Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan: Statement to the media, Juba | Delivered by Commission Chair Yasmin Sooka, Commission Member Andrew Clapham, and Commission Member Barney Afako


7 February 2020

Juba – 7 February 2020

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.

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.

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.

The Commission continues to monitor and report on, and determine responsibility for violations, with a view to future accountability processes.

We express our gratitude to the Government of South Sudan for the cooperation and support it has 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.

During our current visit between 3 and 7 February, the Commissioners with the support of Secretariat staff visited Juba and Bentiu in South Sudan and engaged with a wide range of South Sudanese groups including internally displaced persons, community leaders and civil society organizations, including women's organizations. We also met with Government officials, including key ministers, diplomats, UN agencies, and UNMISS staff, including the Office of Special Representative of the Secretary-General.

We also met with the Revitalized Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (R-JMEC), the National Constitutional Amendment Committee (NCAC), the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (CTSAMVM), representatives of the Sudan People's Liberation Army-in-opposition (SPLA-IO), and the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA) to discuss the current security and human rights situations in the country.

As the deadline for the formation of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity rapidly approaches, a number of issues emerged from our meetings that impact both on the prospects for the successful formation of the Government as well as for sustainable peace.

Since our visit last August, we note the lack of progress on implementation of the Revitalized Peace Agreement, and the upsurge in incidents of armed conflict, particularly in Yei where fighting between the National Salvation Front holdout group and Government forces is once again creating instability leading to the displacement of civilians. In Maiwut, recent clashes between pro-Government forces and the SPLA-IO have displaced at least 8,000 individuals who recently fled to Ethiopia as refugees. Similarly, incidents of localized conflict continued to rise, and comprised brutal attacks often premised on cattle raiding. As in Maiwut, many such attacks drove civilian displacement at alarming rates, including in Western Bahr el Ghazal, Unity and Jonglei States.

Beyond armed conflict, a key element of the Revitalized Peace Agreement remains the cantonment process, designed to reduce violence and assist in the formation of a unified army. As we heard from one interlocutor, however, "cantonment and training have been a disaster". We learned that there has been insufficient logistical support to cantonment and training sites by the Government, and that there continued to be a critical shortage of water, food, and medicine in these sites. The Commission visited the cantonment sites and training centre in Bentiu and noted the proximity to the civilian population, as well as the lack of adequate support including water, food, and medicines. They also lack vehicles to distribute food and water.

Due to the deplorable conditions at cantonment sites, registration and vetting have been moved to training centres. Interlocutors with whom we spoke noted with concern, however, that training centres have the same problems with regards to living conditions as cantonment sites do. Across training sites, both soldiers and their weapons have not been fully registered, and women neither have separate accommodations nor separate training. It is impossible to know how many soldiers and fighters are actually in training sites as the figures currently vary. Some estimates say 28,000, which is far below the figure of 83,000 required.

Aside from logistical issues and abhorrent living conditions, there is also still no curriculum for training which would enable professionalizing the army. Without proper curriculum, this may imply that South Sudan will still be vulnerable and human rights violations will continue after the cantonment process comes to an end. Where cantonment and training sites are located in civilian-populated areas, we note with concern that women have been raped by soldiers or fighters, and that they did not receive adequate medical treatment or comprehensive examinations to address the violations they suffered.

Although the Government of South Sudan pledged $100 million dollars to support the cantonment process, less than half of these funds have been released. Some countries that have donated money to remedy issues related to cantonment and training do not know how the money is being spent. The VIP protection unit, moreover, was supposed to unify 3,000 soldiers and fighters. There are currently some 1,500 soldiers from the Government side, and only 600 from the opposition, with some 900 personnel still required.

We were extremely concerned to learn that there has been no response to these challenges by the Government for months, which begs the question of how willing the Government is to fulfil its obligations concerning cantonment in good faith, and to ensure that the Transitional Government of National Unity can be formed. In the words of one interlocutor, "the leadership is not serious, and accountability is an issue."

We also learned of continued recruitment including child recruitment in various parts of the country, which may be linked to the need for Government and opposition forces to meet the required numbers for cantonment. In Bentiu, the Commission met with various SPLA-IO Commanders to discuss the release of 60 young men allegedly forcibly recruited which included a number of students being detained.

Beyond cantonment, we also heard from civil society representatives that arbitrary arrests, detentions, and torture of journalists remain on-going. Foreign journalists are being declared persona non grata by the State for reporting on issues that they deem to be controversial, including the political economy. These violations and crimes, in addition to other restrictions on the freedoms of expression, opinion and assembly, continue to characterize daily life in South Sudan.

Of particular concern, we learned in Juba how women from civil society are being followed by National Security Service (NSS) officers to their homes and approached for no apparent reason other than to threaten, intimidate, and harass them. Some interlocutors expressed concern that NSS officers also sit in their vehicles outside of civil society offices, adding an additional layer of intimidation.

