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Emerging Impacts of COVID-19 on the Human Rights Situation and Peace Process in South Sudan

23 June 2020

GENEVA/JUBA (23 June 2020) – The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan welcomes the renewal of its mandate, as it provides an opportunity to continue working on building sustainable peace in South Sudan and to support the Unity Government and the people of South Sudan in their efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission, moreover, believes that the imperative of building peace requires the Unity Government to begin implementing the provisions of the 2018 Revitalised Agreement for the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

COVID-19 is an invisible global enemy which knows no race, gender, ethnicity, nor religion: it has exposed the structural fault lines in all societies, including in South Sudan where the devastation wrought by the pandemic is compounded by a legacy of decades of armed conflict that has put human rights and the protection of civilians under severe strain. The COVID-19 pandemic has already caused and may continue to catalyse increases in violence by creating a window for opportunistic parties to make strategic military gains or to consolidate power. This crisis has further exacerbated the vulnerability of the most marginalised South Sudanese, laying bare the economic, political, and social fissures in South Sudanese society. It has revealed the inadequacy of the public health system and the absence of any social protection arrangements that would alleviate the suffering of the people and ultimately save lives.

The Commission believes that it is critical to fight COVID-19—and to contain and prevent any further rise in infections. The crisis, however, also presents South Sudan's leadership with renewed opportunities to come together, and to serve and protect the South Sudanese people in accordance with the R-ARCSS. Overcoming the pandemic will require political will and a commitment on the part of the Unity Government to work in close partnership with organs of civil society, including the religious community, to tackle the virus and its consequences, and to mitigate the effects—including unintended consequences—of measures designed to fight the spread of the disease.

The Commission notes with grave concern that the pandemic has exacerbated the already fragile humanitarian and human rights situation, including by further restricting fundamental rights and freedoms. Human rights must lie at the heart of the Government's public health and recovery strategies. The Government must ensure that fundamental rights, including economic, social, and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights are protected throughout the process. This requires the Government to integrate a rights-based approach to tackling the pandemic.

COVID-19 thus poses a serious threat not only to public health, but also to governance, democracy, and for peace and security. Systems characterised by weak constitutional orders, lack of accountability, entrenched impunity, and historical and structural inequalities have struggled to respond effectively to the pandemic in compliance with human rights and the rule of law.

The situation in South Sudan

The first COVID-19 case in South Sudan was identified on 5 April 2020. South Sudan has a population of 11 million people, 7.5 million of whom already require humanitarian assistance, while more than 6 million live on the brink of famine. Moreover, less than half of the state's healthcare facilities are operating, and, of those functioning, many are both understaffed and poorly equipped. In the entirety of South Sudan, there are only 24 ICU beds and 14 ventilators, with 10 having been recently donated by the United Nations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also emerged within a fragile post-conflict context in South Sudan, characterised by a dire humanitarian situation, heightened insecurity, alarming levels of localised violence, and weak public institutions, infrastructure, laws, policies, and political processes. It also comes at a juncture within the peace process when implementation of the process has faltered. While progress was made in February 2020 towards a Unity Government, there has been regrettable delay in constituting the legislature and establishing regional governance structures, thus contributing to the vacuum in governance. Many of the envisaged security and political arrangements have not been established as agreed. The Commission urges the peace partners to work together to settle these and other outstanding impasses definitively.

In the meantime, the virus continues to spread in South Sudan. The Ministry of Health has confirmed 1,916 cases of COVID-19 infections, 35 deaths due to the virus, and 190 recoveries. There is concern at the possible spread of the virus in the United Nations Protection of Civilian sites in Juba (Central Equatoria) and Rubkhona (Unity). In this context, vulnerability to the pandemic exerts extraordinary pressure on international humanitarian actors to take the necessary steps to assist the newly established Unity Government to counteract these risks. In a time of isolation, quarantining, and travel bans, however, the delivery of essential humanitarian aid and medical assistance is severely compromised. While public health policies for fighting COVID-19 are necessary to limit the spread of the disease, they can have dire implications for these humanitarian challenges. A shortage of health professionals also leaves the country at acute risk. This has been compounded by the departure of many humanitarian actors from the country.

On 20 March 2020, South Sudan established a High-Level Task Force to coordinate the national response to Coronavirus. The Task Force presented an early opportunity for partners in the Unity Government to collectively focus on the well-being of citizens. It was initially constituted only by politicians, and attracted criticism for not having enough medical experts or persons with technical knowledge. Furthermore, during May, each of the members of the nine-person Special Task Force tested positive for the virus. The Commission is relieved to hear that some of the members, including First Vice President Dr Riek Machar, have recovered, and wishes a speedy recovery to the others.

Among the most vulnerable persons in South Sudan are internally displaced persons. Nearly one and a half million are still living in conditions in which social distancing is not feasible and access to basic services limited. The closure of schools has left tens of thousands of children and youth without access to adequate education. Alternatives like home schooling or digital classes are simply unavailable. In these circumstances, the young are more vulnerable to sexual abuse or to recruitment by both Government forces and armed opposition groups.

In the past months, the Commission has received several allegations of sexual and gender-based violence, indicating a recent spike in cases since the arrival of the COVID-19 virus on 5 April 2020. Disturbing allegations of rape, gang rape, intimate partner violence, beatings, femicide, forced nudity, and forced marriage – perpetrated largely against women and girls – continue to emerge every few days. Owing to confinement measures, women have become trapped in close proximity with abusers, leading to a rise in the incidences of sexual and gender-based violence within homes.

