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Opening Remarks at Press Conference by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

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23 August 2018

23 August 2018

The Commission on South Sudan is excited to be back in Juba following the release of its last report, and the renewal of its mandate by the Human Rights Council in March 2018. The Commission now includes Barney Afako who replaces Commissioner Godfrey Musila. Barney Afako is no stranger to South Sudan.

The Commission secretariat began work on the 1 August 2018. However, the full complement of staff will only be in place by 1 September 2018.  The Commissioners divided into two groups and supported by secretariat staff visited Wau and Yei respectively.

Commissioner Clapham visited Wau and was deeply affected by the trauma of witnesses who had lost family members in the violence. He recounted the chilling experience of having been told by witnesses that when they had lost family members they had confronted the soldiers and said kill us as well, as we have nothing more to live for.
 
Andrew also noted with concern, the proliferation of armed groups with tenuous links to the IO that have splintered into different factions over there. He will speak a little more about that. Of course, ethnic tensions underpin much of the conflict. Wau is also at the center of a major land dispute, in respect of the POC site with demands being made by those claiming the land on which the POC is built.

In Yei, Barney and I met with the new Governor and his team, as well as with Members of Parliament who expressed the need for more support and training particularly for the military to counter conflict related sexual violence.

As you know, humanitarian workers in Yei have been under siege with the recent abduction of 10 aid workers on 27 April and the killing of a UN peacekeeper on 26 June in an ambush targeting a humanitarian convoy. Humanitarians’ of course have increasingly come under attack by the various armed groups including government soldiers. In fact, media reports in 2017 ranks South Sudan as the most dangerous place for humanitarian workers with roughly a third of attacks against humanitarians taking place here.

The Commission’s investigation team also visited the ECC School in Goli where they had the opportunity to speak with survivors of the attack. The attack on the School resulted in five schoolchildren, three staff members and two IDPs being killed by government soldiers, in May of this year.  Our team was also informed that a number of the young adults were raped and sexually violated and several others detained and tortured.  The survivors of the attack, who remained, have demonstrated extraordinary courage, with one of them saying, “If I leave my community, there will be no person standing for them or speaking up for them. My community is relying on me.”   Like so many others, they have had to make the difficult choice of whether to stay in the country or leave, and if they stay there, focus on rebuilding their lives after such devastating losses.

The Commission also met with community members including religious leaders and women’s groups. Both groups were cautiously optimistic about the peace process. At the same time, they constantly raised the issue of impunity and the complete absence of state action on accountability for the daily violations experienced at the hands of various armed groups including those belonging to the government. For the community daily life involves negotiations with different military actors from both government and opposition.

Women noted the ongoing killing and rape of young women also the abductions and rape by armed soldiers. Many of these women once pregnant are then abandoned across the border in Uganda. Yei like many other parts of the country also experiences a large number of babies abandoned because they have been born out of rape and a stigma attaches to them. Yei is also witnessing the return of many from the refugee camps and with it of course all the attendant issues of land and housing-occupation, where there houses have been occupied by other ethnic groups. Many feel frustrated at the government’s inaction on the return of land and homes to the original owners. I think this is going to be a major challenge in the country as the peace implementation begins to take place. Because, to be very frank when we had visited the refugee camps, most people there say, we want to be able to go home, we want to be able to grow our own crops, and we want to be able to feed ourselves, we do not want to depend on aid or refugee assistance.

In meetings with the Commission, a number of civil society actors raised how unhappy they were with reports and investigations, which continued to perpetuate the narrative of the “unknown soldier”. Many said that everybody knew who the perpetrators were, yet did not want to call this out.

The Commission also met with the South Sudan Human Rights Commission and the Sudan Council of Churches. We also had extensive meetings with the UN family including the SRSG and senior UNMISS officials, where we were briefed really quite extensively about the situation unfolding in South Sudan.  We also briefed members of the diplomatic corps in this week and received some feedback from them.

Yesterday we had meetings with a delegation from the Government led by the Minister of Justice and we briefed them on the visits to Wau and Yei. We raised our concerns at the delay in issuing the ‘Terrain Judgement’. We also noted our concern at the lack of progress on the establishment of the Hybrid Court. We also raised with the Government the issue of the amnesty that has been announced from Khartoum, arising out of the recent peace negotiations. We were also informed that the Government intends to set up a special court for conflict related sexual violence. Of course as this moves along, what we will be looking at is, what potential impact that may have on Chapter V of the Peace Agreement.

The Commission reports to the Human Rights Council in March 2018, including on its findings of responsibility in respect of individuals for serious international crimes. It also noted that in the course of its work, it had amassed a vast collection of documents that would need further analysis. This time around, we intend to deepen our work and to prioritize the compilation of dossiers on alleged perpetrators so as to l facilitate the work of a future prosecutor of the Hybrid Court as well as the other transitional justice mechanisms. This will enable also further indictments by other states using universal and treaty-based jurisdiction. Because, at the end of the day we also have to look at the question of how long the Special Court or Hybrid Court will be delayed.

The Commission has also structured its legal framework to take account of African Union Protocols, South Sudanese law as well as international human rights law, international humanitarian law and of course international criminal law. Given that amnesties are a feature of the conflict and peace negotiations in South Sudan, the Commission will also explore the impact of all of this on Chapter V of the Peace Agreement.

