Human Rights Watch researchers visited Juba between July 14 and 27 and interviewed more than 85 victims and witnesses of the recent violence, as well as aid and government officials. Researchers met with the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, the president’s spokesperson, and SPLA officials. Because of ongoing insecurity, researchers were unable to reach some of the neighborhoods most affected by the fighting but were able to interview residents who had fled the areas.
Tenuous Peace and Failed Security Arrangements
South Sudan’s current civil war began in December 2013 amid rumors that Vice President Machar was attempting a coup. Fighting and abuses quickly spread along ethnic lines.
Despite the August 2015 peace deal, fighting and abuses continued, including in previously peaceful parts of the country. The parties disagreed over a number of key issues, such as Kiir’s unilateral creation, in December 2015, of 28 new states and the government’s refusal to allocate cantonment sites for opposition fighters in parts of the country outside the greater Upper Nile region. The government submitted a number of reservations on several points of the agreement.
However, diplomats and the UN supported the deal. Machar returned to Juba on April 26, welcomed by hundreds of SPLA-in-Opposition (IO) fighters who had been ferried there on UN planes and by the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC), the international body in charge of monitoring the peace deal.
Both sides flouted the agreement from the start. Under the transitional security arrangements, the IO and government would respectively be allowed 1,470 and 3,420 soldiers in Juba, and would have to move all other forces 25 kilometers out of Juba. Yet as of early July, about 10,000 to 12,000 SPLA soldiers were estimated to be in Juba, many hiding in residential areas dressed as civilians, credible sources told Human Rights Watch. The opposition may also have received reinforcements from various sympathizers and fighters in and around Juba.
In addition, the parties agreed to position the IO bases close to civilian areas, including UNMISS headquarters and its protection of civilians (POC) sites. Locating a military base there clearly put the civilians at risk.
On July 2, government forces killed a senior opposition military intelligence officer, and on July 7, five SPLA soldiers were killed in a skirmish at a checkpoint. On the afternoon of July 8, a large-scale firefight between Kiir and Machar’s bodyguards in the presidential complex J-1 led to further clashes near the IO bases and the airport, which continued despite a lull on July 9, until a ceasefire on the evening of July 11.
On July 23, Kiir dismissed Machar and replaced him with another Nuer politician, Taban Deng Gai, despite objections from Machar and his allies. Fighting has continued in areas outside Juba and the fate of the peace deal is unclear.
Abuses against Civilians by Government Forces
Targeting of Non-Dinka
Many of the people Human Rights Watch interviewed said that government soldiers in various neighborhoods of Juba arbitrarily arrested, beat, and killed civilians and destroyed and looted property. Some civilian Nuer men said that uniformed Dinka security forces from either the army, police, or national security stopped them as they fled areas surrounding the presidential compound after the gun battle the evening of July 8, and demanded their identification cards, or spoke to them in Dinka to determine if they understood the language. Then the men tried to steal the Nuer men’s money and phones, sometimes attempting to kill them.
“When the incident happened at J-1, I was near Juba University with colleagues of mine,” said a man in his 30s. “I tried to run, but soldiers stopped me on the street and asked something in Dinka language. I was unable to answer. They said ‘Are you Nuer?’ in Arabic. I said yes and then they started to shoot me, I had seven bullets in my body. The soldiers left me for dead but I survived.”
Others were luckier. A journalist said: “When we heard the gunshots on July 8, I was at my office near the national security headquarters. As I tried to flee with colleagues, I was stopped by national security officers who asked me for my ID. I think they knew I was a Nuer. I was arguing with them when the car of a general pulled over and told them to leave me alone.”
On July 10, tanks and a large group of soldiers attacked and shelled the undefended house of the Shilluk king – a traditional leader who is not officially affiliated with either side – in the Munuki neighborhood.
“The tank shot three times towards our house, where we hosted about 100 Shilluk civilians, but missed,” a relative of the king said. “Then they used their heavy machine guns and started to spray bullets on the house. One of the rooms caught on fire. From inside the compound, I could hear them shout: ‘We need to destroy this house!’”
SPLA soldiers also targeted the house of Joseph Monytuel, the Bul Nuer governor of Bentiu – another non-Dinka government ally living in Munuki – where hundreds of Nuer civilians from the area had sought refuge. The governor’s bodyguards fended off the attackers a relative who fled to a UN base said.
In other areas known to be populated by non-Dinka such as Thongpiny and Mangaten, government forces on foot and in vehicles also attacked civilians, arrested men, and looted homes. Fighting and fear of abuses led at least 2,500 civilians to flee into a nearby UN base between July 8 and 12.
