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Statement of Ms. Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, at 37th Human Rights Council session

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13 March 2018

13 March 2018

Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delivering this statement on behalf of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
 
I want to tell you about a young girl from South Sudan, whose ambition is to be an airline pilot. If she lived here in Geneva her chances would be slim  - only about 3% of commercial pilots worldwide are female. But in South Sudan she faces even more obstacles - growing up in one of the most brutal wars in Africa, trapped in a camp, vulnerable to sexual violence, homeless and without her parents. 

“I want to see the world,” she says, “and make enough money to look after my aunt who has been taking care of me”. There is no bitterness for a childhood lost – rather a powerful sense of what should be possible - coupled with a strong sense of altruism. We heard again and again from children in refugee camps who want to be doctors, engineers and maths teachers, who want to serve their community. They should be the hope for the future of South Sudan.

However, a staggering 2.4 million children are displaced from their homes. They live in sprawling makeshift settlements on empty land with grossly inadequate support  - in some cases, if there is a school, four hundred children may sit in a class. Overall, two million South Sudanese children are reported to be out of school – 72%  - the highest proportion anywhere in the world. If the conflict continues, only one in 13 will even finish primary school – not enough education to fly a plane.

The conflict has now spread to almost all of South Sudan, engulfing the Equatorias that were previously peaceful and the bread-basket for this young nation. As the country fractures along multiple fault lines, ethnic and political, millions have fled. They urgently need the fighting to stop and the armed actors (signatories) to the cessation of hostilities agreement to abide by it so that they are able to go back to their ancestral villages, reclaim their homes, grow their crops and tend their cattle. The longer communities remain dispersed, the more their traditional structures die out, their culture crumbles and the economy disintegrates.

In March 2017, this Council gave the Commission an enhanced mandate  - to collect and preserve evidence - with a view to sharing it with the Hybrid Court, a Truth Commission and a reparations body agreed under the peace agreement for South Sudan. My colleague Andrew Clapham, our team and I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to visit most of the conflict-affected areas in South Sudan as well as see for ourselves towns like Malakal, Yei, Torit and Wau, just to name a few, which have been emptied of their populations – and then seen those people in refugee camps on the other side of the border. We were in a unique position for a Commission in having this access. We are grateful to the Government of South Sudan for making this possible and for the constructive engagement we had with many government representatives, all over the country.

Our staff have collected thousands of documents and taken hundreds of witness statements – material that will be invaluable to a prosecutor one day in proving command responsibility. The continuous collection and analysis of that evidence is critical to the accountability process. Our report focuses on five recent emblematic incidents, established a victims’ evidence base and collected linkage evidence in what has been ground breaking work.

We did our work based on the Draft Statute for the Hybrid Court of South Sudan, according to which individuals can be held criminally responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes and other serious crimes under international law. The Commission used a “reasonable grounds” standard of proof. We focused not only on establishing the occurrence of violations but also on identifying those bearing command and superior responsibility for them. And the opposition should note that command responsibility is not restricted to state actors alone.

We have identified several South Sudanese officials who may bear individual responsibility for serious violations of human rights and international crimes committed since 2013. As is customary with UN reports we do not name these individuals not least because we do not want to jeopardise any future judicial proceedings.

Part of our mandate involved providing guidance on transitional justice.  We believe the Hybrid Court for South Sudan stipulated in the peace agreement should be set up straight away. It is just one signature away – all it needs is for the government to sign the MOU. If this doesn’t happen, the African Union has the authority to set up a Hybrid Court – outside the country if necessary – to try alleged perpetrators for South Sudan. Moreover, if a person is indicted by the Court, then they can no longer stand for, or hold, office in the Government.

