Human rights violations and abuses that have grown routine against civilians and children in the world's youngest country, may constitute war crimes, according to a new report by the U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan outlining acts of brutality committed in 2018.
Nearly eight years after South Sudan gained independence from its northern neighbor, Sudan, a civil war has mired the country in a humanitarian disaster.
"There is a confirmed pattern of how combatants attack villages, plunder homes, take women as sexual slaves and then set homes alight – often with people in them," said Commission Chair Yasmin Sooka in a statement about the report's findings, which covers 2018. "Rapes, gang rapes, sexual mutilation, abductions and sexual slavery, as well as killings, have become commonplace in South Sudan."
The report does not name perpetrators, but says they are believed to come from many sides of the conflict including the army, rebel and armed groups, the National Security Service, as well as two unidentified state governors.
A ceasefire was declared in South Sudan in June, 2018, followed by the signing of a peace deal, which resulted in a marked decrease in fighting. However, "hostilities have persisted," the reports says, adding that the peace deal also did not address South Sudan's disastrous humanitarian situation. "Due in large part to the conflict, 60 percent of the South Sudanese population is severely food insecure, and there remain 2.2 million refugees and 1.9 million internally displaced persons."
Children make up the majority of South Sudan's displaced. They are often alone — separated from their parents and especially vulnerable to violence. Armed groups have recruited thousands of South Sudanese child soldiers, the reports says, while more children are still being abducted and forced to fight.
Sometimes children are caught in the crossfire of ongoing military operations and sometimes they are targeted, the Commission finds. It recounts reports of remarkable brutality, including children being shot in the back as they try to run away, and in one case, a baby being swung against a tree.
Sexual and gender-based violence is an ongoing tactic of warfare used "by all parties to sow terror," the report says. Sexual violence against children includes the rape of girls as young as seven. Boys and men also suffer, but their stories of sexual violence are under-reported, due to social stigma, the report finds.
"There is no doubt that these crimes are persistent because impunity is so entrenched in South Sudan that every kind of norm is broken even raping and killing the young and the elderly," said Commission member Andrew Clapham at a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday.
The Commission says it is continuing to collect evidence of human rights abuses and other crimes with an eye toward their being applied toward justice mechanisms. It says it has three case studies documenting war crimes, which it will pass along for potential prosecution.
"We think that through accountability and reconciliation there's the possibility for the South Sudanese to deal with the past and secure their future stability and prosperity," Clapham said.
Central to the conflict, the report finds, is South Sudan's near total economic reliance on oil. The "increased militarization and securitization of the oil industry by Government forces," who are working to protect their own economic interests in the oil sector, risk "turning South Sudan into a police state built on fear, rent-seeking and corruption," the report says. Further, oil revenues are being used to fund the fighting.
And while the report focuses on last year, Clapham notes that intense fighting goes on in the state of Central Equatoria between government forces and a militant group. "A scorched earth policy" has led to torched homes, civilians being killed and women and girls raped. Thousands of civilians have been displaced in the latest burst of fighting.