APPEAL: Letter to South Sudan's President Salva Kiir on the Violence in Jonglei State

Human Rights Watch
Wednesday, August 22, 2012 - 20:00
Eastern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Initiative Type: 
Appeals & Demonstrations

H.E. Salva Kiir Mayardit
President of the Republic of South Sudan, Commander in Chief of the SPLA

Your Excellency, President Kiir,

On behalf of Human Rights Watch, an international organization dedicated to defending and protecting human rights, we write to urge you to improve justice and accountability efforts in Jonglei state. There should be accountability both for the crimes committed during the inter-communal violence in December 2011 and early 2012, as well as for abuses by security forces against civilians in the context of the ongoing disarmament process.

From July 19-26, 2012, Human Rights Watch researchers travelled to Bor and Pibor in Jonglei state and spoke with government officials, judges, military commanders, soldiers, and civilians about the government's efforts to prevent future incidents of inter-communal violence. We appreciate the permission granted by SPLA headquarters for our researchers to visit military detention facilities in Jonglei state.

Many people interviewed expressed a desire to see justice and accountability for the inter-communal attacks. While civilian disarmament is welcomed as important to fostering sustained peace, where abuses occur, they must also be subject to justice and accountability. Indeed, South Sudan has an obligation under domestic and international law to investigate serious crimes with the view to prosecuting those responsible.

Your Excellency appointed an investigation committee in March, but it has yet to begin its investigation into the inter-communal violence, and military and civilian authorities in Jonglei state have done far too little to curb ongoing violations by disarmament forces or to provide a remedy for these violations.

We hope that our findings and recommendations will prompt the government to take concrete steps to increase justice and accountability.

Justice Needed for Inter-communal Violence

In early March 2012, Your Excellency signed a presidential order establishing an “Investigation Committee on Jonglei State Crisis” with the mandate to investigate the inter-ethnic violence and to identify those responsible for inciting and funding the armed attacks. Over five months later, however, the seven committee members have not yet been sworn in, and the government has not provided them with a budget so they can begin their work.

The government of South Sudan has a duty to take measures that will protect civilians from criminal acts committed in the course of inter-communal violence and to ensure that victims of this violence can access effective judicial remedies. Acts of murder, torture, abductions, and destruction of property committed in the context of attacks between Murle, Lou Nuer, and Dinka communities in Jonglei state, however, have gone almost entirely unpunished.

The call for accountability has come repeatedly, not only from Human Rights Watch, but also from South Sudanese affected by the violence, the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, and the United Nations. In May 2012, the Jonglei State Communities Conference for Peace, Reconciliation, and Tolerance included among its recommendations that individuals involved in killings and abductions should be arrested, prosecuted, and those found responsible punished, and that the rule of law should be enforced.

Human Rights Watch recommends that you urgently swear in the members of the investigation committee and provide them with the necessary resources so that they can carry out a thorough and impartial investigation. We also urge the government to seek international technical assistance for this investigation as needed.

Evidence of Ongoing Abuses During Civilian Disarmament

Alongside peace and reconciliation initiatives, the government has responded to the inter-communal violence with the launch of “Operation Restore Peace,” a state-wide civilian disarmament campaign, in March 2012.

Allegations of serious human rights violations by soldiers surfaced soon after the operation commenced. Local authorities and international organizations including the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported several cases of killings, and scores of injuries, torture and other ill-treatment of civilian men, women, and children by soldiers in locations across Pibor county. Official security meeting reports, reviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers, indicate that local authorities and military commanders have been aware of many of these incidents.

As of mid-July, soldiers were still committing serious crimes against civilians while carrying out disarmament operations. In many villages, the soldiers had returned for the second or third time to disarm the population.

In Pibor town, Human Rights Watch met with individuals from Manyirang, Tangajon, Be, and Likuangole who reported specific incidents of soldiers shooting at civilians, beating them, tying them with rope, and submerging their heads in water to extract information about the location of weapons.

Researchers interviewed five people who recounted being beaten or tortured by disarmament forces in Manyirang in late June. One man in his 30's said that disarmament forces tortured him and six other men:

They took us to a pool of water and pushed our heads under water. Then they lifted us up, beat us, and asked for guns. Then they pushed our heads into the water again. There were five soldiers holding each of us—one for each leg, and each arm, and one person to push our heads into the water.

A woman in her 20's described being beaten, while her child was strapped to her back:

We were beaten with canes until we fell down. I could not count how many times I was hit because there were many people beating me—about five. They were speaking Arabic and saying, “Bring gun, bring gun.”

The disarmament forces returned to Manyirang again in mid-July and committed further violations. One 40-year-old man told researchers, “I was beaten and tied and dunked in water at least three times, then lost consciousness.” Another man had visible scars on his arms from the rope used to tie him to a tree and the sticks disarmament forces hit him with.

Human Rights Watch documented similar abuses in Tangajon. A 40-year-old man told researchers that in late July, soldiers whipped him, beat him with sticks, and forced his head into a puddle of rain water: “This was the third time they [the disarmament forces] have come. It was worse this time because people were pushed into the water.”

Another 30-year-old man from Tangajon, who had visible wounds on his arms, described being subjected to the same form of ill-treatment, together with three other men:

They beat the four of us with sticks and whipped us. Mostly they whipped us. There were six soldiers for each person. One for each arm and leg, one person pushing the head into the water, and one person stepping on the back. The water was in a hole in the ground. My arms were tied behind my back with a rope, the kind of rope people tie cattle with.

