The African Union has released the findings of its long-delayed investigation into South Sudan's civil war, detailing alarming human rights abuses, including accounts of gender and ethnic-based killing, organized rape, and alleged incidents of cannibalism.
A Commission of Inquiry headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo delivered the report on Tuesday evening, more than a year after it conducted itsresearch into the first months of war.
Notably, the commission called into question a central allegation made by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir: that his former vice president, Riek Machar had organized a coup against the government after he was booted from Kiir's cabinet, resulting in fighting that broke out in Juba on December 15, 2013. Investigators confirmed that skirmishes began on that day between competing camps in the Presidential Guard, but did not cite Machar for overtly attempting to seize power.
Though the violence appeared to catch many in the international community off guard, tensions had been building for months. The ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement was pieced together by factions that had fought against the Sudanese government in Khartoum for southern independence. Intensely corrupt, various parties inside the government soon began bickering internally over the country's vast oil proceeds, which at one point provided 99 percent of the newly established country's revenues.
When this broke out into open conflict amid accusations leveled against Machar, the in-fighting quickly metastasized into targeted killings of members of the Nuer ethnic group by government forces, and widespread attacks in the capital and beyond.
"Dinka members of the Presidential Guard and other security forces targeted Nuer soldiers and civilians," wrote the commission.
After the clashes on December 15, Machar took charge of a large rebel force consisting of various armed groups, including many Nuers who defected from the national military. The subsequent fighting has since fallen largely along ethnic lines, pitting mostly Dinka forces loyal to Kiir against Nuers nominally led by Machar.
'Gang rape was (and continues to be) a common feature of the atrocities committed during the on-going conflict in South Sudan.'
The AU said that both sides had committed gross human right violations, but stopped short of blaming them for genocidal crimes.
Nevertheless, the initial killings of Nuers in Juba, which numbered in the hundreds, were found to have been "committed pursuant to or in furtherance to a State policy," and were "widespread and systematic in nature."
"Roadblocks or checkpoints were established all around Juba and house-to-house searches were undertaken by security forces," the report said. "During this operation male Nuers were targeted, identified, killed on the spot or gathered in one place and killed."
A litany of horrors, including rape and the burning of victims, followed.
One witness told AU investigators that Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers loyal to Kiir's government made Nuer women eat the burned flesh of victims. Referring to incidents on December 16, 2013, the commission reported that witnesses said other Nuer civilians "were forced to drink human blood belonging to a victim who had been slaughtered and his blood collected on a plate." Still more were made to "jump into lit bonfires."
"One of the people who were forced to eat his flesh has reportedly lost his mind and is at a refugee camp in Kenya," the commission said in its report.
Some witnesses suggested that certain modes of brutality were chosen for a reason; at other times they appeared to be completely improvised.
"All these accounts evoke the memories of some of the worst episodes of earlier human rights violations on the continent, including in South Sudan itself," wrote investigators.
Rebel forces were implicated in alleged war crimes that included widespread sexual violence. Witnesses said that when rebel forces took over a radio station in the oil town of Bentiu, they exhorted their comrades to rape Dinka women.
In Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile State and a city that has changed hands countless times over the course of the war, rebels were accused of murdering patients in a hospital and a church. The commission found that opposition forces operating in Bor that were allied with Machar had committed war crimes "through indiscriminate killings of civilians."
Investigators also determined that sexual and gender-based violence has been especially prevalent throughout the conflict.
"Gang rape was (and continues to be) a common feature of the atrocities committed during the on-going conflict in South Sudan," the report said.
After more than a half-dozen failed peace initiatives, and under threat of UN sanctions, Machar and Kiir signed a formal agreement in August to end hostilities. Sporadic reports of fighting continue to emerge, though less frequently than they did over the preceding two years.
Last year, the International Crisis Group estimated that more than 50,000 people had been killed in the civil war. Many South Sudanese fled to the bush, far from UN forces and from where investigators were able to travel, meaning the true death toll may never be known.
Much of the cruelty detailed by the AU commission had previously been described in United Nations and nonprofit human rights reporting. But its release after months of delays tied to the ongoing peace process was a significant step for the AU, which has been criticized for keeping the findings under wraps.
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In recent years, many African countries have pushed for greater authority to handle human rights abuses on the continent, and the investigation was seen as a test case. The AU's Peace and Security Council has called for a special hybrid court to try suspects in the country, which could make use of the commission's findings.
"The report is useful in noting that the rapid onset of atrocities across the country was widespread and coordinated, and that there is evidence of state policy," said Ryan D'Souza, an advocacy officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect who has tracked the conflict.
"South Sudan is a highly militarized society," he added, "and we are likely to see heinous crimes against humanity again unless we end the rampant impunity and ensure that perpetrators are finally held accountable, regardless of rank, ethnicity, and political affiliation."
"The AU must get the hybrid court up and running as soon as possible," said D'Souza.
As recently as this June, the UN reported that as many as 129 children were killed in Unity State during the previous month. Investigators at the time told VICE News that girls were summarily executed or kidnapped, and boys were tied together before having their throats slit. Some boys had their genitals cut off and were left to bleed to death. Others were burned alive inside their homes.
The UN, which had a peacekeeping mission (UNMISS) deployed within the country when fighting started in December 2013, was largely a bystander to violence that targeted civilians. Instead, they were occupied guarding UN bases, which quickly filled with displaced South Sudanese, at one point housing more than 200,000 people fleeing the bloodshed.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford