Monday marked the seventh anniversary of South Sudan’s independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan. But there was no celebration in the streets of Juba, South Sudan’s capital.
The decades-long struggle left at least 2 million dead, and conflict continues as a civil war persists in South Sudan.
In recent years, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, and more than 4 million others have been displaced, many of whom have fled to neighboring countries.
A new report released Tuesday by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights further implicated government troops in horrific atrocities against civilians in South Sudan. The United Nations focused its investigation on the time between April and May 2018, which has “so far constituted the peak of the violence,” according the report.
In its investigation, the U.N. found that government forces may have committed war crimes:
• Government forces and those aligned with them killed at least 232 civilians and raped 120 women and girls in a recent spate of attacks on opposition-held villages. At least one of the gang-rape victims was as young as 6.
• One woman, who told U.N. researchers that she was still bleeding from childbirth when she was assaulted, said she did not fight back against the soldier who raped her because she feared she would be killed.
• Dozens of those killed — including children, the disabled and the elderly — were burned alive.
• Opposition troops were also responsible for killing a number of civilians, and the investigation identified three individuals who the report says bear the “greatest responsibility” for the violent incidents the United Nations documented.
The atrocities the United Nations described in its Tuesday report are largely consistent with earlier U.N., African Union and media reports that have detailed crimes committed by both government and opposition troops since conflict broke out in South Sudan in 2013. But Payton Knopf, a former U.S. diplomat who works at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told The Washington Post that this latest investigation offers key indications that the conflict is continuing “unabated.”
For years, Knopf said, there has been debate over whether violence in South Sudan is “command-and-control versus anarchic chaos.”
“Time and again, credible and methodical investigations continue to find unequivocally there is command and control,” he said Tuesday. “This is not a situation of marauding youth going on. They’re doing it at the direction of leadership on both sides, and mainly the government.”
The civil war in South Sudan is rooted in a rivalry between President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnic group, and Riek Machar, a Nuer who served as vice president after the country gained independence.
Peace agreements have largely failed.
In June, Kiir and Machar traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to meet face to face for the first time in two years, in what some observers hoped would mark a turning point in the conflict and offer hope to civilians that peace would be restored. But little, if any, progress was made. This week, South Sudanese opposition groups rejected a power-sharing proposal that was discussed during the weekend in Uganda. Some observers see the recent meetings as further proof that Kiir and Machar remain incapable of working together.
“Why does anyone believe that the people who are most responsible for this are going to be part of the solution?” Knopf said. “That remains one of the foundational premises of the current approach to the peace process, and it’s a premise that has shown itself untrue.”