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Statements and speeches Independent investigation

Statement by Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

19 February 2021

Johannesburg, 19 February 2020 – Good morning, ladies and gentlemen and thank you for joining us today for the launch of the Commission’s fifth report. I am joined by my fellow commissioners Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako. As you know the Commission is mandated by the Human Rights Council to investigate and report on the human rights situation in South Sudan. It is also mandated to gather and preserve evidence, and make this evidence available to any existing or future transitional justice mechanism. 

The Commission has now compiled a total of 101 dossiers of evidence on individual alleged perpetrators, whose names, and accompanying materials, will be presented in a confidential file to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We expect this information to be made available to support future prosecutions before regional or national courts and tribunals, subject to the fulfilment of the conditions set out in the Confidential Protocol the Commission has prepared on access to the Commission’s classified material. 

Renewed Localised Violence 

On Monday it will be one year since the formation of the Revitalised Transitional Government of National Unity in South Sudan. While the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement has led to a reduction in hostilities at the national level for the second year in a row, South Sudan has witnessed a massive escalation in violence perpetrated at a localized level. 

In our latest reports we have documented the new levels of militia violence engulfing more than three quarters of the country, at a localized level, in which children carry weapons and women are traded as spoils of war like chattels. We are deeply concerned that the conflict at localized level places the entire country at great risk.

In Jonglei and the Greater Pibor Area, homes have been systematically and deliberately torched, murders and forced displacements have been perpetrated; women and girls have been abducted, raped, gang-raped, sexually enslaved, and in some instances forcibly married off to their captors. Abducted boys haven been forced to fight, and in some instances forcibly assimilated into rival armed groups. Eight of the nine humanitarian workers killed in South Sudan in 2020 lost their lives in Jonglei and Greater Pibor Administrative Area.

Jonglei State has experienced some of the most brutal violence in June, July, and August last year (2020), including incidents of killings and the maiming of civilians, the raiding of more than 175,000 head of cattle, the systematic and deliberate torching of civilian houses, and the looting and destruction of international and national NGO compounds. In Gumuruk village one woman told the Commission that “Our abductors raped us for 10 consecutive days. We did not cook nor wash for them. They just used us as their ‘wives’ to have sex.”

The sheer number of fighters involved in these localised conflicts has been shocking. Up to 50,000 fighters took part in one attack in Padoy (Jonglei State), and at least 15,000 fighters in an attack against Likuangole village, also in Jonglei State. Civilians described combatants using “newer” weapons which they had never seen before. One man told the Commission: “I went to Pibor town and I saw guns being sold there. There the black guns used by the NSS were being sold for 25,000 SSP each [less than a few hundred dollars]. The children all have guns”.

The ongoing conflict is directly linked to the lack of commitment by the parties to full implementation of the Revitalized Peace Agreement or engaging with South Sudan’s challenges. As a consequence, vast areas of South Sudan now lack any pretence to governance or security with ethnic intercommunal and intracommunal violence escalating. 

While some of the delays can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing competition for access to political power and control of the country’s resources is responsible for much of the obstructions, and continues to drive the conflict, with staggering levels of violence mainly in Central Equatoria, Warrap, Jonglei, and the Great Pibor Administrative area. 

South Sudanese women and girls bear the brunt of the conflict and are subjected to gruesome violations and abuses by all sides - abductions, sexual slavery, rape and torture and forced marriages have become the norm. Women and girls are prized for what they represent in terms of bridal wealth, and in conflict abhorrently, are regarded as legitimate spoils, traded and treated as chattels, all in the Central Equatoria, Jongelei, Warrap, and Greater Pibor Administrative Area.

In Central Equatoria, since November 2018, the South Sudanese army, local militias, and the National Salvation Front have continued fighting for power, and control of territory, gold mines, and opportunities for extortion. The Commission also documented several accounts of rape and multiple incidents of gang-rape perpetrated by the national army. Soldiers, many of whom have not received salaries or food rations, consequently extort food and household items from civilians, who are themselves are hungry and malnourished. 