On the morning of July 10, in Thongpiny, soldiers killed a policeman and rounded up other men who looked or spoke Nuer. A 25-year-old Nuer woman who witnessed the events said: “They were deployed throughout my street. Some wore SPLA uniforms; others wore the fatigues of the Wildlife Guards. They killed a policeman in front of my eyes and I saw them arresting people who looked Nuer. They were putting them in the back of their pick-ups. When we saw this, we decided to flee.”
Another young displaced Nuer woman said that four Dinka soldiers forced their way into her family house in Thongpiny on July 10 and looted their belongings: “They put a gun to my head and asked: ‘Is your husband home?’ My husband was hiding under the bed but I said no. They said, ‘Whatever you have you give us, or we will kill you.’”
Some members of the security forces helped rescue civilians endangered by government troops. Witnesses, including staff at a nongovernmental group’s compound that was attacked, said national security officers rescued them from areas deemed unsafe, or from direct SPLA aggression. In one instance, national security officers hid about 40 Nuer in the office of Thomas Duoth, a senior Nuer officer commanding the NSS’ external security bureau.
Government forces also restricted the movement of non-Dinka men. As nongovernmental organizations and expatriates evacuated Juba following the ceasefire, authorities stopped non-Dinka men from leaving the country. On July 13, a Nuer worker for an organization had to pay a US$100 bribe to a security official to be allowed to enter the airport and was then refused permission to board the evacuation plane his organization had chartered.
“As I stood in the line for the customs, a national security officer pulled me aside and took my passport away,” he said. “He led me to the NSS’ airport office and there they took my name off the plane’s manifest. They would not explain why.”
Sexual Violence and Rape
Human Rights Watch found a clear pattern of rape against civilian women and girls by government soldiers during and after the fighting. Some government soldiers repeatedly gang raped or raped women and girls in areas surrounding the main UN base at Jebel, where the victims had taken shelter, during and after the fighting. In many of the cases, victims told Human Rights Watch that their attackers made statements suggested they were targeting the women for rape because of their ethnicity or presumed allegiance to Machar.
On August 4, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that UNMISS had received reports of “widespread sexual violence, including rape and gang rape by soldiers in uniform and men in plain clothes,” and noted more than 200 alleged cases since July 8 at various locations in Juba, including near the UN House. The Office of the High Commissioner noted that both SLPA and IO soldiers raped women and girls.
Human Rights Watch also found evidence that government soldiers stationed in an area known as “Checkpoint” along the road to Yei raped dozens of women sheltering at a protection of civilians camp at the UN base at Jebel who ventured out of the camp in search of food – in some cases raping them just a few hundred meters away from the UN peacekeepers’ base.
“I was walking with a group of 10 women when soldiers in green uniforms and red berets stopped us,” a 20-year-old woman said. “They took phones and money from some, and then took four women away to a store and raped them.”
In other cases, soldiers transported women to compounds they occupied and raped them there. Two survivors in their twenties said that a group of several dozen soldiers stopped them in the checkpoint area on July 21, and beat, abducted, and raped them, along with a third woman. One said:
“They cut our clothes with knives. They beat us using rifle butts. They were talking about Riek Machar, they said things in Dinka language. Then they took us by car to another compound. They raped us there, in front of everybody. I’m sorry to say this, but this is what happened. They even raped her [the other survivor], who is pregnant,”
One 24-year-old woman said that government soldiers raped her on July 18 when she left the camp for town to look for food: “When I reached Checkpoint on my way back, there was a large group of soldiers who stopped me. Half of them wanted to rape me, the others wanted to kill me. Four of them raped me. Then they took my things and told me to go.”
Health authorities and aid groups should ensure that post-rape care for victims meets at least minimum standards, including post-exposure prophylactics to help prevent HIV infection, emergency contraception, and access to psychosocial services or other mental health care services.
Gang rapes in the Yei Road Compound
On July 11, fighting moved toward Jebel, where SPLA soldiers fought to capture the IO base near UN House. That afternoon, a large number of government forces attacked the Yei Road compound, which housed about 50 employees of several international organizations.
Witnesses said the soldiers arrived around 3 p.m., divided into groups, and immediately began breaking into structures, looting supplies, and entering residential areas and an apartment building, where they killed a prominent journalist, raped or gang raped several international and national staff of organizations, and destroyed, and extensively looted property.
They killed the journalist, 32-year-old John Gatluak, in front of the apartments, presumably because of his Nuer ethnicity, visible from his scarification. Witnesses said that the soldiers shot him in front of his colleagues, at close range. His body was seen lying face up, hands above his head, as if in surrender.
