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UN report highlights risk of more and gross human rights violations if South Sudan’s conflict drivers remain unaddressed

01 March 2024

GENEVA (1 March 2024) – Unchecked mass violence and entrenched repression in South Sudan threaten the prospects of durable peace and human rights protections; this must urgently be addressed to live up to hopes of the people and commitments of the peace agreement, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said in its latest report.

Members of the Commission presented their report today to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Our investigations again found an absolutely unacceptable situation in South Sudan, whereby families and communities are devastated by human rights violations and abuses by armed forces, militias and State institutions acting with impunity. Further, the media and civil society groups operate under intolerable conditions which stifle democratic space for the population at large,” said Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission.

“The drivers of violence and repression are well known, and while commitments have been made to address them, we continue to see a lack of political will to implement the measures necessary to improve millions of lives,” Sooka said. “South Sudan’s immediate and long-term future hinges on political leaders finally making good on their commitments to bring peace, and reverse cyclical human rights violations.”

The report draws on investigations undertaken in South Sudan and the neighbouring region throughout 2023, involving hundreds of witness interviews and meetings, expert opensource and forensic analysis, and dozens of engagements with State authorities.

The findings detail the persistence of armed conflict whereby State actors have either instigated or failed to prevent or punish violence, which frequently involves killings, sexual and gender-based crimes, and the displacement of civilian populations.

The Commission also identifies the use of children in armed forces, the State’s systemic curtailment of media and civil society actors both in and outside of the country, and the diversion of available State revenues from rule of law, health, and education institutions.

Measures to address conflict drivers and human rights violations are laid out in the 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement, which is scheduled to conclude following the country’s first elections which are planned for December.

“The transformative promises of the Revitalized Agreement remain unfulfilled, jeopardizing prospects for peace and human rights protections,” said Commissioner Barney Afako.

“The process of merging forces is not yet completed, the drafting of a permanent constitution has not started, and none of the three transitional justice institutions are established,” said Afako. “Time is running out for South Sudan’s leaders to implement key commitments, which are the building blocks for peace, for holding the country together, and advancing human rights beyond the elections.”

The report finds that patterns of violations remain unchanged, ever increasing because the root causes remain unaddressed. Abductions of women and children in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area appear to be worsening in scale and severity, frequently involving horrific sexual violence and the separation of parents from children. The Commissioners visited these regions last month, spoke with survivors, and delved deeper into the harrowing issues of abductions, forced displacements, sexual slavery, and ransoms.

In 2023, authorities paid ransoms to captors in exchange for the release of abductees, which risks incentivising the recurrence of crimes. Many women and children are still missing; other abductees are held hostage as authorities fail to effectively intervene. The perpetrators of abductions previously documented by the Commission had not been punished.

“The persistent failure to build a justice system implicates the State in these violations,” said Commissioner Carlos Castresana Fernández. “There is no protective institution between the people and criminals, and it is no coincidence that areas most affected by abductions and other gross violations have few courts and judges, if any. Developing a functioning judiciary is an inter-generational project that must urgently start in earnest.”

The report is accompanied by a detailed paper published by the Commission on 5 October 2023, examining in detail the persistence of attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, and pervasive regimes of media censorship and arbitrary restrictions on civic activities, which systemically curtail the democratic and civic space.

In the latest report, recommendations to the Government of South Sudan focus on addressing structural drivers of violence. This requires urgently implementing core aspects of the Revitalized Agreement, including establishing transitional justice institutions, as well as by identifying required actions to open democratic space, and enable political processes to be meaningful and legitimate.

Chairperson Yasmin Sooka’s statement today to the Council focused on the stories of South Sudanese interviewed by the Commission, whose lives remain blighted by the persistence of conflict, and who call on the country’s leaders to finally embrace peace.

Read the full March 2024 report here; a three-page infographic summary here, and the October 2023 detailed 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.

More information about the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan can be found here. Follow the Commission on X (formerly known as Twitter) here.

For media queries, please contact: In Juba: Rajeev PS, Public Information Officer/Media Adviser, [email protected] / +211912174078; Or in Geneva: Todd Pitman, Media Adviser for the UN Human Rights Council’s Investigative Missions, [email protected] / +41 76 691 1761; or Pascal Sim, Human Rights Council Media Officer,  [email protected].

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