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Statement by Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, to the Human Rights Council

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18 March 2022

18 March 2022

Good morning, Mr. President, and Members of the Council. I have the pleasure of presenting the sixth Report of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, together with my colleagues Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako.

Mr. President – South Sudan is at a critical moment in its transition, where crucial provisions of the Revitalized Peace Agreement have still not been implemented and planned elections could plunge the country into massive violence. My colleagues and I are deeply aware that international attention is focussed on the war in Europe and the three million refugees who have fled Ukraine, a tragedy of epic proportions now unfolding before our eyes.

It is critical therefore that we do not forget South Sudan and the ongoing conflict which has been the main cause of 2 million people being displaced, the 34,000 people living in the one remaining United Nations protection of civilians (POC) site, and 2.3 million refugees, making it the biggest refugee crisis in the African region. The conflict has also left three times more human beings in desperate need of humanitarian aid – a staggering 8.9 million people – with more than 1.4 million children and 483,000 women suffering malnutrition. At least 809,000 people have been affected by heavy rainfall and floods in 2021. In the wake of the floods, renewed violence in parts of the country, including in Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Warrap states, are once again on the brink of famine. According to the International Rescue Committee, 1.7 million people are estimated to be battling emergency levels of hunger across 35 counties, including in Jonglei, Unity, Lakes, Warrap, Western Pibor and Upper Nile. 

While the international community made ten million US dollars available to South Sudan to address the humanitarian crisis, and 80,000 bags of rice for distribution to those affected by the floods, sadly the money and the rice intended for those most at risk were looted by predatory political elites.

Mr President, the Commission in its 2021 report to the Council on economic crimes pointed to the predatory and criminal behavior of government officials who loot and pillage the public purse without any regard to the welfare of their own citizens.

The work of the international community on South Sudan is therefore all the more critical because of the repression of civil society inside the country: South Sudanese human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers and journalists routinely face death threats, arbitrary detention, unlawful asset seizures, and harassment from the Government. On February 22, opposition Members of Parliament belonging to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition called a news conference in Parliament. The National Security Services shut down the press conference, confiscated recorders and detained eight journalists working for a number of media houses in South Sudan, in violation of Article 77 of the Constitution.

In late August, the authorities resorted to shutting down the internet and deploying large numbers of security forces on the streets just to prevent planned public gatherings. It says everything, that civil society leaders involved in the Government-endorsed transitional justice process were forced to flee the country following death threats. All of their banking accounts have been frozen, their offices forced to close down, and their families and colleagues harassed and intimidated by the National Security Services. In this climate of fear and terror, how can we talk about constitution-making, elections and transitional justice? Are national consultations even possible?

It is therefore not surprising that South Sudan was rated as one of worst countries in the world for freedom, alongside Syria, in the latest global survey by Freedom House.

As political competition intensifies between parties to the Revitalized Peace Agreement, and with talk of national elections perhaps taking place twelve months from now, the growing political crisis threatens to exacerbate theexisting humanitarian and human rights crises, which cause widespread suffering and make life unbearable for many South Sudanese.

Conflict at Subnational Level

Mr President, the Commission has documented the ongoing violent conflict that has been taking place at the local level in Tambura, Warrup, Jonglei, the Greater Pibor area and Bentiu. While it appears as if the violence taking place at this level poses little or no risk to the regime in Juba, it has serious consequences for civilians caught up in it, as the parties involved in these insurgencies engage in the collective punishment of communities they believe to support the opposing side or ‘enemy’. The attacks on villages result in massacres of civilians, with forced displacement on an ethnic basis. The targeted rape and sexual violence against women and girls perpetrated along ethnic lines is illustrated by the testimony of a Balanda woman resident in Tambura Town, who described to the Commission how she was violently raped and then abandoned by her Azande husband of five years, who said he was “doing my part” to avenge the death of his relatives.

Violent conflict at sub-national level cannot be separated from the political history of conflict in South Sudan, and has evolved from decades of war between political elites seeking political control of the country. The notion that the localized violence is not linked to the State or to national-level conflicts, as suggested by the Government and South Sudanese military elites, is a fallacy. As the Commission has noted in its mandate report to this Council, this localized violence involves the ethnicized recruitment of youth, with elites arming these militias to meet their personal objectives or to offset shortfalls in the capacity of forces formally under their command.  The ethnic violence at sub-national level has also been used as a proxy by military and political elites who frequently outsource violence to these groups. These localized killings, massacres, torture, abductions, detentions, looting, burning of villages and forced displacement as well as the rape, and sexual violence are a reflection of the intense political contestation for power and territory by political elites at a national level.

