Sexual violence remains a persistent war crime even as the United Nations Security Council and many governments try to fight such atrocities against civilians with condemnations, international law, sanctions and tribunals. The International Criminal Court has just issued a new policy paper to increase prosecutions of gender-based crimes. And as a summit to end sexual violence in conflicts convenes this week in London, led by the British government, South Sudan is the latest setting in a catalog of geopolitical hot spots where flagrant sexual abuse of women, girls and boys continues unabated.
Since civil conflict in South Sudan erupted in Juba, the capital, in December 2013, several forms of sexual violence have been committed, according to a report released in May by the UN Mission in South Sudan.
In a horrific new twist accompanying rapes, some soldiers apparently urinated into their victims’ mouths after their dirty work was done.
Although major news media have covered the armed conflict in the world’s newest country, they have failed to mention too often the cases of rape, gang rape, abduction and sexual slavery that have been reportedly carried out by both warring parties — that of President Salva Kiir‘s forces and his opponents, soldiers loyal to Riek Machar, the former vice president. The infighting began only two and a half years after South Sudan won a long-sought independence from the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
The civil conflict quickly acquired an ethnic dimension, with Dinkas supporting Kiir and Nuers backing Machar. Mass killings have been committed and up to one million people have been displaced; tens of thousands of South Sudanese are sheltered in UN mission compounds throughout the country.
The UN mission report builds on documentation started in December 2013 and is based on more than 900 interviews with victims, witnesses and others. From the first days of the violence, gross violations of human rights and serious abuses of humanitarian law have occurred on a large scale, the report said, with civilians not only caught up in the violence but also directly targeted, often along ethnic lines.
The narrative on sexual violations in the report is detailed by place, dates, descriptions of the perpetrators and the abuse itself.
Sometimes, the report said, attackers used objects such as guns and bullets to rape. As the conflict intensified and sexual violence increased, the ability to report such abuse by the victims deteriorated. The inability to go to authorities (it’s unclear who can be trusted in the current milieu) has been especially true for women and children (some of whom have been recruited as child soldiers) in the heavily affected states of Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile.
Both South Sudanese government soldiers and the opposition have been accused of gender-based violence, the report said. It noted that a third party, the Justice and Equality Movement, a militia from Darfur, Sudan, was also linked to rapes and gang rapes in Unity State.
Women have been captured and forced into sex slavery by soldiers. Two incidents were confirmed where opposition soldiers held women in a house for several days, forced to have sex and called “wives.”
The investigations of sexual-related violence were conducted by a team of UN women-protection advisers, using guidelines from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Health Organization as well as other standards for responding to gender-based violence in humanitarian settings.
During conflicts, reporting on sexual violence can be nearly impossible. In South Sudan’s conflict-riddled areas, the difficulty of doing so was compounded by the “breakdown of healthcare services in conflict-affected States.” Hospitals were attacked or seized, leaving sexual-abuse victims without care and unable to relay what happened to them to neutral officials. Alleged abuse by police or military crippled an already corrupted national system.
Erin Gallagher, the director of emergency investigations and response for Physicians for Human Rights, an international nonprofit group based in New York, explained in an interview why sexual abuse in conflicts can be generally under-reported. A key factor, she said, “is social stigma, survivors feel shame and dishonor or fear for their own safety, as they may still live amongst the perpetrators.”
She added that “hospitals, police headquarters and security forces centers may no long be considered safe havens for victims to report incidents.”
In South Sudan, the closing of government offices and diversion of police officials to security operations hindered the reporting of sexual violence to proper authorities. In incidents that were reported, some took too long to “protect the survivor,” the report said. Although some incidents have been verified, many remain under investigation.
Investigating abuse requires tremendous patience and skill. Generally, Gallagher said, “It is difficult to judge how widespread [incidents] are since victims don’t come forward.” As an investigator who has worked in Syria, Libya and Bosnia, she has found it hard to gain access to witnesses and survivors because of the security situation or controls at checkpoints, say, imposed by governments or militias.
Her interviews with survivors begin slowly so a person can feel comfortable with her and build trust. “I start asking about their lives in general, then slowly spiral toward the difficult issues and events that took place, then I let them tell their story.” Her interviews often take a few hours in conflict settings, and she said that “you are lucky if you can meet with them more than once.”
As to the accuracy of reporting of sexual violence incidents, she said: “We don’t always know the scope of the sexual violence. We neither want to underestimate it nor do we want to overblow it out of proportion either.”
In South Sudan, sexual attacks spiked right after the clashes began on Dec. 15. In Central Equatoria State, for example, at least 27 cases were documented, with 22 of them attributed to government forces — mainly the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA. The total included 14 cases of rape and gang rape, an attempted rape and four cases of sexual slavery. The majority of identified survivors were Nuer women, but at least one Dinka woman was violated.
In Jonglei State, 11 sexual violence cases were documented involving both Dinka and Nuer victims. The SPLA was reportedly involved in six of the attacks, while the opposition committed three; the remaining cases did not identify the assailants.
In Upper Nile State, 21 cases of sexual attacks or violations were reported, including some against foreigners and ethnic groups other than Dinka and Nuer. In Unity State, where the most vicious fighting has been staged, 25 incidents of sexual attacks were found, the majority of them rapes. When government forces attacked the Mayendit area in Unity State in February, at least 20 women were raped by militias from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), with some Dinka SPLA soldiers participating.
It is here where soldiers were witnessed urinating in victims’ mouths. And in another incident in Mayendit, three boys were raped by the JEM, according to the report, with the youngest boy dying as a result.