KHARTOUM / GENEVA – A series of brutal attacks on civilians by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Southern Sudan "may amount to crimes against humanity," according to a new report* released Monday by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The report covers investigations by human rights staff employed by OHCHR and the UN mission in Sudan (UNMIS) into a series of 27 confirmed attacks carried out by LRA groups between December 2008 and March 2009, during which at least 81 civilians were killed, with many others injured, mutilated, raped and abducted, including women and at least 18 children whom the report says were forced to work as child soldiers, sex slaves, porters and spies.
Some of the children subsequently escaped and their accounts of sexual and other forms of abuse corroborate information received from other children abducted in previous LRA raids, the report says. In addition, an unknown number of women were raped during or after the attacks, and many of the abducted adults and children may have been subsequently killed.
During the LRA raids, villages were pillaged and often partly or entirely destroyed, and a total of more than 38,000 people were reported to have been displaced within Southern Sudan's Western and Central Equatoria States, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), by 10 March.
LRA groups entered Southern Sudan, as well as neighbouring Central African Republic (CAR), after a joint military offensive against them in the DRC by the Ugandan and Congolese armies in December 2008. By 10 March, a further 17,000 people had fled into Sudan as a result of LRA actions in both DRC and CAR.
In Southern Sudan, numerous witnesses described to UN investigators how the LRA is operating in groups of between five and twenty individuals armed with "bladed weapons" – including machetes, axes, bayonets, knives, hoes, clubs and spears – as well as AK-47 automatic rifles and machine guns. "In many attacks, they preferred the use of bladed weapons over firearms," the report says, citing the example of attacks on two villages where "attackers used pangas, axes, bayonets, hoes and knives on the majority of the victims. They reserved their firearms for those who attempted to escape."
The security forces of the Government of Southern Sudan often lacked the capacity to protect the populations under attack, the report says, while also describing specific occasions when they could have intervened effectively, but "lacked the will to do so." However, on some occasions, it says, "their response was adequate."
"The brutality employed during the attacks was consistent, deliberate and egregious," the High Commissioner's report says, citing a number of gruesome witness accounts including that of one man who "reported discovering the mutilated body of a fellow villager. The villager's leg had been chopped off, his jaws had been dislocated and his teeth had been pulled out."
The LRA attackers "targeted civilians, killing many and causing serious injury without regard for sex, age or ethnicity," the report says, noting that even babies were killed.
The High Commissioner's report concludes that the "evidence suggests that the LRA attacks may amount to crimes against humanity." It notes that, under the Statute of the International Criminal Court (the Rome Statute), murder, enslavement, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, rape and sexual slavery are all considered to be crimes against humanity, provided they are carried out "as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack."
Among an extensive list of recommendations, the report asks the international community, including governments in the region, to cooperate with the International Criminal Court to search for, arrest and surrender the LRA leaders accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. It also calls on the Government of Southern Sudan to take a number of steps to tackle LRA crimes, as well as to devote adequate resources to ensure fair and effective judicial processes in order to bring perpetrators to justice, and for such efforts to be supported by UNMIS and the international community.
The LRA was formed in the late 1980s in Uganda. For around two decades, its attacks were mainly directed against Ugandan civilians and security forces. In 2003, Uganda's President Museveni referred the situation to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and in 2005 the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber II issued arrest warrants for the LRA's Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Kony and other senior LRA commanders on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
A second report on the LRA, also published Monday by OHCHR and MONUC (the UN peace-keeping mission in DR Congo), catalogues some 1,200 civilians killed and 1,400 abducted (including 630 children and over 400 women) from September 2008 to June 2009 and concludes that the systematic and widespread violations by the LRA in DRC may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.