In Tambura, the political conflict between the two main government factions took on an ethnic dimension, in which armed forces and newly formed ethnic-based militia carried out widespread and horrific attacks, in which civilians were deliberately targeted because of their ethnicity. Civilians were shot dead, some hacked with machetes, women and girls raped and abducted, with more than 100,000 people displaced, including members of the Azande and Balanda tribes as well as civilians of mixed descent.

In Warrap State, the Government’s response has perpetuated further violence, and has involved unlawful extrajudicial killings and weapons distributions.

In Tonj areas of Warrap, civilians continue be the subject of attacks and counter-attacks between armed men from neighboring communities. Witnesses describe men with modern weaponry attacking villages, looting and killing and raping residents at gunpoint. These attacks triggered retaliatory attacks, fueling an ongoing cycle of violence. Communities have also witnessed attacks on humanitarian convoys and aid facilities which seem designed to deprive communities of access to basic commodities. Many aid operations have been suspended, with experts warning of famine-like conditions.

The Commission has noted that the head of the National Security Services, who is from the area, is known to have provided local militias with weapons that are used in fanning the flames of conflict in the areas. The State Governor, in turn has recruited members of cattle-keeping militias into the ranks of security forces, also providing them with arms which are also likely to end up in communities. As we have previously informed the Council, this is the same Governor who has also been responsible for extrajudicial killings in the state he controls, and which has given rise to increased lawlessness.

At a national level, the counter-insurgency in Central Equatoria continues to rage on with the National Salvation Front and the Government of South Sudan playing a central role. The Government has failed to resource its forces and provide them with basic rations, including food and supplies, leaving them to live in abject squalor. This results in predatory attacks on villages in which local women and girls are abducted and raped, and held as sexual slaves, as a form of punishment for sharing the same identity as the insurgents.

Conflict-related sexual violence

Mr. President, conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls is widespread and systematic throughout South Sudan, and is a result of the ongoing conflict, including in the Equatorias and at sub-national level as just explained. The lack of accountability for sexual and gender-based violence in the country, over decades, is responsible for the permissive conditions in which rape and sexual violence in conflict are carried out. Sexual violence in South Sudan has been instrumentalized as a reward and entitlement for the participation of youth in conflict, and as a means of building ethnic solidarity, as well as constituting a form of retribution against the ‘enemy’. The objective is the total destruction of particular communities, including through their constant displacement, which has the most profound impact on victims and their families.

Women and girls in South Sudan are raped by gangs of armed groups in mass rapes, which includes sexual torture, sexual slavery, and with family members forced to witness these violations. A teenage girl, present when her village in Central Equatoria was attacked, told the Commission how her guardian was helpless in preventing armed soldiers from raping the women and girls:

“I heard my uncle telling the soldiers to kill him first instead of witnessing the soldiers raping us. While they were talking, three soldiers who had already taken away two women came and roughly carried me behind the tukul… I started bleeding and he just raped me and continued raping me for a long time, beating me with a gun in between… then he joined others who had finished raping, and started looting.”

In a Paper to be published next week, the Commission highlights the acts, patterns and impacts of such gross human rights violations and abuses against women and girls, based on the collection of testimonies from survivors and witnesses. Their accounts are shocking, as are the lack of steps being taken to address them. The action needed to tackle this scourge are well-known known and are detailed as recommendations in the Commission’s Paper, addressed to the Government and UN Member States.

The Revitalised Peace Agreement

A critical point in the timetable of the Revitalised Agreement has been reached, yet key areas of the Agreement remain unimplemented. The signatories of the Agreement will need to demonstrate visionary leadership and renewed determination to complete the implementation of their commitments for the Transition. They also need to pursue key political and legal obligations, including conflict resolution, national cohesion, and political accommodation. Ensuring better management of national resources, respect for civic and political space, and to refrain from acts of repression, and take steps to address pervasive conflict-related and gender-based sexual violence are all critical.

Accordingly, it is necessary for the partners in Government to reinvigorate efforts to implement the following commitments inherent in the Peace Agreement and already referred to by the Commission as benchmarks in its reports:

