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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Pillay welcomes South Sudan commitment to human rights, but says much still to be done in world’s newest state

Pillay / S. Sudan

11 May 2012

Statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on 4th day of her mission to South Sudan

11 May 2012

Good afternoon, and thank you very much for coming.

I believe that my being able to come here so soon after independence can provide a useful stimulus for the development of a sound human rights framework that will benefit all current and future inhabitants of South Sudan. I therefore thank the Government not only for inviting me to come, but also for their warm reception, interest and cooperation throughout my visit.

Some of the initial coverage of my visit here speculated that the main focus would be on the threat to civilians posed by the continuing tension, fighting and aerial bombardments taking place along the border areas with Sudan. I will address these extremely important and troubling developments later, but would like to stress that the main purpose of my visit here has been to do with assisting the development of good long-term human rights infrastructure such as laws, institutions and practices in South Sudan itself.

On Wednesday, I held meetings with President Salva Kiir and with the Speaker of the National Assembly, and this morning with the Minister of Justice. I have also met with the Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Gender, Child and Social Welfare; with the new South Sudan Human Rights Commission; and with some of South Sudan’s civil society organizations. In addition I have had extensive briefings from the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Hilde Johnson, with the diplomats and other United Nations bodies working here, and with the UNMISS Human Rights Division which also represents my Office.

I was particularly struck by a comment by a civil society representative I met on Wednesday. “The ‘We’re still a young nation’ phrase should be avoided,” he said. “Human rights are human rights, whatever the state of your development.” I could not agree more. Human rights are not negotiable and cannot be cherry-picked. There are no excuses, not even the youthfulness of the state, for ignoring or violating them.

Being such a young state presents opportunities as well as disadvantages. To some extent South Sudan is starting with a clean slate, and when it comes to passing good laws and establishing effective institutions, that can be a major advantage. I have therefore urged the Government to ratify all the main international human rights treaties as soon as possible. These treaties, which build on the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, set the legal standards which national laws should then reflect. South Sudan’s Constitutional Bill of Rights provides a good foundation. And all the South Sudanese I have met during this visit have made it clear they want these rights to be reflected in their daily lives.

I was heartened to hear from the President that the Government is committed to ratifying all the core human rights treaties. I have offered the continuing support of my office in this effort, and I hope my visit may help speed up the ratification of the conventions on the rights of children, persons with disabilities, migrant workers, refugees and stateless people; the conventions against torture, disappearances, discrimination against women, and racism; and perhaps most importantly of all, the two overarching human rights covenants which guarantee the fundamental freedoms and rights, and the underlying principles of equality and non-discrimination, that are contained in the Universal Declaration,

These international treaties do in fact cover almost all the other issues I have raised, or which have been raised with me, during my visit. Once sound national laws that abide by international treaty standards have been adopted, the national and local authorities, security services, NGOs and other members of civil society, the judiciary and the media, have a clear legal framework to guide them. Rule of law, based on a good human rights system, is fundamental to a properly functioning democracy, and I have been encouraged by the acceptance of that fact by the country’s leadership.

Specific issues I have discussed include the importance of due process – people should not be arbitrarily detained, or kept for long periods without being charged or put on trial; and the conditions of detention, which are often extremely poor, and need improving. I am also very concerned about the incarceration of mentally ill persons and of children.

There is a widely recognized need to make a sustained effort to combat impunity, particularly among members of the security forces who violate people’s human rights, including through torture, beatings and other unacceptable and criminal behaviour. This is still a major problem in South Sudan, although there has also been some progress, most particularly during the ongoing civilian disarmament campaign in Jonglei, during which several soldiers reported to have committed crimes have been promptly arrested and in some cases charged. This is how it should be, and I believe it has helped considerably to reduce the number of violations that might otherwise have taken place during the disarmament operation.

With respect to the human rights violations that occurred in the Rajaf police training centre during 2010, I note that the government established an inquiry, and I encourage it to ensure that those who were responsible are held accountable for what happened.

I have also discussed the importance of maintaining or boosting efforts to prevent discrimination against women, an issue that was brought into sharp focus during my visit to Bor yesterday. I met a number of civil society organizations as well as individual women who talked to me very frankly about both their own and other women’s situations. They talked of the extreme lack of rights for women living in rural areas of South Sudan. They described the tyranny of a dowry system that fuels the practice of early and forced marriage, in which neither the daughters nor the mothers usually have any say. They painted a very disturbing picture of domestic violence, and suggested rape was fairly commonplace, but rarely investigated. Girls who disobey their fathers are sometimes killed – cases were described to me in which young girls, who were rejecting forced marriage, were ill treated and even beaten to death by their male relatives. Such terrible forms of discrimination should not be explained away as cultural practices that cannot be challenged or changed. I believe in cultural rights, but not in the cultural repression of half the population. The women I have met in South Sudan want the same things women everywhere want, namely the human rights that belong to them as much as to men.