The soldiers also raped or gang raped several foreign women. “He told me I had to have sex with him or else I would have to have sex with all the other soldiers – so I didn’t have a choice,” said one survivor of multiple rapes. Another woman said: “He beat me and ordered me to take off my pants,” then raped her in front of other people.
Some witnesses said soldiers cheered as they took turns raping a woman or two women in a room. Soldiers often threatened the women with death if they did not comply. In one case of attempted rape, a soldier beat the woman with the butt of his gun, then another shot a bullet next to her head.
During the first day of the attack, which lasted until about 7 p.m., soldiers also beat many of the compound residents, sometimes demanding to know their nationalities or affiliations, broke into apartments, destroyed property and looted goods including satellite dishes, televisions, money, clothes, food, computers, and alcohol.
Many residents were not rescued for several hours, despite repeated calls to various organizations and security forces. During and after the rescues, the soldiers continued to ransack and loot the compound leaving nothing intact. Gatluak’s body was not retrieved for several days.
Starting after the ceasefire, large groups of government soldiers stationed near UN House, later joined by Dinka civilians looted the entire contents of the World Food Program (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warehouses located in the vicinity, witnesses said. At the WFP warehouse alone, they stole 4,500 metric tons of food – enough to feed 220,000 people – as well as generators, air-conditioning, and other equipment.
Soldiers also looted the markets at Jebel and “Checkpoint” in the hours following the ceasefire.
Indiscriminate Attacks in Densely Populated Areas
During the four-day fight, both forces used a variety of weapons, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and, in the case of government troops, helicopter gunships acquired from Ukraine equipped with unguided rockets, and battle tanks. Ukrainian contractors also maintain the helicopters in Juba. Both forces used artillery in densely populated areas and in close proximity to poorly fortified UN bases and civilian protection sites.
International humanitarian law prohibits the use of indiscriminate force in densely populated civilian areas as the risk of harm to civilians outweighs any anticipated military advantage gained from the attack.
Human Rights Watch researchers found evidence that fighters fired mortars and artillery at or over POC sites. The use of these weapons in such circumstances is at least reckless and probably indiscriminate. Witnesses and humanitarian sources told Human Rights Watch that at least five shells hit the POC site 1 at the main UN base in Jebel on July 11.
One shell hit and damaged a medical clinic run by the international non-governmental medical organization International Medical Corps (IMC) at the site. Another killed two Chinese peacekeepers and prompted the retreat of all UN police and soldiers from the outer fences of the site, causing residents to panic and flee. Shells also fell into the adjacent and larger POC site 3, where about 30,000 mostly Nuer displaced civilians were taking shelter.
At least a dozen civilians who had sought safety in the protection of civilians sites at the main UN base in Jebel died from the injuries caused by shooting at and shelling inside the camps. Many dozens more were wounded.
On July 10, a stray bullet killed a 10-year-old boy in site 3. “He was hiding inside the ditch with other people, and the bullet came,” his aunt said. “He was shot inside the camp, “A 3-year-old boy was also hit by a stray bullet well inside the site. “He was hiding under the bed when the bullet hit him,” his mother said. “He’s now in the hospital.”
Soldiers also fought around another UN base at Thongpiny, near Juba international airport. At least one shell also hit an impromptu POC site inside the UN base at Thongpiny on July 11. Although the UN had closed the site in December 2014, people started seeking refuge from the fighting there on July 8 and by July 11 about 2,500 were inside the base, mostly displaced Nuer and Shilluk.”
A 22-year-old displaced woman said she witnessed a shell explode in the Thongpiny UN base: “I saw so many people wounded, bleeding, they were taken to the hospital. I saw one woman injured in the back. Another person was hit on the head, one on the leg.”
Ten civilians, including six children, were also wounded well inside the displaced persons’ site at the UN base at Thongpiny by bullets shot on the morning of July 11 from a nearby building, under construction, that had been occupied by soldiers and changed hands over the course of the fighting. Human Rights Watch received reports that the building was under control of government forces at the time of the shootings.
While Human Rights Watch was unable to establish with certainty whether the soldiers shot at civilians intentionally, some civilians said government forces aimed at them, with no clear military target nearby. A 28-year-old woman who witnessed the incidents said the shooters could see them: “The soldiers were on the roof of the building 300 meters away and they could see us. They were shooting at us. There were no other soldiers for them to shoot at, just us.”
Government forces also used helicopter gunships armed with unguided rockets against opposition positions, and tanks in some densely populated neighborhoods such as Gudele and Jebel, near the IO bases, and in Thongpiny, Munuki, and Mangaten near the airport and known to host sizable Nuer and Shilluk populations. The use of tanks by government forces in densely populated civilian areas significantly endangered civilian lives and structures.
