Interviews with hundreds of witnesses led to ‘clear pattern of ethnic persecution’

UN investigators say they have identified more than 40 South Sudanese military officers who may be responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Their findings are a sharp departure from previous UN reports that documented crimes but not perpetrators.

Oil-rich South Sudan gained independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011, but slid into civil war in December 2013. More than 4 million people, a third of the population, have been displaced by violence.

The investigators, from the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, say their findings are based on interviews with hundreds of witnesses, satellite imagery and nearly 60,000 documents dating back to the outbreak of the war.

Their report, released on Friday, makes the case for “individual command responsibility for widespread or systematic attacks on civilians” by senior military officers, including eight lieutenant generals, and by three state governors.

So far, there have been very few prosecutions of South Sudanese military or government officials for crimes against civilians.

The UN report details what it calls “appalling instances of cruelty against civilians.It says such violence occurred during five major battles between government troops and rebels in 2016 and 2017.

Whether the investigators’ evidence will result in prosecutions depends on the African Union. Under a 2015 peace deal that fell apart in 2016, the AU and South Sudan were supposed to set up a “hybrid court”, consisting of South Sudanese and other African judges, to try people accused of atrocities.

A year ago, the UN commission said the AU was making itself complicit in South Sudan’s bloodshed by failing to set up the court. It called again on Friday for the court to be established.

Elections are due in South Sudan this year, according to the 2015 peace pact. But other countries,  are trying to get the warring sides to observe a ceasefire before any vote is held.