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US-Backed South Sudan Forces Accused of Horrific War Crimes

SPLA troops (Photo: Stein Ove Korneliussen/Flickr Creative Commons)

SPLA troops (Photo: Stein Ove Korneliussen/Flickr Creative Commons)

A new United Nations report accuses US-backed South Sudanese forces of committing widespread and horrific war crimes against innocent civilians, including torture, rape of women and children and murder.

The UN report, published Friday, accuses South Sudan’s government of implementing a “scorched earth” policy of mass rape, pillage and killing of innocent people in 2015. Most civilian casualties were the result of deliberate targeting by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and allied militias, not “collateral damage” during combat.

“The report contains harrowing accounts of civilians suspected of supporting the opposition, including children and the disabled, killed by being burned alive, suffocated in containers, shot, hanged from trees or cut to pieces,” the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a press statement announcing the report’s release.

Al-Hussein called the ongoing conflict in South Sudan “one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war—yet it has been more or less off the international radar.”

SPLA forces and allied militias were permitted to rape women in lieu of wages, with UN investigators recording more than 1,300 reported rapes between April and September 15 in Unity State alone. One woman reported being raped by five soldiers in front of her children; another woman recounted how she was tied to a tree and forced to watch 10 soldiers rape her 15-year-old daughter.

“If you looked young or good-looking, about 10 men would rape the woman; the older women were raped by about seven to nine men,” said one witness.

In another reported incident, soldiers argued over whether to rape a 6-year-old girl. Instead, they shot the child. The report also states that even women and girls taking refuge in UN-protected camps are at risk when they venture outside to collect food or firewood.

“The scale and types of sexual violence—primarily by government SPLA forces and affiliated militia—are described in searing, devastating detail, as is the almost casual, yet calculated, attitude of those slaughtering civilians and destroying property and livelihoods,” said al-Hussein. “However, the quantity of rapes and gang-rapes described in the report must only be a snapshot of the real total.”

In one of the latest reported outrages, more than 60 men and boys were deliberately suffocated to death in a baking hot shipping container by government forces in a Catholic church compound in Leer last October.

“Witnesses described hearing the detainees crying and screaming in distress and banging on the walls of the shipping container, which they said had no windows or other form of ventilation,” a report from the human rights group Amnesty International said.

South Sudan’s government rejected the UN report’s findings.

“We condemn in the strongest terms possible any crimes committed against civilians,” Ateny Wek Ateny, a spokesman for President Salva Kiir, told the Guardian. “The government takes it very seriously and we are investigating to find who has committed these heinous crimes and as soon as we get those who are responsible for committing human rights violations, we will bring them to book.”

Ateny said the atrocities may have been committed by militia fighters wearing SPLA uniforms and insisted that government troops operated under “strict rules of engagement” and did not target civilians. However, while the UN report found that all sides in South Sudan’s conflict have committed atrocities, government and allied forces were said to be most responsible last year.

The United States backed predominantly Christian South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, which is almost entirely Muslim, in 2011, providing billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to the government of President Salva Kiir despite widespread reports of human rights violations, including the use of child soldiers.

However, in three of the past four years—there was a suspension of military aid and training in 2014—the Obama administration has granted “national interest” waivers from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), which bans military aid to countries whose armed forces conscript, employ or enslave children, so that the US could continue training and equipping the SPLA. South Sudan is slated to receive more than $161 million in US military aid this year.

The UN estimates that at least 50,000 people have been killed and another 2.2 million displaced since the current armed conflict erupted in December 2013 when President Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of plotting a coup. The fighting, which has mostly been waged along ethnic lines, has pushed swathes of the country of 11.3 million inhabitants to the brink of famine and has devastated the oil-rich nation’s already weak economy.

There is some hope for peace in South Sudan, as a deal signed between the warring factions last August could bear fruit after Kiir issued a February decree reappointing Machar to the vice presidency. It is uncertain, however, whether Machar will accept the appointment.

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