Vicious Attacks on Humanitarians in South Sudan Demand Full Accountability

The tragedy at the Terrain compound in Juba, as recently reported by the Associated Press, has shocked the humanitarian community and all those who care for the people of South Sudan. Over the course of more than four hours, armed men broke into the residential complex, killed a South Sudanese journalist employed by an aid organization, and beat and gang raped multiple foreign aid workers. Victims reportedly made multiple appeals for protection to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the US Embassy, but the peacekeepers failed to respond.

This tragic incident comes to light just before World Humanitarian Day and raises many troubling questions: How could aid workers – the very people who have fed South Sudan’s hungry, cared for its wounded, and buried its dead – be targeted with such appalling violence? Was UNMISS unable, or simply unwilling, to answer victims’ calls for help? And what will be done to punish the perpetrators of these terrible acts?

In 2015, more attacks on humanitarians were reported in South Sudan than in any other country.

But as the world grapples with these questions, there is one thing we must accept: this attack was not an aberration. Such horrible abuses have been a daily occurrence for a shocking number of South Sudanese – including local aid workers – in recent years. The assault on Terrain also reflects a longstanding and increasing hostility toward the international community in South Sudan – hostility that the government in Juba has encouraged through impunity and irresponsible rhetoric. This must stop, lest more lives be lost.

During its independence struggle, South Sudan was kept afloat by enormous quantities of foreign assistance. And even as other foreign policy priorities came and went, aid to South Sudan kept flowing because of the international community’s goodwill. This aid was not always effective, as many observers have pointed out; yet it was certainly guided by a genuine, strong desire to see South Sudanese succeed.

Today, however, with the crisis in South Sudan escalating, the world’s optimism has faded. A peace deal between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar lies in tatters. Violence against civilians continues at a horrifying clip, and is spreading into parts of the country that had enjoyed relative calm. The nation’s economy seems to hit new lows with each passing month, crushed by a collapse in oil revenue and massive corruption. And the humanitarian situation remains dire, with more than 1.6 million internally displaced and 740,000 forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries.

As the crisis has dragged on, the world’s increasingly pointed criticism of South Sudan – including sanctions and the threat of an arms embargo – has been met with increasingly hostile rhetoric from Juba. The government has summoned U.S. Embassy personnel who expressed concern about violence against civilians, restricted diplomatic visits, confiscated UN travel documents, and stated (wrongly) that a proposed Security Council resolution would turn South Sudan into a UN protectorate and lead to the creation of “new colonies” in Africa.

If these attacks continue, aid agencies will surely limit or suspend their operations in South Sudan. 

Just this week, President Kiir himself veered close to inciting violence against foreigners, when he told a gathering of South Sudanese politicians, “Now these whites are saying they want to bring a protection force; to protect who?... For us, we don’t do anything bad to anybody, but if somebody has interfered into our right, I don’t think we will allow them to go without us touching them.”

The government’s rhetoric is being met with actions on the ground – not just against diplomats, but also against humanitarian personnel, both foreigners and locals. In 2015, more attacks on humanitarians were reported in South Sudan than in any other country. And during the recent violence in Juba, humanitarians told RI of repeated physical abuse and robbery at checkpoints run by the South Sudanese security forces. During multiple stops, soldiers specifically asked whether any of the passengers were Americans.

Then on July 11, tragedy struck at Terrain. Armed men – many allegedly dressed in Presidential Guard uniforms – executed a journalist of Nuer ethnicity, and raped and assaulted others. Those who admitted to being American were reportedly singled out for beatings. At one point, the attackers allegedly threatened to kill all of the foreigners present. A survivor remembered one of his abusers saying, “We’re gonna show the world an example.”

If these attacks continue, aid agencies will surely limit or suspend their operations in South Sudan. Others will spend more on security and less on assistance, in order to protect their personnel. And ultimately, more South Sudanese will be left alone to suffer and die. That’s why this terrible trend must be reversed.

Refugees International therefore calls on the leaders of South Sudan to end impunity for the perpetrators of attacks against humanitarians, and we urge them to cease making veiled threats and insinuations that foment violence. 

Refugees International therefore calls on the leaders of South Sudan to end impunity for the perpetrators of attacks against humanitarians, and we urge them to cease making veiled threats and insinuations that foment violence. Further, we call on the international community to pursue legal action against those South Sudanese who commit serious crimes against civilians – including leaders who engage in incitement. Finally, we call on the US and other Security Council members to impose and implement an arms embargo on South Sudan. Such an embargo will not stop the conflict in South Sudan, but it will contribute to curbing its human costs.

Enough is enough.