At the Government level, I commend the efforts that have resulted in the number of women in parliament rising to above 25 percent – which is higher than in some European countries -- and strongly support the stated commitment of the President and other senior government officials, as well as the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, to support girls' education and empowerment. But huge and courageous steps must be taken to bring these good intentions to fruition, especially in the country’s very many remote, impoverished and illiterate communities. Strong international support in this area is going to be essential for many years to come. Experience all over the world has shown very clearly that improving the situation of women brings great social and economic benefits to boys and men as well.

While in Bor, I also met the Governor of Jonglei State with whom I discussed the violent large–scale cattle raids, mass killings and abductions of children that have bedevilled relations between the Murle, Lou Nuer and Dinka communities in recent times. UNMISS, with my support, will be publishing a report on the inter-communal violence in Jonglei in the very near future. In the meantime, I was pleased to learn that the Jonglei State Communities Conference appears to have made some progress in its efforts to promote peace and reconciliation, and I am hoping to learn more about this important process when I meet its leader, Archbishop Daniel Deng, later this afternoon. Processes such as this are essential, and must promote tolerance and seek to diffuse the inter-ethnic tensions that are affecting so many people in South Sudan.

Other issues covered have included the situation of minorities and foreigners; the desirability of establishing a moratorium on the death penalty; and the importance of maintaining freedom of expression: a truly free media is essential to a true democracy, and the same goes for human rights defenders. Wrong facts can be corrected, harsh or opposing opinions can be countered, but journalists and human rights defenders should not be detained, obstructed, threatened, have their organizations closed down or be otherwise impeded from doing their legitimate work.

Finally I would like to turn to the issue of protection of civilians. Twice in the past six months I have publicly condemned the indiscriminate use of aerial bombardment by the Sudanese Armed Forces inside South Sudan. Today, I condemn it again. I am saddened and outraged to learn that such attacks which place civilians at great risk --and have already killed and injured some and caused many thousands of others to flee -- have been taking place yet again in recent days.

I have seen UNMISS photographs showing recent huge bomb craters in civilian areas, including a market place. Deliberate or reckless attacks on civilian areas can, depending on the circumstances, amount to an international crime. The only possible way to sort out the various border disputes, including the final status of Abyei, is through negotiations.

Principled and humane solutions need to be found for the unresolved citizenship question, with hundreds of thousands of people’s future at stake. Many of them are currently living in great fear, uncertainty and physical hardship, as are the huge numbers of people displaced by internal and cross-border conflicts.

South Sudan is still two months short of its first birthday. As I have learned from the experience of my own country, South Africa, the transition from the military culture of an armed resistance movement to civilian rule is not a simple task. The situation in South Sudan is even more difficult because of the devastating effects of decades of civil war and lack of development. I believe the leaders of South Sudan have the political will to entrench a democratic system based on human rights and the rule of law, but they themselves -- and you, the general public, human rights defenders and the media – will need to keep pushing to keep up, and hopefully speed up, the momentum of change. One key element of that process is ensuring that key civilian systems and institutions, such as the police, courts and judiciary are fully established and functioning properly, so that the military can return to their barracks. Another key element is the full and thorough civil registration of births, deaths and marriages, on which so much else depends.

It is also vital that the government takes steps to ensure that the depth of poverty in the country, coupled with the current austerity measures, does not have a dramatic negative impact on education, health and other key services.

My staff, and the staff of UNMISS Human Rights Division, are already working on many fronts to help South Sudan strengthen its vital institutions. They are training police and military, giving advice to the judiciary and politicians on draft laws and treaty ratification, monitoring the human rights situation on the ground in all ten states, reporting abuses to the authorities, sending teams out on a daily basis to watch the disarmament programme, and conducting many other activities that I fervently hope will, in time, assist the country to improve the human rights situation of all its inhabitants.

South Sudan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with more than 80 percent of the population living on less than USD 1 per day, massive illiteracy, and the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. The challenges are enormous, and the people of South Sudan deserve the commitment of the international community to assist them along what will be a very long and difficult path to peace, prosperity and a full realization of human rights.

Thank you.


For more information and media requests, please contact:
In Juba: Kouider Zerrouk (UNMISS) + 211 9123 96539 / [email protected] or Rupert Colville: +41 79 506 1088 / [email protected]
In Geneva: Ravina Shamdasani: +41 22 917 9310 / [email protected]

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