Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan: Statement to the media, Juba


23 August 2019

Delivered by Commission Chair Yasmin Sooka, Commission Member Andrew Clapham, and Commission Member Barney Afako

Juba – 23 August 2019

  1. Good Morning ladies and gentlemen and thank you for joining us today. We very much value the opportunity to be able to speak to the South Sudanese community.

  2. As you may be aware, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan was established by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 to monitor and report on the human rights situation in the country and to make recommendations to improve it. Our mandate includes collecting and preserving evidence of – and clarifying responsibility for – alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes, including sexual and gender-based violence and ethnic violence, with a view to ending impunity and providing accountability. Evidence collected by the Commission is being preserved to contribute towards a factual basis for the Hybrid Court and other transitional justice mechanisms and reconciliation. The mandate of the Commission was originally for one year, but it has been extended three times.

  3. The Commission is independent and is mandated to engage with the Government of South Sudan, international and regional mechanisms including the United Nations, the UN Mission in South Sudan, the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and civil society, among others, so that it can provide support to national, regional, and international efforts to promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses.

  4. The Commission continues to document violations, collect evidence, and build dossiers on individuals who may bear criminal responsibility, and is preserving these records for future accountability processes. The names of alleged perpetrators are contained in a confidential dossier that will be handed over to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

  5. We express our sincere gratitude to the Government of South Sudan for the cooperation and support they have extended to us in our work in South Sudan, this is a tribute to the Government’s expressed commitment to the joint resolution that it sponsored in the Human Rights Council.

  6. During our current visit between 19 and 26 August, the Commissioners with the support of Secretariat staff visited Juba, Bentiu, and Yei in South Sudan. We will also visit Uganda from 24 August, Ethiopia from 25 August, and Kenya from 27 August. The Commission would also like to thank the regional Governments of Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya for their continued support including granting access for us to meet with South Sudanese refugees during our missions.

  7. In Juba, Bentiu, and Yei, the Commission met this week with UN representatives, international organizations, and community members comprising religious leaders and civil society, including women’s groups, recent returnees and internally displaced persons. We were encouraged by the fact that committees have been formed to improve civil-military relations and support disputes resolution and reconciliation, composed of military and civil actors including South Sudan Defence Force, National Security Service, State civil authority, civil society organizations, women organizations and UN and humanitarian entities in Yei River State. Such mechanisms that facilitate communication between armed actors and civilians could be replicated in other places and locations where violent conflict and violations have been witnessed in the country.

  8. In contrast to our last visit eight months ago, however, when the prevailing sense about the peace process was one of cautious optimism, interlocutors repeatedly expressed frustration that key provisions of the Revitalized Peace Agreement including deadlines had not been adhered to. While there have been significant gains in community dialogues including in Yei River State, intercommunal violence premised on cattle-raiding and boundary disputes has recently spiked, including in Bahr al-Ghazal. We note that overall armed conflict has waned considerably since the signing of the Agreement, and has shifted mostly to such intercommunal strife. Even so, civilians with whom we spoke still raised numerous concerns that they believe will be barriers to sustainable peace. Their concerns included continued impunity for sexual and gender-based violence, delays and inefficiencies in the cantonment process, localization of conflict linked to land, resources and cattle, deteriorating living conditions for those internally displaced, the securitization of the state and continued shrinking space for civic engagement, frustration with the functioning of the judiciary, and the absence of accountability mechanisms including establishment of the Hybrid Court, among others.

  9. Last March we updated the Human Rights Council on the large degree to which rape and sexual violence had been perpetrated in South Sudan. Gender-based violence continues to be one of the most critical threats to the protection and well-being of women and children countrywide. UNICEF estimates that 50 per cent of all girls in South Sudan are married before they reach the age of 18, rendering them vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation. Some girls have been married without their consent and are struggling to leave unwanted unions, including in cases where they were married against a bride price at a young age to provide economic relief to their families. Women also want for income generating opportunities and economic empowerment, which can help curb incidents of domestic violence.

