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Statement by Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan at the 26th Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council

14 December 2016

Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delivering this statement on behalf of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.

Imagine if 70% of female staff working in the United Nations had been sexually violated in the past three years. It’s beyond anyone’s capacity to conceive.

In the Protection of Civilian Camps in the South Sudanese capital Juba, there are equivalent numbers of people. A UN survey found 70% of women in the camps had been raped since the conflict erupted – the vast majority of them by police or soldiers - and a staggering 78% had been forced to watch someone else being sexually violated.

Remember that there are thousands more cases throughout South Sudan - and in refugee camps in neighbouring countries – and there is also the age-old problem of underreporting due to stigma. With these sort of figures, it is conceivable that the scale of sexual violence in the world’s youngest country already matches that of the Bosnian war -  and yet we rarely hear about it.

A quarter of the population of South Sudan is already internally displaced or abroad as refugees. But South Sudan has fallen off the international radar and that’s why I, and my colleagues, urge you to make today’s special session a turning point for the country.

Already on our first mission to South Sudan in September, the ethnic polarization concerned us. However a clearer picture emerged from our latest mission in November and December to South Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. All of the early warning signals for mass atrocities in South Sudan are there, as the UN Special Representative for the Prevention of Genocide also stated. 

As you know, mass atrocities are usually committed against a backdrop of economic instability, an already existing war and a climate in which the “other” is demonized.  In this regard, South Sudan already has the world’s highest inflation rate  - 837% as of October. A third of the teachers of South Sudan have fled, and most national UN Staff have already sent their families abroad. The government has abdicated its responsibility for providing basic services to most of its people.

A third of the people of South Sudan are estimated by the FAO to be severely food insecure this month – that is an unprecedented 3.7 million people.  All over South Sudan the spectre of starvation looms – according to the UNHCR on average three thousand South Sudanese refugees fled across national borders on a daily basis in November.  Refugees in Ethiopia at the newly established camp we visited in Gambella told us that they left their country because of shortages of food after their homes, livestock and crops in Nasir and Mathiang were torched. Throughout the country the harvest and planting of crops have been impeded, supporting projections that hunger will intensify even more next year.

An existing conflict is escalating and spreading geographically across the country even to states that were peaceful before. In fact the level of violence and ethnic tension we saw all over the country was unprecedented. Worryingly the Equatorias, which were relatively unaffected, have now become the epicentre of the conflict. We heard numerous accounts there of corpses being found along main roads, attacks by unknown armed groups and counter-attacks by Government forces, intimidation of communities and impending starvation forcing them to flee as refugees.

Many people the Commission spoke to described relatives who had been killed or disappeared but further investigation is required to establish the scale of the killing.Women in Wau described how their husbands and children were stopped by SPLA soldiers, robbed and murdered. The violence has also affected members of the Dinka tribe and the government has blamed these attacks on the SPLA/IO, which in turn has denied involvement. In the aftermath of the violence in Juba in July, there were several violent attacks on main roads linking the capital to Central Equatoria,  resulting in the targeted killings of Dinka women and children.

There is an increase in polarised ethnic identities, a culture of denial, and in some areas, systematic violations that have been planned. The Commission’s recent visit to South Sudan suggests that a steady process of ethnic cleansing is already underway in some parts of the country. We don’t use that expression lightly. Targeted displacement along ethnic lines is taking place through killing, abductions, rape, looting and burning of homes. The redrawing of state boundaries to create 28 states has exacerbated this displacement.

In Bentiu, security experts said that they had not previously seen the present scale of torching of homes, which forces people to flee. In Malakal we were given official decrees from the local government which terminate the employment of non-Dinka civil servants, including doctors and teachers, who were expelled from their homes and jobs in Malakal town. We heard again and again about land grabbing, in a situation where very few members of the Dinka tribe are being displaced. Some of the non-Dinka neighborhoods of Wau have become virtual ghost towns in recent months after outbreaks of violence. When we visited Eastern Equatoria, we heard from people displaced by killings in Magwi County and Pageri that these places are now emptied of their populations.

Wherever the Commission went, people who’d been displaced told us they were willing to die to regain their land. Across the Upper Nile states, Unity and the Equatorias, people are preparing for war. Forced recruitment of youth and children, as well as forced conscription of adult males is taking place. In a country awash with arms, there is a heightened expectation that the fighting will begin in earnest now that the dry season has arrived.

The environment for abuses has been further enabled by the spewing of hate speech and the dehumanization of ethnic groups by key government officials, including the President. Coupled with the muzzling of the media and curtailing of civil society groups, this has sown fear in the population. The Commission met journalists who had been detained, tortured and in some cases subjected to sexual violence. It’s important to pay tribute to the bravery of those activists and journalists who continue to struggle for a better country. Humanitarian workers also face threats and intimidation. Again, many do an exceptional job in extremely difficult circumstances; they must be granted unimpeded access to do their work by government and opposition forces.