Other civil society organisations told us how they are being prevented from assisting girls to attend school in Juba, as authorities considered such assistance to be negatively "influencing them".

The egregious nature of these crimes and human rights violations, and the systematic monitoring and silencing of civic and political space continued to constrain activists, journalists, human rights defenders, political dissidents and ordinary citizens from expressing their views publicly or organizing themselves. As we were told during our last visit in August 2019, numerous civil society representatives also expressed to us how, in order to hold events, they continued to require clearance from the NSS and often had to also pay fees, though the bureaucratic process does not guarantee that they will be able to hold the event. In many cases, decisions by the NSS to cancel events were done arbitrarily, including for those events which sought to cover issues regarding sexual and gender-based violence, education, the rule of law, the hybrid court, and other Chapter V mechanisms.

Some civil society staff were prevented from leaving South Sudan to present at human rights conferences abroad. The onslaught on freedom of movement and expression have now moved to a local level with County Commissioners and governors in certain locations, including Lakes, Turit, and Tambura, alleged to be involved in the systematic silencing of individuals perceived by the Government as dissident.

Beyond issues related to cantonment, forced recruitment including the recruitment and the use of children, and restrictions on civic space and the free flow of information, we are concerned that the humanitarian situation in South Sudan remains dire. Between August last year and now, the largest challenge faced by civilians and, by extension, humanitarians, was flooding due to climate change which has affected 30 counties countrywide. While over $60 million dollars was mobilized to reach affected civilians and provide them with access to basic needs, the estimated total of the millions needed overall for 2020 remains the same as 2019. The hope is that water will continue to recede.

Flooding has also led to the loss of harvest, food stocks, livestock, impacted on infrastructure including roads, and eroded the resilience of vulnerable civilians as food insecurity intensifies. Beyond the acute humanitarian and displacement crises flooding has generated, it has also had an impact on cattle stock, which has had a negative impact on child marriage and child abduction. The Commission is currently investigating this development.

The Government of South Sudan continues to prioritize healing and reconciliation over accountability. All three elements of transitional justice; accountability, healing, and reconciliation are needed and mutually reinforcing, and should be equally prioritised by the Government.

One aspect where accountability has been most absent is in the context of sexual and gender-based violence. In Bentiu, the Commission heard of at least 125 cases of sexual and gender-based violence over a three-week period between November and December 2018, primarily in the areas of Nhialdiu and Koch. The Government's response to such violations has been to denounce and intimidate those who raised the issue rather than to address the systemic problem. In addition, the Government announced the establishment of a specialized sexual and gender-based violence chambers.

Beyond providing a building, these chambers are yet to be operationalized. The situation is rapidly deteriorating with a backlog of more than 200 cases, increasing daily. We were encouraged to learn, however, that mobile courts supported by UNMISS were used in Nimule and Bentiu to try 40 cases. Perpetrators comprising primarily soldiers were imprisoned for three years or more. It was concerning to learn, however, that some of these convicted perpetrators had been released without explanation.

It was similarly encouraging to hear that civil society in Juba, in partnership with UNMISS, are utilizing mobile courts to try cases of early and forced marriage, and that the Ministry of Gender is working on a gender-based violence Act.

Also, in Yambio (Western Equatoria), 47 women and accompanying children held against their will by the SPLA-IO forces were released just last week, bringing the number of women who have been released thus far to 128. There are, however, certainly many more waiting to be released. This development took months of engagement and delicate negotiations with commanders on ground.

Meanwhile, issues of accountability remained extremely important to the South Sudanese women and men with whom we spoke. There has been very limited progress on the establishment of the hybrid court. No progress was made, however, in establishing the commission for truth, reconciliation and healing or the compensation and reparation authority, which should be complemented by customary and other community-centred mechanisms. Moreover, two key human rights treaties have been ratified by the Government and its Transitional National Legislature, but the instruments have not been deposited with the United Nations.

Despite these gaps in accountability, we welcome the establishment by the National Security Service of a special five-judge tribunal to try its members responsible for criminal acts, breaches of the National Security Act, and any other laws and regulations. Though various mechanisms have been introduced, the fundamental question remains as to whether there is sufficient political will to hold perpetrators accountable.

The Commission for Human Rights on South Sudan calls upon the parties to resolve the outstanding issues emanating from the Revitalized Peace Agreement including the number of States and their boundaries without further delay. We also commend the positive work being carried out by the National Constitutional Amendment Committee, and welcome that the draft of the constitutional amendment is with the transitional national assembly.

If sustainable peace is to materialise, accountability for the myriad crimes and violations witnessed by South Sudanese women, men, and children must not continue to be overlooked. In the absence of the Hybrid Court, the Commission has set out a legal framework in its reports that would allow for other states to prosecute those responsible.

We believe these visits by the Commission and our interactions in South Sudan 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.