  10. Meanwhile, survivors of sexual violence still have limited access to recourse. In Bentiu, we heard testimonies of sexual violence from women who are waiting to share their stories with an accountability mechanism. Elsewhere, in certain Protection of Civilian sites, we heard stories that traumatized children of encamped women are mimicking the act of “raping” on their sisters. Having witnessed sexual violence, and without access to education or psychosocial support, their impressionable minds were influenced by the depredations they had seen and heard.

  11. Impunity for conflict-related sexual violence and sexual and gender-based crimes in South Sudan remains at an all-time high. As a result, we heard how some survivors are fatigued and do not wish to report their experiences nor seek justice. Others feared retaliation. One pathway to address gender-based violence prevention and response includes the establishment of “One Stop Centres” supported by UNFPA and UNDP. Although safe shelters for women and girls fleeing gender-based violence are missing in the country and remain a necessity, ensuring that medical services are accessible at a reasonable distance from homes is another necessity, particularly for women and girls who require access to reproductive health services.

  12. We note that the transitional justice mechanisms set out in Chapter V of the Revitalized Peace Agreement provide a framework for addressing gross violations and international crimes perpetrated during the conflict, including conflict-related sexual violence. Another provision of the Agreement requires that 35 per cent of officials within public institutions are women, including in the transitional justice mechanisms. One civil society organization emphasized to us how more must be done to shape cultural attitudes towards embracing female representation in echelons of government, if greater inclusion of women in positions of power is to materialize.

  13. As we know, another key element of the Revitalized Peace Agreement is the cantonment process, designed to reduce violence and assist in the formation of a unified army. We heard here in Juba that 37 cantonment sites have thus far been identified countrywide, though most sites lack adequate living conditions including water, food, or medical services. We were told that garrison sites lack qualified instructors. It appears that only certain forces have moved into cantonment sites, which has emboldened others to ignore entering them. As one man described the delayed cantonment process, “Soldiers on the ground are getting hungry, and there is only a limited amount of time before they will tire of the current stalemate and again resort to taking up arms” and looting. Another interlocutor described his disappointment with the process by saying: “the intention is there, but there is a lack of will.”

  14. Despite the lack of progress on cantonment, the reduction in hostilities since the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement last September has led to an influx of refugees and internally displaced persons returning, including over past year in areas throughout Western Bahr el Ghazal, where 22,000 displaced persons from the Wau protection of civilians site returned to Wau town, Deim Zubeir, and Raja. More than 3,300 internally displaced persons, mainly women and children, also returned to Baliet County in the Upper Nile.

  15. Across protection of civilian sites, there is a recognition that these sites are often inadequate and need to be closed so encamped residents can return to their areas of origin. Conditions for sustainable return are often not ready, however, due to prevailing insecurity. Moreover, no attempt has been made to deal with the fact that, in many cases, homes and properties of internally displaced individuals have been occupied.

  16. In some cases returns are not voluntary. In Bentiu, for example, the Chair met with several returnees from Sudan who had fled north after conflict had broken out in 2013 and 2016. They were all looking for safety, better lives and opportunities. Unfortunately for them, as they indicated, they experienced the same discrimination which forced them to flee South Sudan in the first place, indicating their dark complexion singled them out as South Sudanese which resulted in them being targeted as “Bashir supporters.” Many were forced to undertake arduous journeys and flee back home to Bentiu where they lack sufficient living conditions. Some stressed the desire to obtain land and livelihood opportunities. In a country where almost 7 million people are facing acute food insecurity, one teenage girl told us how she just wants land next to her family home where she would be “able to grow crops.”

  17. In Yei, internally displaced persons narrated to us how they are held under a form of “siege”, making it difficult for them to go out of Yei town to fend for themselves. Women in Yei explained how both Government forces and elements affiliated with the National Salvation Front and other armed groups target them if they venture out of Yei town to collect firewood or gather food from abandoned farms, accusing them of providing intelligence to rival groups. Another worrying development we heard about is how male returnees are being vetted by Government forces for loyalties to one armed group or another and are being forcibly encamped in border areas for the duration of the vetting process, which may amount to unlawful administrative detention.

