy.
Impunity for serious crimes, including by government and rebel forces across South Sudan during the conflict and after the signing of the 2018 peace deal, has become the norm. The authorities have prosecuted a handful of security force members for crimes against civilians, but none have included senior military or civilian leaders. Little is known of rebel groups holding their fighters to account for serious abuses.
This and other cases underscore the need for South Sudan’s government and the African Union Commission to move ahead with the creation of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, proposed in the peace deal to prosecute the most serious violations. A clear timeline for the court's establishment should be promptly set.
Until then, South Sudan remains a country where the powerful can be responsible for egregious offenses and expect no consequence.