U.N. Report Finds Women and Children Targeted by Government Forces in South Sudan
Mel Duncan of Nonviolent Peace Force says gender-based violence and rape is used as a direct weapon against women by both government and paramilitary forces
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
On Friday, March 11, the United Nations released another report documenting human rights abuses in South Sudan. Critics of the report, however, feel that the United Nations has not done enough to address the humanitarian crisis there, but they have over 12,000 U.N. peacekeeping forces in South Sudan. The coordinator of the United Nations Human Rights Assessment mission in South Sudan, David Marshall, addressed what is in the report. Let’s have a look.
DAVID MARSHALL: So the key findings are that crimes against humanity and war crimes have continued into 2015, and they have predominantly been perpetrated by the government. There are instances of opposition violations, as well, but the violations identified in 2013, ’14, and ’15 are the same, which is killing of civilians, displacement, pillaging, abductions, rape, and general–generally terrorizing the civilian population.
PERIES: On to discuss this story more is Mel Duncan. He’s the founding director of Nonviolent Peace Force, and he’s been to Sudan and has been working there. Mel, thank you so much for joining us today.
MEL DUNCAN: Thank you for having me, Sharmini.
PERIES: So, let’s just begin by giving us some context as to what you were doing in Sudan and what your organization’s presence is there.
DUNCAN: Nonviolent Peace Force was invited by local grassroots groups to what was then Southern Sudan in 2010 in the run-up to a referendum for national independence. And that referendum took place in 2011, and over 95 percent of the people voted in favor of independence. So South Sudan became the newest country in the world, and arguably one of the three or four poorest countries in the world.
So for the next couple of years they moved along until there was a re-ignition of a political rivalry at the end of 2013 that pitted the former vice president against the current president. And since that time there has been a steady escalation of war that’s been heaped upon the civilians, and as today’s report by the UN chronicles in brutal detail, that the brunt of this war has been taken out on civilians, and especially women and children.
PERIES: Now, the officials of South Sudan are denying the allegations in the U.N. report. Give us some sense of what the report cites in terms of evidence and incidents that have occurred.
DUNCAN: Well, they talk about gender-based violence, which is just a sanitized way of saying gang rape, that has been perpetrated by government soldiers, and also by other armed groups, but that these types of activities are being undertaken by the armed actors, both government and non-government, as a strategy of war, and a way to get retribution, to mark territory, and to subdue and dominate a population. And so this is one of the worst places on the planet right now where rape and other forms of gender-based violence are being used as a direct weapon of war.
PERIES: And what is the resistance–and I know you were offline telling me about how a women’s group is working on this issue. They were headed to New York, but they’ve been turned back. Tell me a little bit more about that very important commission underway at the U.N. to hear the complaints of the women, but they didn’t get their say.
DUNCAN: Yes. On Sunday begins the annual Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. There will be 8,000 people there, most of them women who are working around the world. We had a delegation of three women, two from South Sudan and one from Kenya, who have been working on the ground, both in terms of undertaking effective strategies to protect women from these kinds of gang rapes, but also organizing women into women’s peacekeeping teams. There’s ten women’s peacekeeping teams made up of indigenous women in South Sudan who are at work.
And so, Sarah and Susan and Jane were on their way to New York. They were scheduled to give a, what’s called a parallel event, on Monday afternoon. And the U.S. Embassy, because of bureaucratic, just bungling, was not able to get them their visas, even though they had been asking for them and applying for weeks now. And so at this moment, instead of on an airplane from Nairobi to New York, they are headed back from Nairobi to Juba. These women who have powerful voices and are working at the grassroots, and effectively addressing the kinds of horrific violence that’s described in the U.N. report today.
PERIES: Now, give us some context to the civil war in South Sudan. Obviously the country’s torn up. This report itself is devastating. But the government is really resisting the allegations of the report. But give us a sense of what the ethnic conflict that drove the government to this stage of perpetrating these kinds of atrocities against its own population.
DUNCAN: Sharmini, it is not an ethnic conflict. This is a political conflict about greed and power between two men. Now, they have ethnicized it, and conveniently exploited divisions and old [lines] that go back to a civil war that claimed 2 million people during the beginning of the century, a war that came to an end in 2005 with a comprehensive peace agreement. And as a part of that peace agreement was the referendum for the vote for independence in 2011. And that vote did take place, it took place with relatively little violence. People of various ethnicities were living together. And then the political opportunities and greed came up, and the war broke out, and it was ethnicized. But first and foremost this is a political fight.
PERIES: And as it is, most places where they claim that there’s an ethnic conflict, there’s usually a lot of people living in harmony, mixed marriages, life goes on between the two communities as normal as it can be under the circumstances. Give us a sense of how people are living and working between the two communities.
DUNCAN: The women’s peacekeeping teams are coming together and forming a group called Women Speaking with One Voice. And these are women who come from various tribes who are coming together and demanding that the men stop the fighting. Because it’s the women, you know, who stay home, who are in the villages, who are keeping things going while the men go off. And they’re the ones that are taking care of the children, and who are keeping people fed and housed and everything else. And they are increasingly saying, enough, stop this.
And of course, this is an ancient tradition. There’s a Greek play about this. And it’s unfolding again today in South Sudan.
PERIES: All right. Mel, I thank you so much for joining us today. This is International Women’s Week, and we look forward to you putting us in touch with some of the women that were on their way to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and we’d love to speak to them directly next time.
DUNCAN: And, Sharmini, can I just give you one other example of what’s happening?
PERIES: Yes, absolutely.
DUNCAN: There are tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to what are called protection of civilian areas. These are impromptu camps in close proximity of U.N. compounds. Every day the women have to leave to collect firewood. And so as they stay there longer and longer, two years now, they have to go further into the bush to get the firewood. Routinely there are cadres of government soldiers and non-govt soldiers who lurk and will rape the women. What we find is if we send 2-4 unarmed civilian protectors with 20-30 women, the soldiers look the other way and leave the women alone. We did this for over 6,000 women last year.
This is the kind of approach that, if it were scaled up–we only have 200 people on the ground. If it were scaled up, if we had people from around the world coming and providing this kind of disciplined, nonviolent accompaniment, that could make a big difference in reducing the numbers that were so tragically chronicled in the U.N. report today.
PERIES: And I understand that the U.N. itself has about 12,000 peacekeeping forces still there. And I hope that they make some sort of serious intervention so that they can address the findings of their own report. I thank you so much for joining us, Mel.
DUNCAN: Thank you, Sharmini.
PERIES: And thank you so much for joining us on the Real News Network.
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