Government soldiers and allied militias deliberately killed at least 16 civilians in South Sudan's western town of Wau on April 10, 2017, in what appears to be an act of collective punishment, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks were against people presumed to support the opposition because of their ethnicity.
The killings followed weeks of tensions in the area, where South Sudan's government has carried out an abusive counterinsurgency operation since late 2015. When the UN Security Council meets to discuss South Sudan later in April, it should condemn these crimes and ask the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan what steps it intends to take to deter further revenge killings in Wau and the surrounding area.
"The pattern of abuses by government forces against civilians in Wau has become predictable, with soldiers taking revenge against unarmed civilians based on their ethnicity," said Daniel Bekele, senior director for Africa advocacy at Human Rights Watch. "The South Sudan authorities need to call a halt to the killings, investigate, and bring those responsible to justice."
In November, a special investigation commissioned by the UN recommended that peacekeepers should move around in armored vehicles rather than remaining in their bases to better identify threats to civilian lives and prevent rapes on their doorstep. The UN is expected to release an update on steps it has taken to carry out those recommendations on April 17.
Hostilities erupted on April 8, outside of Wau, when government forces opened an offensive on opposition-controlled areas and opposition groups counter-attacked. The opposition killed two high-ranking government officers, including a prominent member of the Dinka tribe from the neighboring Lakes region.
On April 10, government soldiers and Dinka militiamen went from house to house in ethnic Fertit and Luo neighbourhoods on the southwest side of Wau, and killed at least 16 civilians, apparently in retaliation for the killing of the two men. Government authorities prevented UN peacekeepers from moving freely around the town, limiting their access to areas where the violence occurred.
The recent violence displaced nearly 8,000 people, about 3,800 of who sought safety in the Catholic church. Others have moved to a site adjacent to the United Nations' Mission to South Sudan base, where more than 25,000 people had already gathered under UN protection.
A 26-year-old Fertit, mother-of-four, who is married to a Luo and was living in the Nazareth neighbourhood, said she was at home preparing a fire when she heard gunshots in the morning of April 10: "The attackers came over to my house. They wore civilian clothes, had their faces whitened with ashes, and carried spears and guns. I lied and told them that my husband was a Dinka and they said they would not kill me because I am their wife. They said: 'don't go out in the streets because we are killing people.' When it calmed down, I went to my neighbor's house. She had been shot in the eye. Her four children, between 3 and 15, were hiding under the bed. They were killed too. I saw their bodies."
Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the possibility of further attacks on civilians, and urged the peacekeeping mission, UNMISS, to increase the number of troops stationed in Wau and to ensure adequate patrols of sensitive areas, such as around the Catholic church and southwest of the city. After Kenyan troops withdrew from the peacekeeping mission in 2016, the contingent in Wau has been short staffed. The UN's response to the deteriorating situation in Wau will be an important test of the mission's ability to improve protection of civilians in hostile environments, especially following attacks on bases in Malakal and Juba last year, Human Rights Watch said.
In Wau, the abuses have followed a familiar pattern in recent years, with hostilities between government soldiers and opposition forces followed by retaliatory attacks by mostly Dinka government forces and militias against ethnic Fertit and Luo civilians.
In May 2016, Human Rights Watch documented a surge in government abuses against civilians in Wau and surrounding villages beginning in late December 2015, after the government deployed a large numbers of new soldiers, mostly Dinka from the former states of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal and Warrap, to the area. Government soldiers were responsible for a spate of targeted killings and arbitrary detentions and abuse of ethnic Fertit and Luo civilians in February and again in June. The violence and abuses in June forced more than 70,000 to flee.
South Sudan's government has taken little action to stop these attacks on civilians. Following each round of violence in 2016, president Salva Kiir appointed investigation committees. The first one visited Wau in March and the second in in early July. A report submitted to president Kiir on August 1 found that at least 50 civilians had been killed on June 24 and 25, more than 100 shops were looted, and tens of thousands of civilians were displaced; but no further criminal investigations or prosecutions were carried out. While the media reported that the army executed two soldiers on July 22 who had been convicted by a military court for the murder of two civilians in a residential area of Wau, no other steps were taken.
On April 12, President Kiir announced an investigation of the most recent killings. But the government's track record of investigating these kinds of incidents in Wau and its weak judicial system raise questions about its credibility. Credible criminal investigations and transparent judicial procedures against those responsible are urgently needed, Human Rights Watch said.
The government forces' continuing crimes against civilians in Wau and the lack of accountability underscore the urgent need for the hybrid court envisioned in the 2015 peace agreement. Despite the agreement, government soldiers have committed widespread violence against civilians, not just in Wau, but also in Juba, Malakal and the Equatorias, Human Rights Watch researchers found.
Human Rights Watch has also repeatedly called on the United Nations Security Council to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan to reduce harm to civilians by increasing the cost of weapons used to attack them. In December 2016, an attempt to pass an arms embargo at the Security Council failed when eights members abstained. They included Egypt and Japan, which still sit on the Security Council.
"South Sudan's military commanders have once again shown they won't stop the abuse or hold anyone to account, and instead they obstruct peacekeepers from doing their jobs to protect civilians," Bekele said. "The UN Security Council should make it clear that there will be a price to pay for this kind of obstruction."
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on South Sudan, please visit: https://www.hrw.org/africa/south-sudan