In the coming weeks, each Commissioner will visit refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan where it will meet with refugees and key stakeholders. These visits offers the Commission the opportunity to visit refugee camps not previously visited.

The Commission’s preliminary observations from the visits to Wau, Yei and Juba and the conversations we have had suggest that while the political violence has abated to some extent, there has been an increase in criminality and cattle raiding which to some extent also may be politically connected. We also were at a meeting with the leadership of the POC 1 yesterday, when we heard about the recent clashes between armed youth from POC 3 which has also spilled over to the other POC’s; and no doubt you will know more than us about what is going on currently.

The Commission will also in its report to the Council in March continue its public reporting. In this regard, that will cover really the most recent incidents. We will go to the Human Rights Council in September to make an oral update this year. That of course we will look at based on our visits to the refugee camps and what we have picked up on visits to South Sudan.

My colleagues Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako will also take a few minutes to brief you before we open for discussion.

Andrew Clapham:

Thank you,

As our chair has explained, I was in Wau on Monday and Tuesday. There, I met with government officials, from the administration in Wau, the acting Governor and Minister of Finance among others. We also met with representatives of civil society which is quite vibrant but operating under very difficult conditions; as well as some of the IDPs in the POC camp in Wau. I heard directly from people who had fled violence about increase in hostilities in the areas to the south and south west of Wau, including in the Baggari, Mboro and Wadhalelo (areas  in middle of June of this year) and I was also told that these hostilities have resulted in the further displacement of civilians chased out of their villages.

I received several reports of denial of access by humanitarian’s actors to those areas as well as denial of access to UNMISS itself. This obviously (assess) affects the ability to people to assess the fighting in that area, as well as denying the civilians in that area the aid they desperately need. It is obviously also a violation of the Status of Forces Agreement under which the UN operates in South Sudan.

Back in Juba, the Government of South Sudan has informed us when we met with them yesterday that there are (is) still two points outstanding in the memorandum of understanding that they want to sign with the African Union to create the Hybrid Court. Those are apparently being negotiated at the moment; we hope that they can be resolved so that the memorandum of understanding can be quickly signed, and the Hybrid Court will come into effect. 

Finally, on the question of accountability, the Government informed us with regards to the ‘Terrain Case’ that the decision of the military court had been sent to the President on 31 July. ( President of South Sudan).  However, as the case may involve the death penalty, the Minister of Justice has suggested, that if it does involve the death penalty then the Supreme Court of South Sudan has to review the decision of the ‘Terrain’ military tribunal and that will be a review both of the outcome and also the possible sentence that could be commuted then to a period of imprisonment.

I will stop there and pass the floor to my dear colleague.

Barney Afako:

Thank you very much,

I think, for my part, I was particularly struck and impressed, by the way with which many, many of our interlocutors, civil society and religious leaders and others continued to hold up hope and expectation that this conflict at last will be resolved, and the next phase of the recovery of South Sudan will begin. I was especially struck by how everybody was committed and wanted to see accountability and justice for what had taken place in this country. Over the years of the conflict.

Indeed the people that we met were very resilient we found, and quite resourceful I thought, in the face of very extreme adversity. And in Yei, when I met the religious leaders, they expressed to me how that part of the country had for many, many years been a melting pot of South Sudanese but that the conflict had brought about division and estrangement between the communities of South Sudan. But this is something they wanted to recover and to wanted to be able to contribute to the communities coming back together again.

For that of course they need support, they need the State (the Government) to be doing what it has committed itself to do, particularly as you know in the agreement that was signed in 2015 , Chapter V includes the transitional justice mechanisms. Not only the Hybrid Court but the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing. Which is a forum in which the South Sudanese people can be able to come together to look at how to overcome the past and address those violations; and then also look to the future to see how they can recover the experience of being a melting pot of different communities. 

As you also know, Chapter V as my colleagues have said includes commitment to the Hybrid Court and to the issue of compensation and reparation; and establishment of authority to look into that. Our information is, this is important to say, because we found that communities had a misunderstanding about the agreement. There was a fear that the peace agreement was going to sideline the transitional justice mechanisms. We when we spoke to the Government they were very clear that Chapter V of the agreement was not being reopened and that it will be part of the outcome of the Khartoum process. I think that is important to communicate so that communities begin to prepare themselves looking forward to participating in these mechanisms, and advocating for their implementation as soon as possible.

As you probably also know from our mandate, we are tasked to provide guidance on these mechanisms, transitional justice mechanisms,  and that is why we spend part of our time seeking to understand what the Government has been doing to implement these mechanisms.  

They told as that in relation to the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation an Healing, they had started to undertake consultations in communities and had received a number of views and we hope that the people of South Sudan continue to contribute to these consultations. To make sure that when the mechanisms are established they will serve the purpose for which they were designed.

For our part and during the rest of our mandate, we will reflect on these matters and seek to assist the government and all other institutions and entities that are charged with bringing these instruments of transitional justice about. So that we have the most effective transitional justice, mechanisms that include accountability, but also focus on bring back together the people of South Sudan.

Thank you very much.

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