Amnesty International is urging the United Nations Security Council to renew its arms embargo on South Sudan, saying violence, atrocities and war crimes against civilians have quadrupled this year despite a cease-fire and formation of a unity government in February.
The Security Council first imposed an arms embargo on South Sudan in May 2018, which it renewed a year later and again in May 2020.
Brian Castner, senior crisis adviser and weapons investigator at the New York-based rights group Amnesty International, told South Sudan in Focus the embargo is needed because government forces do not "use their weapons responsibly," adding that they are "often the ones committing the atrocities themselves."
In a report Amnesty International submitted to the Security Council last week ahead of a midterm review of South Sudan's arms embargo to be conducted sometime before December 15, the rights group reported numerous cases of extrajudicial executions, forced displacement, rape, torture and destruction of civilian property by government and former opposition forces from April to June 2020 in Central Equatoria state.
The report said the level of violence against civilians quadrupled this year compared with last year, despite a cease-fire and a government of national unity in place.
Amnesty International carried out research to determine if there were still "cases of violence against civilians and massacres and forced displacement and the burning of villages," and found that from April to June of this year, that period "was one of the most violent times for civilians in South Sudan for years," according to Castner.
He said that in the middle of the year, there was four times the rate of violence compared with the year before, according to data from the Stimson Center, a Washington-based organization that identifies itself as a nonpartisan policy research center "working to solve the world's greatest threats to security and prosperity."
The South Sudan People's Defense Forces, the Sudan People's Liberation Army in Opposition, and the National Salvation Front (NAS) clashed repeatedly in Central Equatoria state, where government forces attacked civilians who were accused of supporting rebel forces, Castner said.
"We identified 110 homes that had been burned in various villages, mass displacement of tens of thousands of people, and specific cases of torture and extrajudicial executions in the course of that fighting," Castner told South Sudan in Focus.
In Yei, Lanya, and Morobo counties of Central Equatoria state, Amnesty International found "a pattern where first those forces clash, government forces and NAS, and afterwards the government forces will go into the nearby villages and accuse those civilians of being supporters of NAS, of supplying them with food," Castner said.
Aside from the several interviews Amnesty conducted with civilians and survivors of rights abuses, Castner said satellite imagery and other data show that violence against civilians also occurred in Jonglei, Lakes, Warrap and Western Equatoria states.
"The month of May was the worst month for violence against civilians in four years, so any narrative that the peace process is working, that the unity government is working, that South Sudan should no longer be 'punished' - it's the word they sometimes used with the arms embargo - because the war is over, well violence against civilians was the worst in four years in the month of May; that tells me the war is not over," Castner told VOA.
He said the documented atrocities and human rights violations that occurred in South Sudan this year mean the arms embargo "should stay in place."
Government forces and the rebel group the National Salvation Front have clashed several times this year. Each time, each accuses the other of violating a cease-fire signed in Rome, Italy, at the beginning of 2020.
The most recent violation took place earlier this month while the two parties were engaged in a trust-building workshop in Rome. It led to the withdrawal of the South Sudan Opposition Movement Alliance from the workshop when the group accused the government of attacking their forces in Lobonok County of Central Equatoria state. A government army spokesperson denied the accusation and said it was NAS forces that initiated the attack.