A woman recounted witnessing soldiers use similar methods in Be, in early July:

Soldiers took the head of a man and put it into water…They were saying, “We need a gun.” He was saying, “I don't have a gun.” He didn't have a gun. They pushed his head into a puddle and beat him until he was swelling up. They used leather whips, sticks, and sometimes the butts of their guns. There were many people surrounding him, maybe about 10. Until now, he is still waking with a stick.

Also in Be, our researchers documented the account of a young woman who said she was raped by three soldiers in her tukul in mid-July. She recounted, “All three of them raped me, one by one. I shouted, but one of them pointed a gun at me and told me to be quiet. My home is far from other homes, so no one heard.”

A 35-year-old woman from Likuangole told researchers that five soldiers in the area for disarmament entered her tukul one night, began shooting randomly, and beat her physically disabled mother.

Such reports likely represent a small fraction of the actual total number of incidents, as many victims do not travel to Pibor to report the crimes. Human Rights Watch has subsequently received information from credible sources that abuses have continued in Tangajon and Likuangole, including beating and shooting of civilians. According to reports from local officials, following the killing of an SPLA soldier on August 16, more than six civilians were reportedly killed in Likuangole by disarmament forces.

Insufficient Accountability for Abuses by Soldiers

These incidents violate the SPLA's code of conduct, and constitute crimes under the Penal Code and the SPLA Act. The prohibition against torture under international law is absolute, meaning that no reason, including the search for illegally held arms, can justify an act of torture.

The SPLA's code of conduct, which requires soldiers to treat civilians humanely and prohibits raping and looting, has been widely disseminated among forces participating in disarmament operations. Human Rights Watch welcomes this effort to educate soldiers about their human rights obligations, but we are concerned that the SPLA has not made efforts to enforce this code. Soldiers engaged in disarmaments must have a clear understanding of precisely how to carry out disarmament within the bounds of this code, particularly limits on the use of force. Those who violate these rules should face appropriate sanctions.

The SPLA's directorate of military justice and legal affairs assigned additional judge-advocates to Bor, Pibor, Canal, Waat and Ayod to accompany the forces carrying out the civilian disarmament. Their mandate includes the dissemination of military laws, rules and regulations, and the provision of legal and administrative support for the conduct of courts martial. This initiative is an important means to foster accountability and ultimately to stem human rights violations by soldiers.

However, the number of judge-advocates remains insufficient, and the absence of civilian judicial personnel also prevents civilian authorities from holding trials for crimes against civilians in accordance with the SPLA Act, which states that civilian courts have jurisdiction over crimes committed against civilians. In Pibor county, of 14 cases of killings and serious injuries of civilians by disarmament forces since March reported to Human Rights Watch by the County Commissioner, military authorities had arrested suspects in only five cases.

Civilian and military authorities told Human Rights Watch they did not know when or how these cases would be handled, as the judge-advocate assigned to Pibor was in Juba for medical treatment, and there is no judge or prosecutor in Pibor to conduct civilian trials.

In Bor town, researchers found soldiers detained in relation to two cases involving civilians—one rape and one murder. While the murder case had been transferred to civilian court, the rape case was heard before a military court martial, and the two defendants were not provided with defense counsel.

In both Pibor and Bor, the vast majority of soldiers in military detention were held for acts such as desertion, intoxication, injuring other soldiers, or vehicle accidents. Researchers found that most did not understand the status of their case, such as the date of their trial and how long they would be in detention, and had not been afforded defense lawyers. Researchers also interviewed two ex-soldiers held in Pibor prison and reviewed files of 16 others in Bor prison, all of whom had been deployed for the disarmament exercises, but dismissed following convictions by courts martial. Soldiers expressed frustration with their inability to appeal sentences, which in some cases reached up to 7 years. While internal disciplinary mechanisms are important to strengthening command and control over armed forces, the military justice system must ensure that it guarantees the due process rights of those accused.

To address the gap in accountability for abuses by soldiers, South Sudan should take urgent steps to assign more military judge-advocates, civilian judges, and prosecutors to areas where abuses are occurring. The government should also ensure these personnel have communication and transportation facilities to effectively do their jobs.

The government should take measures to ensure that commanders closely monitor disarmament operations, that all reports of abuses are investigated, and that action is taken to punish security forces found to have committed abuses. Trials should respect the right of the accused to due process, particularly to defense counsel.

Human Rights Watch respectfully recommends:

• The President should immediately swear in the members of the Investigation Committee on Jonglei State Crisis and provide them with the necessary resources so that they can carry out a thorough and impartial investigation. The government should seek international technical assistance as needed.

• The SPLA should develop of rules of procedure for the conduct of civilian disarmament so that soldiers have clear understanding of precisely how to carry out disarmament within the bounds of the code of conduct, particularly limits on the use of force

• Military judge-advocates and civilian judges and prosecutors should be deployed to areas of military operations, in order to quickly oversee investigations and hold trials for cases of civilian abuses in accordance with South Sudan's laws.

• The SPLA should ensure that commanders are adequately monitoring disarmament activities, that all reports of abuses are investigated, and that action is taken to punish security forces found to have committed abuses.

We would appreciate learning about what steps you have taken to implement these recommendations.

Please accept assurance of my highest regards and consideration.

Daniel Bekele
Executive Director, Africa Division
Human Rights Watch