JUBA/ADDIS ABABA (14 December 2018) – South Sudan’s leaders must seize the unique opportunity the recent peace deal provides and work to stop the violence completely, ensure accountability, restore peace and assist the countless victims of this damaging conflict to rebuild their lives, says the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan at the conclusion of the first leg of their official visit to the region.
“Everybody we spoke with during our visit expressed hope that the agreement will lead to durable and sustainable peace”, commented Commission Chairperson Yasmin Sooka. “Most South Sudanese are desperate to return to normal life and put the conflict behind them once and for all, yet they want to ensure that the conditions are right so they can live free of fear and want”, she added.
The visit of the Human Rights Council-mandated Commission, their sixth to the region since the Commission was first established in March 2016, comes less than three months after the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement for Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan in Addis Ababa on 12 September, and the subsequent peace celebrations held in Juba on 31 October.
A central focus of the Commission’s visit was to take a first-hand look at how the Peace Agreement, brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was taking hold in South Sudan, particularly in terms of delivering peace dividends for the countless victims of the conflict. The Commission, supported by a team of investigators and researchers based in Juba, is also gauging how this new phase could lead to return for the more than four million South Sudanese displaced by the four and a half year conflict and reparations for all its victims.
Over the course of 11 days (4 to 14 December), the three-person Commission visited South Sudan, Sudan and Addis Ababa. Commissioner Afako will travel to Uganda over the coming days (15 to 19 December). Their visit included refugee camps in East Darfur where some 100,000 South Sudanese are settled. In accordance with their mandate, the Commission is also collecting and preserving evidence with a view to combatting impunity, and in that regard is assisting the work of a future Hybrid Court, as laid out in Chapter Five of the Peace Agreement.
“Many of those we spoke with stressed that establishing the Hybrid Court, together with the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority, could help contribute to stabilizing the country. This would certainly send a strong signal to those who have suffered violations in connection with the conflict", stated Commissioner Andrew Clapham.
The Commission arrived in South Sudan, shortly after reports began emerging of attacks in the northern town of Bentiu, close to the Sudanese border, where over 150 women and girls were reportedly sexually assaulted and raped over the course of several days in late November. Accountability for conflict related sexual violence has been a core element of the Commission’s work given how widespread and systematic the use of sexual violence has been by the warring parties in South Sudan and the endemic impunity for such crimes. More than 65 per cent of women and girls in the country reportedly have experienced sexual violence at least once in their lives.
“The viciousness of these horrific attacks in Bentiu on so many women is shocking, given that these atrocious acts occurred just as people’s hopes for an end to violence are starting to surface following the peace deal. Accountability must now follow”, stated Barney Afako, the third Commissioner.
The Commission is investigating these recent attacks and will present its findings in its report to the Council in March next year. The Commission heard from Government officials in Juba last week, that the Government had set up a team to investigate what occurred in Bentiu and the Government gave assurances that they would share and corroborate their findings with the Commission.
During its meetings with the Government, the Commission also raised the recent case of a young South Sudanese girl whose virginity was auctioned off publicly, including on Facebook, to the highest bidder, and the need to improve the status of women in South Sudan.
“A holistic transitional justice programme will provide South Sudan a vital opportunity to address the status of women in South Sudan and their prospects for the future”, stated Ms. Sooka.
While in Juba, the Commissioners met with Government officials, including the Minister of Cabinet Affairs, the Minister of Defence, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, members of the diplomatic community in South Sudan, members of civil society and the President General Court Martial, with whom the Commission discussed the recent prosecutions including the Terrain trial verdict in September this year which led to jail sentences for 10 Government soldiers.
Other meetings of the Commission included the National Dialogue steering committee and members of the CTSAMVM [Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements Monitoring and Verification Mechanism] - the internationally backed group charged with monitoring the ceasefire agreement in the country.
While the Commission welcomed joint monitoring missions conducted by various parties, it remains concerned about reports of continuing recruitment of soldiers by the former warring parties as well as reports of resumed fighting in certain areas.
During their visit to the region, Ms. Sooka visited Kario refugee camp in East Darfur, where some 100,000 South Sudanese, out of an estimated 852,000 in Sudan alone, are currently settled. While in Darfur, the Commission Chairperson also met with Government officials of East Darfur State in Sudan, and UN staff working in the area.
“Many of the refugees we spoke with told us how desperately they want to return to their homes in South Sudan, although they want to make sure they are provided with basic services – food, water, health and education - and that they can live with security”, Ms. Sooka noted. As one refugee we met with told us, “We are pleased that the warring parties signed the agreement, but we are now waiting for the implementation of that agreement so we can return home”.
In Khartoum, the Commission met with members of the South Sudan opposition, Sudanese Government officials and UN agencies. While in Addis Ababa the three Commissioners held meetings with the African Union, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the IGAD, UN officials, members of the diplomatic community, and members of the South Sudanese opposition.
Many of those the Commission has spoken with have raised issues of compensation, as well as the plight of victims of the conflict, statelessness, demobilization of soldiers, food security, the use of the death penalty, the work of the Boundaries Commission, and the issue of political detainees.
“There is a situation where there is no war, yet there is also no real peace”, commented a refugee the Commission met with this week. “Peace would be a gift to us”, he added.
The Commission is due to publish a comprehensive written report on their findings in February next year, and to present that report to the Human Rights Council in mid-March.
The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan was established by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 and extended for one additional year in March 2017 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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