The level of ongoing sexual violence is not given due recognition in South Sudan. It is worth remembering that rape is a violent invasive attack which pervades not only the integrity of one’s body but also has a lifelong impact; it is an act intent on destroying the individual’s sense of self, their ability to trust and be part of society. Our Commission met women rejected by their husbands because they’d been gang raped by soldiers, women shunned by their communities because they bore children conceived in rape, mothers who on a daily basis make the choice of risking brutal sexual assault or watching their children starve. Several women in UN camps in Juba had still not received emergency medical attention for injuries arising from gang rape by government soldiers this year. Yet all around them are the manifestations of a massive international aid presence. Of course they question what this presence means. Some were raped in July within sight of UN peacekeepers. They accuse the UN of being part of the problem and complicit in their violations by failing to protect many of them. 

Shockingly in the Gambella refugee camp in Ethiopia, the Commission heard about four cases of the rape of children two years old or less. Aid workers here also reported cases of sexual slavery. I can’t forget one woman describing how she was reminded of the face of her rapist every time she looked at her baby conceived as a result of the rape - and was unable to love the child as a result.

I would like to share with the Council the sense of frustration we heard again and again on the ground from men and women. In the words of one person in Malakal -

“We have given up on all international bodies – you just take reports and do nothing”.

Surprisingly, this was not from a displaced person but from a dedicated international humanitarian worker. He said he simply couldn’t understand why the international community was still at the stage of talking about an arms embargo or about whether genocide was happening, when he witnesses atrocities on a daily basis. In a meeting with displaced women in Malakal I was challenged on why we had wasted money on plane tickets to come to the camp when nothing changed after visits by “human rights people” - and I have to say the crowd applauded the question.

Attitudes towards sexual violence in South Sudan illustrate the wider problem of impunity, perpetuated by a culture of denial among government officials. Officials we spoke to deny the reports of systematic patterns of sexual violence by their troops against women of different tribes, citing arguments such as, “our tribe doesn’t rape – it’s not in our culture”. Tell that to the thousands of women who have been raped.

Impunity breeds contempt. That is why the only action that will curb these violations is bringing the perpetrators to justice both at a command and an individual level.  Based on the interviews we have conducted, South Sudan’s legal system is currently in shambles. Given the displacement of communities and the breakdown of social systems, the only form of redress for victims is the traditional system - and in some places even that doesn’t exist. The Commission heard of rape cases being mediated by traditional tribal chiefs who awarded a goat as redress to the victim’s family – in some cases lower compensation than for theft of cattle. It is outrageous that the price of rape in South Sudan is a goat.  And that there are no functioning courts or sitting judges in many states to try serious crimes like murder. 

I described the levels of gang rape in this conflict as epic – to be frank we are running out of adjectives to describe the horror. Perhaps the worst thing is that many now treat sexual violence as a “normal” facet of life for women.  Conflict related sexual and gender based violence by all armed groups has reached crisis proportions in South Sudan and that’s why we called for an international investigation that maps the hot spots for rape and takes detailed testimony from survivors so that patterns of violations can be matched with the military units deployed in the area. There is also a need for a broader investigation into all violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in order to gather and preserve evidence for future accountability.

South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilize the entire region. Wherever we visited people told us the country would dissolve into another Rwanda-like situation. While several of the early warning signs of mass atrocities are present that does NOT mean it is inevitable. The international community must act now. This includes countries in the region, which guaranteed the peace process but are not sufficiently implementing the necessary steps toward justice and accountability.

These are some of the steps we believe the international community can take now:

1.  We urge the immediate deployment of the 4,000-strong regional protection force for South Sudan. While the protection force has been assigned to Juba, people all across the country asked that it not be restricted to the capital if it is to protect civilians across South Sudan.

2. The International Community should ensure that measures are promptly put in place to ensure accountability through the full implementation of Chapter Five of the Peace Agreement without further delay. This requires that the African Union and the Government of South Sudan immediately establish the hybrid court for South Sudan, given that it has been more than 17 months since the Peace Agreement was signed.  The delay in establishing this mechanism is no longer acceptable.

3. It is imperative to begin coordinated and systematic investigations with a view to gathering and preserving evidence.   Evidence is being lost on a daily basis:  witnesses relocate and memories fade, documents are concealed or destroyed, physical evidence degrades.    There is clear precedent for a robust investigative element to precede the establishment of a full-blown court, as has been done elsewhere.

We have clearly stated that the international community has an obligation to act to protect civilians. While the primary responsibility for the protection of civilians lies with the Government, when it is unable and/or unwilling to do so, and when it makes war on its own people, then the international community must step in.

People are tiring of the UN holding inquiries and mandating reports after the event, ascertaining blame for its failures in the past once it’s already too late. With South Sudan we have a rare chance to avert further catastrophe.  Our Commission has issued the warning and we are definitely not alone in this. As the Secretary General said earlier this year, human rights abuses are the most effective early warning signs of atrocity crimes. Stressing the need for early warning and early action, he emphasized that, “The primary responsibility for preventing conflict and protecting human rights lies with Member States”.  

I leave you with the words of a victim in Wau, who told me, “We don’t need another report. We need the international community to do something’.