Geneva — Despite a peace agreement, mass atrocities continue in South Sudan, driven partly by fights over control of oil, and foreign oil companies may be complicit in war crimes, a United Nations panel said on Wednesday.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said it was “outraged by reports of thousands of civilians forcibly displaced following a scorched earth policy in which the parties to the conflict are attacking villages, torching homes, killing civilians and also raping women and girls,” Andrew Clapham, a member of the three-person panel, told reporters in Geneva.
A peace deal signed five months ago brought some hope to parts of South Sudan after five years of brutal conflict between President Salva Kiir’s forces and those loyal to his former deputy, Riek Machar, the panel said. But in a 216-page report it will submit to the Human Rights Council next month, the commission detailed continuing war crimes and crimes against humanity, and intensifying repression by the country’s security services.
Fighting between government forces and a rebel group, the National Salvation Front, in the south of the country had driven thousands of villagers to seek safety in nearby towns and thousands more to flee across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Clapham said.
In its report, the panel also cited “astonishing brutality” by government forces and associated militias in the northern, oil-rich Unity State in 2018, including a flare-up of mass rape and sexual violence in the last months of the year, detailed last week by United Nations investigators. Mr. Clapham said that more than 125 women had suffered multiple gang rapes over a period of 10 days in December.
The scale of sexual violence carried out by warring forces had “markedly worsened” over the past year, he said, and such crimes persisted because “impunity is so entrenched in South Sudan.”
The commission is compiling dossiers on individuals linked to atrocities and has already submitted names to the United Nations human rights office, but the panel expressed concern at the lack of progress in setting up courts to prosecute perpetrators.
The report emphasized the role of South Sudan’s oil industry as “a major driver for the continuing violence, the ensuing human suffering, and the violations of international humanitarian law witnessed there,” warning foreign companies that they could be implicated in abuses.
Control of the country’s oil resources was “a top prize” in the struggle for political and economic power, the panel wrote, noting that a government offensive carried out using “extremely violent methods” in the first half of 2018 was aimed largely at securing control of areas close to oil fields and either pacifying or driving out the civilian population.
South Sudan’s intelligence services have increasingly taken control of the state-owned Nile Petroleum Corporation, known as Nilepet, siphoning off money to finance the conflict and to enrich the political and ethnic elites, the commission said.
Western companies had pulled out of oil production activities in the area before South Sudan gained independence in 2011, partly because of human rights violations, opening the way for companies from Asia. Oil production is now dominated by three joint ventures between Nilepet and Chinese National Petroleum Company, Petronas of Malaysia and the Indian Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.
The United States Commerce Department added the three joint ventures last year to its list of companies that had violated American policy or national security interests. It said the oil companies were “contributing to the ongoing crisis in South Sudan because they are a source of substantial revenue that, through public corruption, is used to fund the purchase of weapons and other material that undermine the peace, security, and stability of South Sudan rather than support the welfare of the South Sudanese people.”
The United Nations commission on South Sudan said that international companies “should be well aware of the legacy of unaddressed human rights violations associated with oil explorations.”
That listing underscored the companies’ exposure to potential criminal liability for causing or contributing to the continuing armed conflict and the violations against civilians in their areas of operation, the panel said. The international community and Human Rights Council “should pay more attention” to the issue, Mr. Clapham said.
As a case in point, the panel noted that Sweden began the prosecution of the chairman and chief executive officer of a Swedish oil company, Lundin, in October 2018 for crimes against civilians. Those arose from military operations in the late 1990s and early 2000s that were intended to clear the area for oil production and that involved widespread abuses.