Although it’s not the only factor, the ability to purchase arms and ammunition as well as the maintenance of military equipment by other countries since the conflict began are enabling both sides to continue to commit abuses in South Sudan, Human Rights Watch said. An arms embargo should help reduce these ongoing and unlawful attacks on civilians.
At the onset of the fighting, the army ordered UNMISS staff and peacekeepers to stay inside their bases. The mission stated that its peacekeepers were seriously hampered in protecting civilians inside and outside its bases as a result. Nevertheless, UNMISS responses to the fighting were often inadequate or delayed.
At the Thongpiny base, UNMISS peacekeepers took more than six hours to open their doors to civilians who had fled the violence on July 10. “We were many people hiding in the sewage canals outside to the base because they would not open the doors,” said a 25-year-old woman resident of Thongpiny. “I was dirty but I was so afraid of the sound of the guns.”
The peacekeepers did not venture out of the bases to protect civilians under imminent threat even after the ceasefire. On July 17 peacekeepers guarding a POC site did not intervene when SPLA soldiers meters away abducted a woman. Although rapes took place in their line of sight, they did not increase patrols for several days.
On July 11, UNMISS did not respond to direct calls for protection by aid workers at the Yei Road compound, a kilometer from their base, where Gatluak was killed and several women were raped or gang raped. Witnesses said the UN’s rapid response team abandoned their rescue mission after learning NSS would rescue the residents.
While the South Sudanese government has accepted the idea of a Regional Protection Force, as outlined in an August 5 communiqué of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development group working on South Sudan, known as IGAD Plus, it is imperative for the mission to address existing concerns regarding the efficiency of its current troops. The UN Security Council authorized a Regional Protection Force on August 12, but increased numbers are unlikely to make the mission more effective on its own, without improvements in other areas.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement between UNMISS and the government, peacekeeping forces have a right to patrol and move throughout the country, as well as to use lethal force to protect civilians, regardless of whether they have prior SPLA or government approval. UNMISS has promised to investigate its response to sexual and gender-based violence during the recent crisis, but the UN needs to investigate and effectively identify the factors that are incapacitating their response to threats against civilians, limiting their operational effectiveness, and causing a crisis of faith in the mission.
The UN mission should also increase its public reporting of abuses including attacks on the UN and international agencies. The lack of public reporting on attacks against UNMISS bases and personnel may have contributed to more violations of the status of forces agreement and decreased the mission’s capacity to act on its mandate.
Hold Abusers Accountable
Those responsible for the abuses documented, including commanders, should be held to account, either through hybrid, international, or national prosecutions. More immediately, and with the objective of compelling leaders to bring abuses to an end, individual UN sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes should be imposed on top civilian and military leaders.
The SPLA’s chain of command appears to be heavily divided along ethnic lines, with ethnic Dinka commanders in charge of most decisions. Nonetheless, the coordinated manner in which the SPLA was able to deploy helicopters and tanks indicates an efficient command structure, and the success of the ceasefire declared by chief of staff Paul Malong on July 11 also indicates that he is substantially in control and command of the numerous troops active on the ground.
Malong, as well as Kiir and Machar, who formally are the commanders-in-chief of their respective forces, should be among those investigated for their role in these abuses. Military and civilian leaders both bear responsibility to ensure that operations are conducted in a manner that limits risks to civilians. When military and civilian leaders decide to use poorly trained and undisciplined troops with a poor human rights record, they may bear a responsibility for abuses.
Government commanders may be responsible for knowingly deploying abusive soldiers. Human Rights Watch researchers found that some of the government soldiers deployed at “Checkpoint” and involved in rapes were from SPLA Division 4, which has been singled out by Human Rights Watch and UN reports for committing grave human rights abuses, including rapes, during a 2015 offensive in Unity state.
South Sudan’s government has publicly announced that it would investigate the recent events and, on July 29, the council of ministers announced a court martial to try suspected offenders. But the government has a dismal track record for ensuring justice for human rights abuses or fair, public processes, or effective mechanisms for civilians to file complaints. Researchers were told that commanders would be expected to report soldiers who had committed crimes. Twenty-four soldiers have been charged with random shooting and looting, a UN source reported. None were accused of rape or killing.
South Sudanese authorities should also cooperate with the African Union to create the hybrid court envisioned in the 2015 peace agreement, to investigate and try the most serious crimes since the start of the conflict.
Finally, the UN should impose more targeted sanctions on individuals. Members of the UN Security Council have in the past been urged to sanction Malong, Kiir, and Machar. The two top leaders have yet to be added to the list of those proposed for sanctioning. Malong and Johnson Olony – an IO commander – were proposed by the United States in September 2015 but Russia, Angola and China objected.