Peace can only be sustainable if those responsible for atrocities are held accountable
GENEVA (9 March 2020) – South Sudan has become an environment in which fundamental rights are trampled and eroded, the Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Yasmin Sooka, told the Human Rights Council this morning in Geneva. Killing, torture, rape, intentional starvation of civilians, intimidation, displacement, enforced disappearances and corruption have become the norm, she said.
Presenting the Commission’s fourth report to the Council, Ms. Sooka also warned that while the revitalised peace process had led to a fragile peace at the national level, the conflict had shifted to an intensification of violence at localized levels. “There is a great deal of hope that the peace we have at the moment will be sustainable, but six years of brutal conflict have left the country bitterly divided along ethnic lines,” she said. “We have documented how senior government officials and opposition leaders have been involved through proxies in cattle raiding, which is being used to exploit local rivalries and manipulate historical divisions between communities.”
The Commission found that high-ranking government officials were implicated in the supply of heavy military grade weapons including AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and PK machine guns to local militia.
Cattle raiding could no longer be characterized as traditional clashes over cattle or criminality involving private citizens, the Commission said in its report. Cattle raiding had become a deliberate strategy to strengthen local governors and politicians at state and country level, where local militias were aligned to the warring parties and benefitted from personnel and weaponry. Some of these are supplied by parties to the conflict with the ultimate goal of displacing civilians perceived to be aligned to ‘the enemy’.
Predatory senior officials in the South Sudanese government have taken advantage of the conflict to steal and loot from the public purse, Ms. Sooka told Council Members, “Corrupt officials have brazenly looted and plundered millions of dollars, depriving millions of South Sudanese civilians of access to basic services, exposing them to severe hunger, while corruption has made a small group of officials extremely wealthy.” These economic crimes exacerbated extreme levels of poverty and had a catastrophic impact on the humanitarian situation.
Moreover, she said, the Commission found that both sides in the conflict used intentional starvation of civilians as a method of warfare. Looting and destruction of harvests, wilful impediments of humanitarian aid by different parties and large-scale conflict-induced displacement had added to climate-induced factors to leave nearly half of the population, particularly women and children, facing acute food insecurity.
The Commission also documented continued recruitment and use of children by both the government and opposition armed groups. Because of a perceived need to show numbers in their ranks, both sides have forcibly recruited children in order to swell those numbers. Some 19,000 children remain in the ranks of the armed forces and armed opposition groups.
The Commission found widespread sexual violence emanating from the ongoing conflict, including at the localized level. Violations include rape and gang rape, sexual mutilation, forced marriage, abduction and sexualized torture. These violations are characterised by a recognizable pattern of terror and subjugation, the Commission found.
The Commission examined and analysed patterns of sexual and gender based violence against both women and girls and men and boys. Its analysis showed patterns indicating that the drivers of conflict-related sexual violence are similar, irrespective of whether the victim is male or female. The evidence shows that perpetrators use prescribed gender roles to punish and terrorize women and employ the same tactics to humiliate and emasculate men.
“The conflict in South Sudan has left the vast majority of the population deeply traumatised,” said Ms. Sooka. “The testimonies we have heard have left deep scars in the collective psyche of South Sudan and without justice and accountability, the stabilization and democratic transformation of the country cannot be achieved. Global experiences teach us that peace can only be sustainable if those responsible for atrocities are held accountable for the grave crimes they have committed.”
The Commission called on the new government in South Sudan to establish a clear timeline to establish the three Transitional Justice mechanisms set out in the Revitalized Peace Agreement: the Hybrid Court, the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority.
The formation of the new unity government provides an opportunity to implement transitional justice in South Sudan, said Ms. Sooka. The Commission believes there can be no further justification for delaying the establishment of the Hybrid Court now that the new government is in place.
In the course of its investigations over the past year, the Commission has identified a new list of 26 individuals linked to specific violations and to patterns of violations that meet the threshold to warrant further investigations and possibly prosecutions, in particular with regard to those who were in positions of command or superior responsibility.
The Commission has framed the crimes in multiple ways so that future prosecutions can take place in jurisdictions not only in South Sudan but also in other countries that allow for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Prosecutions can also be held in states parties of the relevant treaties on torture and enforced disappearance.
Over the coming days and weeks, the Commission will also release specialised papers elaborating in further detail the issues of Starvation, Economic Crimes, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, and Transitional Justice. The first of these papers details emblematic cases of starvation investigated by the Commission and demonstrates how such intentional starvation in South Sudan can constitute a war crime and under certain circumstances a crime against humanity.
She noted that there was now an important opportunity for the new government and South Sudan’s leaders to rebuild a just, peaceful and stable country and to reverse the pattern of years of extreme violations, “Our reports demonstrate that the violations in South Sudan are systemic and ongoing,” Ms Sooka said. “The international community must continue to stand in solidarity with the longsuffering people of South Sudan so their pain is not ignored and their aspirations and hopes for justice are supported.”
The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan was established by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 and extended in March 2017 and for further years in March 2018 and March 2019, with a mandate to determine and report the facts and circumstances of, collect and preserve evidence of, and clarify 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.
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More information about the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
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