  18. Nearly all interlocutors we spoke with during our mission so far echoed that the increasing securitization of the state, which we highlighted in our previous report, including through the intelligence arms of the security sector, has led to further repression and, in some cases, resulted in arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances. This has engendered a climate of fear and heightened paranoia among communities and civil society. Individuals described being deprived of their fundamental freedoms including the freedom of opinion and expression, which they told us has had an impact on the publication of newspapers, the work of journalists, and freedom of the press more generally.

  19. Fear of retaliation for expressing dissident opinions has also led to the continued shrinking of civic space. Representatives of civil society organizations in Juba, for example, explained to us how they have still been made to seek governmental approval by high-ranking officials in the security sector prior to conducting workshops. In some cases, government officials sought to determine the size of the workshop, its participants, and to approve its proposed contents as a prerequisite for authorization. In other cases, we heard that security officers are being deployed to follow civil society staff and monitor their activities. One religious leader told us “It is better to be silent and safe than to face repercussions.”

  20. South Sudanese men and women also expressed frustration at the functioning of the judiciary for civil and family matters, noting how judges were neither being appointed rapidly nor consistently between courts, which has impacted the ability to achieve quorum for important decisions. Others complained that the judiciary lacks necessary resources to uphold legal protections, including funding for salaries and modes of transport. One lawyer in Juba told us that “It can take one month to dispose of a simple case,” and that some cases on the docket are up to 10 years old. In one case before the military court in Juba, we heard of an accused who has been languishing in jail for the last three years because his accuser has moved and cannot be located. Overall, we were told that the judiciary suffers from a level of disorganization which inhibits the ability of South Sudanese women, men, and children to obtain meaningful access to justice, often rendering them unable to have their voices heard, exercise key rights, or hold decision-makers accountable. For these reasons, we understand that there has been a push by some civil society actors to establish an arbitration centre for civil matters in order to bypass the judiciary altogether.

  21. The current climate in South Sudan continues to sow fear and anxiety in already disaffected communities; individuals do not feel they are able to speak freely—neither on matters related to human rights, nor of the crimes that they have endured, including survivors of sexual violence. This climate is exacerbated by the lack of accountability mechanisms. The Revitalized Peace Agreement reaffirmed a commitment to the transitional justice framework adopted in the 2015 Agreement, which reflects a holistic approach including accountability, truth-telling, reparations, and processes of reconciliation and healing. It is difficult if not impossible to speak of meaningful transitional justice mechanisms as envisaged by the Agreement when civilians and civil society organizations countrywide do not have meaningful access to justice and are afraid to mention in the public sphere human rights and crimes and violations they have suffered.

  22. Moreover, we remain deeply concerned at the lack of progress in establishing transitional justice mechanisms, including the Hybrid Court, the commission for truth, reconciliation, and healing and the compensation and reparation authority, which are to be complemented by customary and other community-centred mechanisms. So long as the voices of victims and survivors are not empowered, and these mechanisms not put in place, it is highly unlikely that South Sudanese women, men, girls, and boys will be able to witness a lasting peace. As two men in Juba observed, “South Sudan cannot have peace without accountability.”

  23. We must stress the importance of overcoming delays regarding the Revitalized Peace Agreement. We also encourage the positive work being carried out by the National Constitutional Amendment Committee. We also heard about initiatives involving young people who are playing a transformative role in their communities by engaging in community mediation and rehabilitating abandoned primary schools, which served as a reminder of South Sudan’s promise and a reason that we must all continue to stay invested in ensuring sustainable peace in the country.

  24. I [Andrew Clapham, Commission member] will be traveling to Uganda later today to visit refugee camps. My colleague Barney [Afako, Commission member] is going back to Ethiopia to meet with the newly displaced refugees. We believe these visits and interactions will help us to develop a deeper understanding of the current situation in-country and ultimately strengthen our work to contribute to the prospect and hope of sustainable peace in South Sudan.

We welcome your questions.