NAIROBI/GENEVA (5 October 2023) – As South Sudan considers the prospect of national elections in December 2024, its Government must urgently cease unlawful media censorship, end intolerable restrictions on civic and political activities, and halt attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said in a new report today.
“Independent media and a vibrant civil society represent critical voices in developing accountable governance, and the democratic processes required to enable peace and ensure human rights,” said Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission. “Surprisingly the Government instead treats journalists and civil society members who voice critique as enemies of the ruling political party, reflecting its extreme intolerance of all forms of public scrutiny and critical views. This does not bode well for democratic prospects.”
The report, titled “Entrenched Repression: the systemic curtailment of democratic and civic space in South Sudan,” is based on the Commission’s independent investigations in 2023. It examines the current situation of South Sudanese media and civil society actors, both in and outside of the country. The State’s repressive treatment of these vital spheres serve as key indicators of prospects for accountable governance and a democratic society.
The report details how the National Security Service (NSS) imposes the State’s regime of censorship in newsrooms and interferes heavily with the activities of civil society groups. Its officers deploy to newsrooms to review content and cut stories deemed critical or inconvenient to the Government, including coverage of political and human rights issues. Independent online media are routinely targeted by cyberattacks and website blockages.
NSS also demands civil society groups seek prior authorization for all activities, which are then monitored to dissuade talk on topics and events which authorities would prefer them to avoid. Individuals who do not follow these arbitrary and unlawful rules are usually subjected to surveillance, intimidation, and human rights violations including arbitrary detention.
Extensive extraterritorial operations by NSS in other countries, including illegal renditions from Kenya, mean that few places are safe for individuals targeted by the Government. Instrumentalized to entrench the rule of the dominant political party, NSS mirrors tactics used by intelligence services of the Khartoum regime when the south was part of Sudan.
“It is a tragic irony that in an independent South Sudan, its liberators, now in government, are intolerant of public scrutiny, discussion of critical views, and political opposition,” said Commissioner Barney Afako. “Abandoning these illiberal and autocratic practices will be essential if South Sudanese are to realize the aspirations for freedom that drove their quest for independence.”
The Commission’s report contextualizes the State’s resistance to democratization as a legacy of decades of factionalism in the militarized liberation movement, and reflective of a deep sense of entitlement among the ruling class to capture the spoils of independence. An aversion to dissent and debate, and a readiness to use coercion and violence to pursue political objectives, have fuelled gross human rights violations and devastated the country.
The 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement envisaged a framework to deal with these legacies, including through unifying security forces, establishing transitional justice mechanisms, and developing a permanent constitution, to be followed by elections. But these commitments are yet to be implemented. While South Sudanese are desperate to have an accountable government than can deliver on its human rights obligations, rushing toward elections without these key fundamentals in place risks compounding grievances and fuelling further violence, with potentially disastrous impacts for South Sudan’s peoples and its future.
“South Sudan still lacks an umpire to review and curtail the repression of human rights, and to resolve disputes that may arise through electoral processes. There is no independent and properly resourced judiciary, and the Government continues dragging its feet in establishing transitional justice institutions. These are politically calculated strategies to maintain the supremacy of ruling elites, thereby entrenching the status quo. This situation is incompatible with the State’s human rights law obligations and intolerable for the peoples of South Sudan,” said Commissioner Carlos Castresana Fernández.
The Commission’s report includes recommendations to end the unlawful censorship regime, as well as the imposition of arbitrary restrictions on civic and political activities, to prioritize the strengthening of justice institutions, and to implement critical aspects of the Revitalized Peace Agreement including the development of an inclusive permanent constitution and the establishment of the transitional justice mechanisms envisaged in it.
Read the full report here.
Background: The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan is an independent body mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council. First established in March 2016, it has been renewed annually since. Its three Commissioners are not UN staff, they are not renumerated for their work as Commissioners, and they serve independently in their capacity as experts. They are supported by a Secretariat based in Juba, South Sudan.
The Commission is mandated to investigate the situation of human rights in South Sudan and to make recommendations to prevent a deterioration of the situation, with a view to its improvement. The Commission is also mandated to determine and report the facts and circumstances of human rights violations and abuses, including by clarifying responsibility for crimes under national and or international law. The Commission’s findings are informed by independent interviews conducted with victims and survivors of human rights violations, as well as witnesses, service providers, and related experts and stakeholders.
For media requests, please contact:
In Nairobi: Rajeev PS, Public Information Officer for the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, at [email protected] or +254776768545.
In Geneva: Todd Pitman, Media Adviser for the Human Rights Council’s Investigative Missions, at [email protected] or +4176691176; or
Pascal Sim, Human Rights Council Media Officer, at [email protected].