  1. On Urgent Security Arrangements (Chapter 2), complete the integration of forces and agree on the ratio of commanders of the unified force and address other outstanding reforms of the sector.
  2. On Transitional Justice (Chapter 5): urgently implement the steps identified by the December 2021 conference hosted by the Commission, with adjusted timelines, and finalise the process of establishing the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, by signing the Memorandum of Understanding with the African Union, completing the legislation for the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, and ensuring that the Prosecutor’s Office Court is operationalised in the immediate future.
  3. On the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing (CTRH): resource the process of consultation and the preparation and enactment of legislation for the establishment of the CTRH.
  4. On Reparations: accelerate the establishment of the Compensation and Reparation Authority, giving priority to the preparation of the legislation and the commitment of resources for the associated Fund.
  5. Strengthen national capacities for the collection and preservation of evidence, including by setting up a database and collecting forensic data to facilitate the work of the transitional justice mechanisms envisaged in Chapter V of the Revitalised Agreement, and for the relevant national courts and tribunals.
  6. On Rule of Law and Human Rights Institutions: Allocate sufficient resources, including to national courts and military and other tribunals. Establish the Constitutional Court of South Sudan and strengthen and adequately resource an independent human rights commission to monitor and address violations.
  7. On economic, financial and resource management (Chapter IV): establish the institutions and systems for improving the management and equitable distribution of the national economic and other resources and finances, particularly oil and non-oil revenues. Dedicate the necessary resources to the provision of health and educational services and for strengthening transitional justice, human rights and rule of law institutions.
  8. On political and civic space: refrain from interference with the rights of peaceful association, assembly, and freedom of expression. Sustain an environment conducive for the enjoyment of rights, transitional justice processes, constitution-making, and the holding of national elections. This should be reflected in a reduction in acts of repression and increased unfettered participation in relevant political and civic activities.
  9. On Sub-national conflict and communal violence: develop a strategy and establish and strengthen national and community-level systems for addressing sub-national and inter-communal violence, including through the peace-making and peacebuilding and community cohesion. In this regard cooperate with UNMISS and other actors.
  10. On Permanent Constitution making (Chapter VI): enact the Constitution-making legislation and equip the bodies responsible for carrying out the process. Consideration should be given to the outcomes of the National Dialogue which were deferred for the Constitution-making process.

Constitution-making and elections

The critical work of developing a permanent constitution is fundamental but has barely started although a bill has been prepared. Constitution-making offers a critical tool for addressing root causes of persistent conflict and insecurity in South Sudan. Done well, it can provide an agreed basis for an improved political system where conflict can be better resolved without resort to violence. Handled poorly, this may embed existing grievances and sow the seeds of future conflict.

However, the timetables and sequencing for constitution-making and national elections remain unclear despite the transitional period being scheduled to end next February 2023. This lack of clarity leaves unanswered the bigger question of what kind of system that people will be voting for if the core elements of a constitution are not yet agreed.

Both constitution-making and elections require considerable legal, institutional, security and logistical arrangements which are still unestablished. Beyond these key legal and procedural considerations, it is critical to recognize the risks of further polarization and political violence around elections, particularly when insufficient groundwork has been laid for the process. The consequences of a rushed poll, within a contested political system, and without requisite security and democratic conditions in place, could indeed be disastrous.

Civil society

In a democratic society, the architecture and processes of the political system, in which human rights are respected and protected, must involve members of the public, civil society, and members of groups who have so far had little say in public life, including women.

Support for prosecutions and accountability

Mr. President, the prevailing impunity for serious crimes in South Sudan fuels and compounds conflict and insecurity, enables and even encourages the perpetration of killings, massacres, rape and sexual violence including sexual slavery and the theft and pillage of the country’s wealth from its suffering citizens. Impunity is thus a root cause of South Sudan’s concurrent crises.

In December, following up steps taken by the Government in early 2021, the Commission hosted a high-level Conference to sustain momentum for transitional justice,  and to discuss unblocking the gridlock on the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. The Commission greatly appreciated the participation of key members of the Government of South Sudan, including the Hon. Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, and senior representatives of the African Union, regional partners and the United Nations including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Mission in South Sudan.

Mr. President, we draw your attention to the resolutions of this Conference, which include key measures envisaged to be implemented within six months – and to be revisited in June 2022 – in order to accelerate work on transitional justice measures including for the Hybrid Court.

At a tipping point

In conclusion, Mr. President, South Sudan is reaching a critical point in its transition timetable. Yet massive political, humanitarian and human rights crises persist, primarily driven by entrenched contestations between political elites, and the lack of political will to address impunity.

Nevertheless, the Revitalised Peace Agreement offers a sound framework for addressing these serious challenges, but it cannot do so if its implementation is selective, delayed or deferred. Nearly all 14 of the UN’s risk factors for atrocity crimes are now present in South Sudan. The potential to plunge South Sudan into complete conflict by rushing elections without implementing the necessary constitution-making provisons, must be taken seriously, including the risk of further political violence.

Unless the Revitalised Agreement is fully implemented with the support and accompaniment of the African Union, the United Nations, regional and international partners and guarantors of the peace process, the aspirations of South Sudan’s people for sustainable peace will remain unfulfilled.

In line with our mandate to clarify responsibility for alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes, and to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability purposes, the Commission has continued to compile case files and dossiers. It has drawn up a list of 142 individuals who warrant investigation for a range of crimes under national and international law, including for their roles in the politically motivated violence.

I thank you, Mr. President and Members of the Council.

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