However we are acutely aware a Hybrid Court cannot deal with the staggering number of violations in South Sudan; this impunity gap should be filled by the truth commission which should have already been established by now. We also call on the Government to demonstrate its intent regarding reparations by making budgetary provision for a Victims’ Trust Fund immediately.  The timing of the Government’s National Dialogue process has been criticized by most South Sudanese who argue that any dialogue process must be carried out in terms of Chapter V of the Peace Agreement to be credible but more than anything, the Government has to create a conducive environment for consultation where independent journalists and critics do not have to fear for their lives if they offer a dissenting view.

To those inclined to write off South Sudan as an intractable conflict, there is a legal solution:  criminal accountability through the Hybrid Court - but this needs political will. The Commission has shown that witnesses are keen to testify and that it is possible to gather evidence inside and outside the country. Our work so far has barely scratched the surface of the violations we believe have occurred. More worrying is that we did not have to search too hard for corroborated accounts of astounding cruelty, dehumanisation and ethnic persecution. The South Sudanese themselves were the most expressive in conveying the fragility of their existence – one man compared the killings in Juba in July 2016 to the dry season when dead leaves fall off the trees every second.

We have indeed struggled to do justice to the scale and intensity of the horror we documented. During the Pagak offensive inmid 2017, a mother had her eyes gouged out with spears as she tried in vain to prevent her 17-year old daughter from being raped by 14 soldiers. After being blinded, she herself was raped by 17 soldiers. Her husband was later found by his son, beheaded and castrated, with his penis stuffed in his mouth.

Or there is the 70-year old man from Maiwut who stayed in the town after the SPLA arrived because he was too old to run. He was shot in the knees by soldiers and begged his wife and children to escape. When they returned the following week, they found him beheaded.

There is a danger that enumerating such stories of brutality reduces victims to the sum total of their violations. They are so much more than that. Take the woman whose husband was beheaded – she walked three hours through a war zone at night, risking her life and leaving her children behind at home alone, to testify to our Commission. She stayed until midnight, sitting in front of our investigator, in tears, explaining what happened, insisting on walking home in the dark once it was finished to re-join her children. “I have come here to have this story told” she said, adamant that this was the first step towards justice for her family. “I have no reason to live”, she added, “I am doing this for my children”.

On the journey to the refugee camps we heard countless stories of women picking up lost or orphaned children and caring for them while hiding in the bush, living off grass or swamp water and walking for weeks. [Pastors risked their lives to lead convoys of refugees to safety, escorting them through roadblocks in their clerical robes; one grandmother walked for two months from Akobo to Gambella caring for thirteen boys, only one of whom was her grandson]. And there’s the bravery of South Sudanese aid workers in one of the most difficult places in the world to work – we met international staff who said they’d had a gun put to their head multiple times. It’s even more dangerous for national staff who do not get evacuated; they are often targeted and do not receive psychosocial support.

Conversations with South Sudanese begin and end with the desire for peace. With peace this country – now facing the prospect of a man-made famine – could begin to recover.

That’s not to undermine the difficulty of recovery in a land suffering from collective trauma - a recent study in South Sudan found that almost 41 per cent of people exhibit symptoms of probable post-traumatic stress disorder. As our team interviewed people, some reacted by screaming out loud as they released the repressed grief and shock. For many, meeting the Commission was the first opportunity to speak to anyone about the atrocities they’d suffered.

A refugee in Ethiopia started by describing her journey to the refugee camp – listing all the people who died along the way as they walked through the bush, starving and terrified. It was only after describing the deaths of all the other people, that she finally mentioned that her own baby had died on the way and she had buried him on the side of the road. It was the first time she’d spoken of it and she said she knew she would have difficulty sleeping afterwards.  “When a child dies we don't talk about it… I tried to forget about it,” she said.  “Just telling you is traumatic but it is a story that needs to be told; it’s good you are here – it means the world is finally listening”.

Our mandate and our work has raised the expectations of victims – they are not walking through the night to document their suffering on the off chance there might one day be justice decades hence. They want the world to act now to ensure their children have a chance to be doctors, engineers  - and pilots.

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