Mass Atrocities in South Sudan

Since December 2012, state security forces in South Sudan’s Jonglei state have “repeatedly targeted civilians” in a “series of unlawful killings” that have killed scores and displaced tens of thousands, a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.

The report documents 24 incidents of unlawful killing that left 70 civilians and 24 ethnic Murle members of the security forces dead—and those are just the incidents HRW was able to document. In situations like this, the actual numbers of victims are almost always substantially higher than what groups like HRW can verify.

In academia’s grim typology of political violence against civilians, this episode doesn’t yet qualify as a mass killing, but it seems to be headed in that direction.

This episode also happens to fits the most common scenario for state-sponsored mass killing, in which security forces attempting to suppress an insurgency end up killing large numbers of civilians in areas where rebels are thought to operate or to enjoy popular support. As the HRW report discusses, the violence in Jonglei is part of a counterinsurgency campaign against a rebel group led by David Yau Yau, an ethnic Murle who took up arms against the government of South Sudan after failing to win a seat in 2010 elections, back when South Sudan was de facto but not yet de jure independent. Ironically but also typically, the army’s abuses are proving counterproductive. As HRW notes,

Murle civilians told Human Rights Watch that an abusive army disarmament of  civilians in 2012 in Pibor county fuelled the rebellion as Murle men, angered by abuses and unwilling to give up their guns, joined Yau Yau.

The fact that the atrocities are occurring in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign doesn’t mean that the insurgency is the only cause of the violence, however. As Caelin Briggs describes in a recent blog post for Refugees International (RI),

Other likely causes of violence have little to do with Yau Yau. NGOs told RI that SPLA soldiers frequently do not receive salaries, and that they are told by commanders that goods looted from civilians count as ‘payment’. As a result, looting of both civilian and NGO property is now one of the most visible abuses perpetrated by the SPLA in Jonglei. Impunity for these crimes is so extreme that soldiers are reportedly using stolen equipment inside their own barracks. The SPLA has also deliberately vandalized NGO property – perhaps, some NGOs say, with the express purpose of making it more difficult for international staff to return.

For better and for worse, this episode of atrocities was also foreseeable. Way back in the March 2012 issue of its bimonthly R2P Monitor (PDF), the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) noted that efforts by the government of South Sudan to stop communal violence in Jonglei state by forcibly disarming local militias could have troubling side effects. “Several prominent NGOs have documented human rights abuses carried out by the SPLA during past disarmament campaigns,” the report noted. More recently, in a set of statistical forecasts I produced using data from the end of 2012, South Sudan showed up as one of the 10 countries worldwide at greatest risk of an onset of state-sponsored mass killing in 2013.

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