South Sudan leaders used chaos of war to loot billions, investigation reveals

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South Sudanese women and children queue to receive emergency food at the United Nations protection of civilians (POC) site 3 hosting about 30,000 people displaced during the recent fighting in Juba, South Sudan July 25, 2016. REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian - RTSJJBH

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: South Sudan is the world’s newest country, gaining independence from Sudan in 2011.

But, two years later, civil war broke out in the small East African nation. Though a peace agreement was signed in 2015, sporadic fighting continues. Millions have been displaced, while rival leaders fight for power and the country’s oil and mineral wealth.

A two-year-long investigation into those leaders and their allies revealed billions have been looted from the country.

“NewsHour” producer P.J. Tobia has our story

And a warning: Some viewers may find some of the imagery disturbing.

P.J. TOBIA: Small, poor and dangerous, the U.N. has called South Sudan one of the most horrendous human rights situations in the world.

Fighters loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, have been battling those backing former Vice President Riek Machar for most of the last four years. Caught in the crossfire are Sudan’s impoverished civilians. More than two million South Sudanese have been displaced by the fighting. Tens of thousands have been killed.

The U.N. found that, in just six months last year, 1,300 women were raped by fighters in one South Sudanese state alone. A report released today by The Sentry, a rights group in Washington, accuses the leaders who’ve orchestrated this brutality of making billions off the conflict. Actor George Clooney wrote the foreword to the report. “Hotel Rwanda” star Don Cheadle also works with The Sentry. Both were at the National Press Club this morning to talk about the investigation.

GEORGE CLOONEY, Co-Founder, “The Sentry”: This is pretty explosive stuff. We’re talking about the president and the ousted vice president, along with all of their generals, that we’re able to prove without any question that not only are they committing these crimes which they have already been accused of, but that they’re profiting off of it.

P.J. TOBIA: The report outlines how South Sudan’s political leaders, generals and their families have used the chaos of war to generate vast sums of wealth. They have built mansions across the world, from Uganda and Kenya to Australia.

That young woman flashing the peace sign from the sunroof of a BMW? She’s the daughter of a former general, a former general whose state salary was never more than 45,000 U.S. dollars.

This man is the stepson of another South Sudanese general. He calls himself the young tycoon. His Facebook photos show a life of privilege unimaginable to most South Sudanese. Here, he narrates a tour of a presidential suite at a luxury hotel in Las Vegas.

JOHN PRENDERGAST, Enough Project: So, it’s like a mafia in some ways. A mafia has taken over the state.

P.J. TOBIA: John Prendergast is the director of the Enough Project, a rights group that oversees The Sentry group.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: The mafia we see in the movies, that is shooting a few people. In South Sudan, tens of thousands of people have died in this war, with horrific atrocities, mass rape, child soldier recruitment., all the worst of the worst of the human rights abuses that we hear about globally. And this is how they stay in power.

P.J. TOBIA: Prendergast says much of the corruption happens through government contracts granted to the family members of political and military leaders.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: They put their family members as share owners of the companies, and then they gets, contracts from the state to allow those companies to operate. So, it’s a backdoor way out of the national treasury to privately enrich yourself and your family.

P.J. TOBIA: Meanwhile, the war helps the rich get richer.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: If you control the government institutions, well, you have access to the army. You have access to the state budget. You can buy weapons. You can steal as much as you want. You can issue contracts to your own company that you have set up.

It’s in the context of war that a certain group of people become fabulously wealthy, while the rest of the country is immiserated.

P.J. TOBIA: As a result, two bitter enemies, President Kiir and his rival, Riek Machar, own luxury villas just a short distance from one another in the exclusive Lavington neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, all made possible by international enablers, says Prendergast.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: Bankers, and businessmen, arms dealers, all kinds of different lawyers, shipping agents, accountants. There are a number of different professions that are gladly at the service of dictators and war criminals, because they pay an extra premium.

P.J. TOBIA: Clooney, Cheadle and Prendergast came to the White House this afternoon for a meeting with President Obama. They want the president to sign an executive order targeting the international assets of South Sudan’s leaders. Such an order would make it difficult for these leaders to access the international banking system, move cash, buy property and do business across borders.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: If we were able to create that standard over time, where real consequences would accrue to people who would be willing to kill by the thousands to stay in power or to gain power, it would have a — I believe, a chilling effect on mass atrocities being committed in the future.

P.J. TOBIA: South Sudan’s leaders keep their money offshore. That makes them vulnerable.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: Because they have this vulnerability of offshoring their assets, we can use existing policy tools to go after that money.

P.J. TOBIA: It’s a strategy that’s been used to target terrorists post-9/11.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: We got to raise the cost of doing business with war criminals.

P.J. TOBIA: Corrupt leaders of war-torn countries are nothing new. But applying this strategy to isolate them is new.

It might be a way to begin holding these mass killers responsible for their actions.

P.J. Tobia, “PBS NewsHour,” in Washington.

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