During a time when the justice system has been decongesting detention facilities due to COVID-19, with at least 1,479 releases, incidents of arbitrary arrest, detention, and ill-treatment have also been recorded. Continuing a pattern documented by the Commission since 2013, Government forces, including National Security Service officers, have resorted to physical violence against those perceived to have broken curfew rules. As with many other countries, the fear of the virus has also become associated with foreigners. Although the authorities have taken steps to curb some of the initial manifestations, xenophobia and hate speech still persist.

In responding to the pandemic, the Government should ensure that special attention is paid to those most vulnerable and those immuno-compromised who may be more susceptible to the transmission of COVID-19 due to pre-existing comorbidities, including elderly persons, persons with disabilities, unaccompanied children, and displaced individuals. The rights to healthcare and the highest attainable standard of living should similarly be guaranteed for all citizens and without discrimination. Further, the State should endeavour to guarantee the right to food, education, water, and sanitation especially for vulnerable populations.

Fulfilling these obligations requires that the Government should take urgent and concrete steps to implement key provisions of the R-ARCSS which would provide South Sudanese with a functioning, unified, and integrated government capable of sustaining effective, transparent, accountable, and responsive measures to curb the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

Effective governance is critical because any measures to fight the spread of the virus will be ineffective unless they can be implemented at the lowest levels of government. The delay by the Unity Government partners to agree upon a new legislature or to establish the leadership structures at state and local levels has created power vacuums at the sub-national level at this time when authority and a state presence is most needed. The power vacuums have made it even more difficult to deploy strategies to address the alarming levels of localised violence such as in Jonglei State.

The early impact of the novel Coronavirus has been staggering in terms of impact on the economy, the public healthcare system, and the delay in establishing the political infrastructure in accordance with the R-ARCSS in South Sudan. The Commission is concerned that in dealing with the virus – which is completely understandable given the unprecedented nature of the crisis – it is likely that the consequences of the decade long armed conflict and humanitarian crises that pre-existed this pandemic will persist and be neglected.

The Commission further notes with concern on-going hostilities, including between Government forces and the National Salvation Front forces in Central Equatoria which violate the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement and peace efforts made in Rome. These and other hostilities have also manifested in localised violence and have led to an increase in associated human rights violations. The Government also reported that on 14 June 2020, its forces had killed Kerbino Agok Wol, the leader of a newly formed group, the 7th October Movement, in Rumbek (Lakes State). The Commission is closely following the on-going fighting and all of these developments, and remains concerned that during a time of heightened anxiety when all efforts should be devoted to tackling the pandemic, the lives of South Sudanese citizens should not be further disrupted by new rounds of fighting.

Moreover, over the course of its four mandates, the Commission has consistently observed that in addition to causing large-scale displacement and other serious violations, a pattern of arrests, detentions, disappearances, and incidents of rape and sexual violence have often accompanied or followed incidents of localised conflict. The Commission will continue to monitor the on-going conflicts including killings in the Central Equatoria region, Lakes State, the Jur River in Western Bahr el-Ghazal State, and in Jonglei State, and seek to clarify responsibility with a view to ending impunity and providing accountability. The reported targeting of South Sudanese civilians deemed sympathetic to opposition forces by the security apparatus continues to erode the trust and confidence that South Sudanese citizens require to move beyond years of brutal warfare towards healing and reconciliation. 

The Commission urges all sides to ceasefire in order to avoid unnecessary loss of life and deepening the humanitarian crisis in the country. All parties should heed United Nations Secretary General António Guterres' urgent call on 23 March 2020 for an immediate global ceasefire. At a time when citizens' lives have been put on hold as they remain anxious about the spread of COVID-19, a ceasefire is essential for peace and to ensure that the effects of COVID-19 are not exacerbated. It would also ensure that innocent South Sudanese women, men, and children do not suffer the effects of hostilities; it would enable all parties to re-focus on addressing South Sudan's pressing challenges, including achieving the goals of transition.

The Commission recommends therefore that the Unity Government, as a matter of urgency, takes steps to establish functional, effective, and accountable governance structures at the central and sub-national levels including by deploying state governors and establishing the new legislature in accordance with the provisions of the R-ARCSS. It should also act urgently to address the mutating of the conflict from the national to the localised level and ensure that security sector reform is accelerated. The revenues of South Sudan should be used for the benefit of the South Sudanese population, including the provision of health and social welfare services.

Furthermore, the Unity Government should implement special measures for halting the spread of the COVID-19 virus and for protecting persons most vulnerable. While there may be a need to restrict some freedom of movement and public assembly, it is essential that freedom of expression and the right to information are respected during this time. This will facilitate the proper flow of information about how to prevent the spread of the virus, as well engender healthy discussion by citizens concerning the continuing peace process and the immediate tasks of the Government. The Commission also calls upon the Unity Government to ensure that measures are taken to secure the protection of girls and women and to ensure accountability for those who continue to perpetrate rape and sexual violence.


The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan was established by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 and extended in March 2017, and for further years in March 2018, March 2019, and June 2020, 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.

For media queries, please contact:
GENEVA: Rolando Gomez, [email protected]or +41 79 477 4411
JUBA: Samuel Mutungi, [email protected] or +211 912 170 257
More information about the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, and @UNCHRSS on Twitter