Rights abuses worry U.S. over S. Sudan army aid
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JUBA, Sudan -- Only six years ago, the Sudan People's Liberation Army was a ragtag group of guerrilla fighters battling a bloody civil war with Sudan's north. Next weekend, when the south breaks away and becomes the world's newest country, the SPLA becomes a national army.
The U.S. is investing tens of millions of dollars into this fledgling military, one that is massing troops on the internal north-south border as tensions -- and violence -- with the north rise. SPLA troops are battling rebel militias in hot spots around the south, and fears of renewed war with the north remain high.
But international rights groups say those soldiers have been responsible for human rights abuses, including killings.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who sponsored a law that prohibits the U.S. from giving assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights, says he is concerned about reports of abuses.
The State Department is giving nearly $100 million in yearly assistance to train and support the SPLA, and it says it is monitoring the behavior of the former guerrilla fighters.
But monitoring the 140,000-plus-member army of a developing nation the size of Texas is a nearly impossible task, opening the way for abuses.
In April, a 700-member battalion of SPLA Commandos -- the most highly trained of the SPLA's fighters -- fired indiscriminately on unarmed men, women and children during an attack on a rival ethnic group at a remote Nile River village in Jonglei state, killing or wounding hundreds of civilians, according to witness accounts in a confidential U.N. report.
After an inquiry from Congress, the State Department investigated and found that no U.S. assistance is being given to the two commanders named in the U.N. report or to the commando unit as a whole. The State Department said it would exclude those involved from receiving future assistance until an investigation proves they were not involved in violations.
"The Leahy Law serves a vital purpose in seeking to ensure that U.S. aid does not go to foreign military and police forces who commit heinous crimes," Mr. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told The Associated Press. "I am concerned with the reports of abuses by Southern Sudanese troops and expect the law to be applied vigorously and consistently."
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Thursday released a report that urged the new southern government to prosecute and prevent abuses by southern security forces.
The report noted that since the south's independence vote in January "soldiers have been responsible for grave human rights abuses, including unlawful killings of civilians and looting and destruction of civilian property."
"The government needs to demonstrate its commitment to combat a growing culture of impunity for abuses by its security forces," Daniel Bekele, director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch said. "It should make sure that rank-and-file soldiers and their officers, as well as the police service, know and understand their obligations, and are held accountable for violations."
Since Sudan's decades-long civil war ended in 2005 -- a war in which some 2 million people died -- the U.S. government has given more money than to any other foreign military to programs aimed at professionalizing the SPLA. According to research by the Open Society Foundations, the Obama administration is requesting nearly $160 million in assistance to the armed forces in Southern Sudan for fiscal year 2012.
Southern Sudan becomes a new country next Saturday.
Sudan experts say a responsible and professional southern army will be essential to improving security in the vast and underdeveloped south, where basic principles of rule of law and justice have yet to be upheld and enforced by southern security forces.
First Published July 3, 2011 12:00 am