Severe human rights abuses were carried out against South Sudanese citizens caught in the civil war raging since 2013, according to a UN report published last week.
President Salva Kiir's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and rebels commandeered by former deputy Riek Machar have carried out unprecedented war crimes against civilians on both sides of the political standoff, the report reveals. The opposing forces burnt alive children and disabled people, and raped women as restitution of damages incurred from the other side.
"This is one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world, with massive use of rape as an instrument of terror and weapon of war, yet it has been more or less off the international radar," stated UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein.
"The quantity of rapes and gang-rapes described in the report must only be a snapshot of the real total," al-Hussein said.
The report said that "many civilians have been attacked and killed in their homes, as well as in places of shelter, including churches, mosques, hospitals and in the United Nations bases."
The UN document was published six months after reports of militia-sponsored abductions and rapes emerged in the media, which are being interpreted as a consequence of the government's "scorched earth policy" against citizens in the enemy zone.
"The scale and types of sexual violence - primarily by government SPLA forces and affiliated militia - are described in searing, devastating detail, as is the almost casual, yet calculated, attitude of those slaughtering civilians and destroying property and livelihoods," said al-Hussein.
The report alleges that SPLA detained 60 cattle herders in containers without air holes or vents at an abandoned Catholic church in Leer town in October, causing all but one to die of suffocation within one or two days.
UN human rights officer David Marshall told The New York Times that the state needs to adhere to accountability and investigate insiders who are "orchestrating the violence against their own civilians."
The government has denied the allegations in the UN report, saying that the SPLA was given "strict rules of engagement" to not commit violence against civilians.
"We condemn in the strongest terms possible any crimes committed against civilians," government spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny told the Guardian.
"The government takes it very seriously and we are investigating to find who has committed these heinous crimes and as soon as we get those who are responsible for committing human rights violations, we will bring them to book," he added.
About 50,000 people were killed and 2.2 million displaced in the two years of civil war in South Sudan, and millions of others were adversely affected by the war-torn economy.