U.S. Congressman to South Sudan: Implement Zero Tolerance on Rape or Face the Consequences
A U.S. congressman traveled to South Sudan and urged the government there to implement zero-tolerance policies on rape.
On July 11, South Sudanese government soldiers raided an expatriate compound popular among Western aid workers in Juba and specifically targeted Americans, beating and gang raping them, and carrying out mock executions. Despite phone calls to the U.S. Embassy in Juba and the United Nations, which has some 12,000 peacekeepers deployed to the country, it took hours before a separate contingent of South Sudanese government soldiers arrived and rescued some of the victims from the brutal attack, which was detailed in an exclusive Associated Press report earlier this month. Others were helped by a private security firm the following day.
Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey congressman who chairs the House Subcommittee on Africa, told Foreign Policy in a phone call on Monday that one of the women sexually assaulted by government troops during the July attack is constituent of his. She spoke to him by phone ahead of his trip to South Sudan this past weekend, where, Smith says, he met with President Salva Kiir and Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk. He led both meetings by bringing up her case, and according to him, both Kiir and Juuk agreed to his request to implement a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault by their forces.
“‘You need to do it now,’” Smith said he told both of them. “Obviously South Sudanese women are being raped with impunity, aid workers are being raped and of course killed, and leadership starts at the top and needs to be right down through the chain of command.”
South Sudan, itself the product of a decades-long battle with Sudan, has been embroiled in a bloody civil war of its own since late December 2013, when fighting broke out between troops loyal to Kiir and those loyal to then-Vice President Riek Machar. Since then, at least 50,000 people have been killed and both sides have committed mass atrocities — although government troops are blamed for far more atrocities than are the rebels.
Kiir belongs to the Dinka ethnic group and Machar to the Nuer. In July, Foreign Policy documented how troops loyal to Kiir launched a campaign of ethnically-motivated mass rape and murder against Nuer civilians in South Sudan’s Unity State. A peace deal signed last August did little to slow down the fighting, and although Machar briefly returned to the capital to implement a unity government in April, he fled during the July fighting and is now reported to be in Khartoum seeking medical treatment. Kiir has since replaced him with Taban Deng Gai, who reportedly defected from the opposition.
“In every meeting with government officials, there’s all the generals sitting there, six of them, and the defense minister, and I made eye contact with every one of them and said ‘That’s not what a military does. It doesn’t rape women,” Smith said, adding that Kiir neither admitted nor outright denied that his forces were responsible for the attack on the compound in July. The South Sudanese ambassador to Washington did not answer multiple phone calls from Foreign Policy on Monday.
The August AP report documented how the South Sudanese soldiers appeared to target the Juba compound specifically in order to find Americans. “One of them, as soon as he said he was American, he was hit with a rifle butt,” one woman told the AP.
Smith said he questioned Juuk as to why his troops would harbor such hatred toward American aid workers who are in the country to provide services to civilians.
“It was a very intense back and forth, and he didn’t seem to think there was animosity toward Americans,” Smith said about the defense minister. “But I said there are quotations in news articles and I’ve heard it first hand from my constituent. Nobody has done more to help birth South Sudan and sustain it than the U.S.A.” The United States was at the forefront of the push for South Sudanese independence, with was achieved in 2011.
Kiir has previously promised similar zero tolerance toward sexual assault carried out by his troops, but the congressman said that in his meetings, he compared the policy he was suggesting Kiir implement to a George W. Bush-era policy that cracked down on sex trafficking in war zones. It would apply to all armed parties in South Sudan, not just government troops.
Smith stressed the ties to Bush’s policy, he said, because Kiir thinks so highly of the former American president, and still wears the cowboy hat Bush gifted him while he was president
He also said he warned the South Sudanese president that his “window of opportunity is very, very short,” and that if he needs help from the U.S. military, “it will be provided.”
“But I said, you know Mr. President, if you don’t pivot now…the trend line is terrible for support, and it’ll be over.”
Photo credit: SAMIR BOL/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Sept. 1, 2016: Due to misinformation from Rep. Chris Smith, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the congressman’s constituent was raped by South Sudanese government forces. She was sexually assaulted, not raped.