Human Rights Abuses Run Deep in South Sudan

by Jok Madut Jok

The human rights situation in South Sudan has greatly improved since independence in 2011. Though the government in Khartoum was the primary rights abuser prior to independence, the rulers of South Sudan were involved in some horrendous violations of basic rights, all in the name of liberation. Since independence, the composition of state institutions, including a human rights commission and a fairly progressive constitution, means citizens have improved chances to challenge state authorities.

Nevertheless, the legacy of the South’s liberation struggle is contributing to continued human rights violations. During the last phase of the liberation war (1983–2005) the tactics of the warring parties—the north-based government of Sudan and the south-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)—were hinged on what each side thought was the role of ordinary citizens in the war. On the one hand, the government in Khartoum viewed most South Sudanese as potential supporters of the SPLA who had to be dealt with accordingly. On the other hand, the SPLA viewed the Southern citizenry as the primary engine of revolution—a base for recruitment, feeding the army, paying taxes, collecting military intelligence, and reporting Khartoum’s appalling human rights abuses to the international community.

These rival tactics caught ordinary citizens in the middle. If they resisted paying the cost of war, the South-based opposition was hard on them, even torturing those suspected of not supporting the revolution. That attitude became so entrenched that it remains with the current government. The end of the north-south war in 2005 has not reversed the horrific human rights situation or ushered in the hoped for period of security. The history of war-related transgressions continues to burden South Sudanese society, making it hard for individuals and communities to enjoy the promise of independence and the freedoms and protections granted by the interim constitution.

Although not morally equivalent, both sides in the war walked a thin line between ensuring security in areas under their control and punishing the civilian population for acting against their security interests. One of Khartoum’s preferred methods was recruiting Southern citizens into tribal militias and using these militias to pit South Sudanese against one another, fight the war by proxy, and hunt down those in Khartoum-controlled territories accused of supporting or spying for the SPLA. As a result of these tactics, the SPLA was at times cornered into fighting southern tribal militias, a fight that sometimes spilled over to affect ordinary people it had hoped to liberate from northern abuse and oppression. Civilians in South Sudan were thus subject to horrendous abuses by both sides in the war.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, specific events left a lasting impact on ethnic relations and the relationship between soldiers and civilians throughout Sudan. For example, in Wau, the current capital of Western Bahr el-Ghazal State, a Khartoum-sponsored militia, which came to be known as “the Friendly Forces,” fought the SPLA and killed or reported to the Sudanese anyone suspected of supporting the SPLA. This militia, mainly made up of a collection of small ethnic groups known as the Fertit, targeted the Dinka and Luo residents of Wau.

The 2005 peace agreement and 2011 independence did not heal the resulting ethnic rifts. The SPLA, now South Sudan’s national army, remains hostile toward the Fertit, and tribal relations are so strained that the outbreak of violent conflict has become a near constant fear among the town’s population. This situation requires training the security forces in values of nationhood, citizenship, tolerance, and respect for diversity. It also requires an interethnic reconciliation process that reckons with history. Until ethnic groups offload this history through honest conversations that involve all political leaders willing to own up to past mistakes, strained ethnic relations will continue to cause human rights abuses.

Similar ethnic rifts emerged in Juba, Kapoeta, and many other places. As a result, the SPLA sees some ethnic groups as less patriotic. In a climate rife with ethnic sensitivities and the tendency to take indiscriminate revenge for past actions, the SPLA often abuses the basic rights of those suspected of having opposed it during the war. In particular, past episodes surface when the military engages in civilian disarmament, an often heavy-handed process that involves random selection of troops for deployment. During disarmament, a Dinka or Nuer commanding officer might turn a blind eye to his soldiers’ abuse of the Fertit, Dedinka, or another ethnic group suspected of having been disloyal to the SPLA during the war.

Human rights abuses that accompany disarmament are often atrocious, involving indiscriminate violence against civilians suspected of being illegally armed. Soldiers often engage in sexual violence and other actions unrelated to disarmament.There have been many recorded incidents of rape, illegal collection of property, and individuals being roughed up, even after they have turned in their guns. Abuses also happen within the security forces, as some members feel that former militias absorbed into the SPLA are not only getting away with past disloyalty but are even sometimes ending up in higher ranks than the “real liberators.” Such sentiments of envy and entitlement are among the strongest forces driving basic rights abuses. They require top leadership to publicly state that all citizens have contributed to liberation.

About the Author

Jok Madut Jok is the executive director of the Sudd Institute, a policy research center based in Juba, South Sudan, and a professor of History at Loyola Marymount University in California. A trained anthropologist, he has published widely on political violence, gender and reproductive health, slavery, race, and religion, mainly in Sudan and South Sudan.

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