Starvation being used as a weapon of war in South Sudan, report reveals

International community urged to intervene as hundreds of thousands forced into refugee camps as homes and crops destroyed and aid workers attacked

Starvation is being used as a weapon of war by South Sudan government forces against their own citizens, an investigation has found.

Deliberate starvation tactics used by government forces and allied militia, and by opposition forces, are driving civilians out of their homes, exacerbating Africa’s largest refugee crisis, according to the report published on Thursday.

All parties to the conflict have committed widespread human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, said the report by law firm Global Rights Compliance.

The report is the first to call on the international community to intervene by demanding that starvation crimes in South Sudan are recognised as violating international law, and that perpetrators of war crimes are brought to justice.

Starvation tactics include the large-scale and systematic burning and razing of homes and property; destruction of food crops and markets; and targeted attacks on humanitarian aid workers. The devastation has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee, mainly to refugee camps in northern Uganda.

Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University and an expert on the Horn of Africa, said starvation crimes perpetrated by South Sudanese government forces are well documented. Recently, the UN high commissioner for human rights and researchers have been recording crimes and seeking accountability, he said.

“There’s a real hope that there may be a first-ever prosecution in either the South Sudan hybrid tribunal or an international court for the war crime of starvation, bringing a South Sudanese culprit to the dock,” said De Waal.

The creation of a hybrid court was announced by the South Sudanese government in January 2021, but it is not yet in operation.

South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but entered a protracted and bloody civil war in 2013. The UN has documented horrific cases of mass rape sexual slavery and executions. There continues to be outbreaks of conflict.

The country has also experienced severe flooding and drought.

A woman stands in front of her family hut submerged by flood waters in Padeah, Unity state. In August 2020 the family was forced to move to Leer Town, one of the few dry lands around South Sudan, where severe flooding has compounded food shortages in recent years.
A woman stands in front of her flooded family hut in Padeah, Unity state, August 2020. Severe flooding has compounded food shortages. Photograph: WFP

According to the UN, the threat to human life and the risk of famine has never been higher. Nearly 8 million people are believed to be facing acute food insecurity.

“We are really disturbed by soldiers, the very people who should protect civilians,” one woman told researchers. “We have seen an increase of cases of looting, even when people are raped, they are also robbed of money and food. We understand the soldiers are looting because they have not been paid for months. What does the government expect if they give their unpaid servants guns?”

Yasmin Sooka, chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said: “The people we meet tell us repeatedly that the only way the killings, rape and sexual violence, looting and pillage will stop is if those responsible for the violations are held criminally accountable. Impunity for these serious violations since 2013 has got us to this desperate point, where most South Sudanese are unable to feed themselves and rely mainly on humanitarian assistance.”

South Sudan is the deadliest place for humanitarian aid workers. Since 2013, 130 individuals have been killed while delivering aid and services, the vast majority of them South Sudanese nationals, according to the UN.

Médecins Sans Frontières and the World Food Programme were forced to suspend the supply of food, healthcare and drinking water to civilians after their workers suffered violent attacks.


Sarah Johnson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
South Sudan ‘failed’ by international aid system as food crisis intensifies
Catholic charity Cafod says local NGOs are best placed to respond on the frontline but are being cut out of the process

Kaamil Ahmed

07, Feb, 2023 @10:25 AM

Article image
‘Hunger is killing me’: starvation as a weapon of war in South Sudan | Sam Mednick
Civil war has ravaged once-bountiful Equatoria, now a wasteland of looted shops and abandoned homes, with close to 400,000 people desperate for food

Sam Mednick in Lainya

10, Jan, 2018 @6:30 AM

Article image
South Sudan atrocities amount to war crimes, report warns
Civilians subject to ‘extraordinary acts of cruelty’, including gang rape and ethnically motivated murder, says Human Rights Watch

Sam Jones

07, Aug, 2014 @11:01 PM

Article image
'I buried my smallest one under a bush': starvation and sorrow in South Sudan | Jason Burke
When Mary Cholil sought food and shelter after her village was torched, her three-year-old daughter died. In a country ravaged by hunger and conflict, such tragedies have become all too familiar

Jason Burke in Pibor

23, Jun, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
UN report: South Sudan allowed soldiers to rape civilians in civil war
Scale of atrocities committed by both sides laid bare in report, including allegations of torture, murder and deliberate mass displacement

Sam Jones

11, Mar, 2016 @3:01 PM

Article image
Ethics row rages after South Sudan leader wets himself on live TV
Critics say President Salva Kiir is unfit to lead long-suffering nation while others decry mocking of ‘an elder’

Kaamil Ahmed

22, Dec, 2022 @6:15 AM

Article image
Why can't South Sudan have truth and trials? | Sam Jones
Salva Kiir and Riek Machar have warned the world against pursuing justice for the manifold war crimes committed under their watch. South Sudan deserves better

Sam Jones

08, Jun, 2016 @12:38 PM

Article image
Tigray has been the scene of ‘ethnic cleansing’, say human rights groups
Human Rights Watch-Amnesty report accuses Ethiopian paramilitaries of war crimes and crimes against humanity

Kaamil Ahmed

06, Apr, 2022 @5:15 AM

Article image
'Untold devastation' in South Sudan triggers grave humanitarian crisis
Violence and displacements lead to more than 6 million South Sudanese needing humanitarian assistance, UN says

Simona Foltyn

09, Aug, 2016 @11:42 AM

Article image
South Sudan celebrates new peace accord amid joy – and scepticism
Rebel leader Riek Machar returns from exile as warring factions agree to share power

Jason Burke and Benjamin Takpiny in Juba

31, Oct, 2018 @4:56 PM