A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report accuses nine leaders in both of South Sudan’s warring parties of committing serious rights violations and possibly war crimes during 2016 and 2017.
It recommends placing sanctions on all nine men, including President Salva Kiir, former First Vice President Riek Machar, and former army chief of staff Paul Malong.
Jehanne Henry of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, says that based on HRW’s research, the leaders are implicated in abusive operations across the country.
“We have come to the conclusion now after almost four years of conflict in South Sudan, that there is mounting evidence of the role of key commanders in the ongoing atrocities,” Henry told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.
“There are two components to it. First is overseeing troops that are committing these atrocities, which gives a certain liability to the top commanders. But the second is failing to prevent them or stop them,” she said.
HRW is also recommending sanctions on South Sudanese army Lieutenant General Bol Akot, and General Johnson Olony, an opposition commander who allegedly recruited child soldiers in the Upper Nile region.
The rights group has long called for an arms embargo on South Sudan and targeted sanctions against top leaders in the government and opposition forces.
Six individuals are already on the UN sanctions list, which includes a travel ban and an assets freeze.
Tuesday’s report focused on civilian testimony from KajoKeji in the former Central Equatoria state as well as Pajok in neighboring Eastern Equatoria state, involving events between June 2016 and this past May.
The report said government soldiers committed serious crimes against civilians on the basis of their ethnicity. Witnesses described at least 47 unlawful killings by government soldiers in KajoKeji, telling researchers they saw soldiers enter the homes of neighbors, and shoot and kill the elderly and people with disabilities.
Henry said researchers believe the number of cases is actually much higher.
“People are very afraid to remain and even to go back. We met with refugees living in the settlements in northern Uganda and they almost all said that they were afraid to return home and those few who did were collecting food or for guarding their livestock reported facing various types of dangers as well,” Henry said.
Kiir’s spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny denies the president or his generals bear any responsibility for the crimes documented in the report.
“There are a number of individual violations that may happen, individuals may take laws into their hands but that doesn’t mean that the government has a policy of killing the civilians,” Ateny said.
The report said government soldiers deployed to fight rebels in counter insurgency operations committed many crimes against civilians including arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearances.
General Oyet Nathaniel, the SPLA-In Opposition designated governor of Imatong State, denied Riek Machar bears any responsibility for the rights violations described in the report.
“Our chairman Dr. Riek Machar is innocent. He is a victim of human rights [violations] himself. He cannot be sanctioned together with perpetrators of human rights [abuses]. It is Salva Kiir and his government that deserve sanctions because they blocked the peace agreement,” Nathaniel said.
In January, a report by the Office of the High Commissioner and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan said during the renewed violence in Juba that erupted a little over a year ago, both government and rebels committed “serious human rights violations and abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law, some possibly amounting to war crimes.”
Human Rights Watch reiterated the commission’s mandate to collect and preserve evidence that can be used to prosecute those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in fair and credible trials.
Under the Obama administration, a US-backed UN resolution to enact an arms embargo and sanctions on South Sudan failed in December. Russia, China and 6 other Security Council members abstained from voting, effectively killing the resolution.
In April, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Hayley urged the Security Council to impose an arms embargo and additional sanctions on South Sudan.