A successful effort last year to bring 26 SSPDF soldiers to justice for these crimes improved the situation in just one village of Lasu in Central Equatoria. Although a few perpetrators were convicted and sentenced, victims did not receive compensation or any acknowledgement of the harms they had endured. Many were left not knowing the whereabouts of loved ones. An elderly woman who witnessed her daughters-in-law beaten and raped, and was herself a survivor of rape, multiple robberies, and beatings, told the Commission, “I am tired of all the abuse. I am old and no longer ashamed. I am just fed up.” 

Securitisation of the state

Critics of the Government are systematically silenced, intimidated, detained, and many have been the subjects of enforced disappearance, mainly at the hands of the National Security Service (NSS). Since the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, one ethnic group has dominated the State security apparatus, particularly the NSS. The Commission recorded numerous incidents where South Sudan state security actors have unlawfully detained, tortured, harassed, intimidated, disappeared, or murdered journalists and human rights defenders whom they perceive to be critical of the Government.

The Commission has consistently warned of concerted clampdowns by the Government of South Sudan and National Security Services on freedom of expression and opinion. The NSS has expanded its surveillance and infiltration beyond security institutions, to civil society organisations, media houses, and universities countrywide. The use of criminal defamation charges has created a chilling effect and resulted in self-censorship. As one man detained by the National Security Service in 2020 explained to us, “The Government is desperate, and therefore anyone who is criticising it, irrespective of wherever he is from, will face consequences”.

Enforced disappearance and torture

At any given time, there are approximately 100 to 200 detainees in the notorious NSS detention facility “Blue House” in Juba. Many were arrested and arbitrarily detained simply for expressing their opinions. In one case a journalist was charged and convicted of defamation before the Juba County Court for doing his/her job and reporting on alleged corruption by the Minister of Finance and Economic Planning.

The Commission is in possession of credible information identifying 21 men who were unlawfully detained, tortured, and murdered by the NSS at the Blue House and Riverside detention facilities in Juba between 2016 and 2019. Each of the 21 men was tortured before being murdered by NSS personnel. The majority had been sexually tortured including acts of sodomy. 

Transitional justice 

Since the revitalized peace agreement was signed nearly two and a half years ago, South Sudan has made no progress in establishing either the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, the Commission on Truth, Healing and Reconciliation or the Compensation and Reparations Authority, all provided for in Chapter V of the Peace Agreement. The Commission has in the last year engaged with the Government of South Sudan and the African Union, calling upon them to set a timeline and roadmap for implementing Chapter V. The Commission also provided benchmarks to the Government on elements that would constitute a roadmap for establishing these mechanisms. We are extremely pleased that our engagement has had some impact as the Government of South Sudan announced on 29 January 2021, that it had agreed to begin the processes of establishing the Hybrid Court and other transitional justice mechanisms. 

Nevertheless, we continue to urge that the rhetoric should be matched with action, and that the Government and the African Union Commission should now fast track the establishment of the Hybrid Court and the other transitional justice mechanisms to begin the process of building accountability and sustainable peace. 

The Commission considers that, while the Hybrid Court is critical to dealing with those most responsible for serious crimes, the delay in establishing the Commission on Truth, Healing and Reconciliation has impeded the possibility of dealing with the structural fault lines which underpin violence in South Sudan. Truth recovery processes through the Truth Commission would provide a meaningful space and opportunity for affected communities to begin an honest dialogue and exploration of solutions to historical grievances and the ongoing violence. 

In an increasingly bitterly polarised country, where ethnic identity is prized above the notion of what it means to be a South Sudanese, the country desperately needs a collective engagement, for building trust, restoring dignity, building national unity and rebuilding trust in national leadership and institutions. 

My colleagues and I welcome your questions.