StatementsOffice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Statement by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, to the Security Council, on South Sudan, 19 February 2016 (as prepared for delivery).
19 February 2016
Thank you for inviting me to brief members of the Security Council on the human rights situation in South Sudan.
When the Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict was signed in August 2015, it was largely received with optimism that the parties to the conflict would abide by their declaration of a permanent ceasefire and halt their attacks on the civilian population. Small, welcomed, steps have been made in the implementation of the peace agreement, with crucial support from the African Union, IGAD and the wider international community. However, the reconciliatory rhetoric propagated by government and opposition actors has deflected from the fact that the parties to the conflict continue to attack, kill, abduct, rape, arbitrarily detain, and forcefully displace civilians, and pillage and destroy their property.
In the 6 months since the signing of the peace agreement, a scorched earth strategy has continued in which civilians were burned alive in their homes, their livestock raided and their means of livelihood destroyed. In the Greater Upper Nile region, Government forces systematically razed villages to the ground in what appears to be a deliberate strategy to deprive perceived opposition supporters of any basis of securing a living, thus forcing their displacement.
Attacks on civilians reveal horrific levels violence. In Leer County, Unity State, a survivor told our staff that her village was attacked by a mix of SPLA soldiers and armed youth in late October. She described how the attackers shot and killed her husband and then locked up her grandfather in a storage room and burned him alive.
Child rights violations and sexual violence in conflict remain rampant, despite respective commitments signed by the parties to conflict to cease and prevent them. During an attack on Koch county, one woman described how soldiers killed her husband, then tied her to a tree and forced her to watch as her fifteen year old daughter was raped by at least ten soldiers. UNICEF estimates that about 16,000 children have been recruited and used by all parties since the beginning of the conflict, including over 400 children in the last quarter of 2015.
New theatres of violence are emerging in areas previously little affected by direct hostilities, notably in the Equatorias. UNMISS has received reports of killings, sexual and gender based violence, and the destruction and looting of civilian property. In recent months, allegations of unlawful and prolonged detention, mistreatment and extrajudicial killings of civilians have been documented, particularly in Western Equatoria.
An increasing number of armed defence groups have emerged in response to the government’s highly militarized approach to addressing insecurity. With the diffusion of armed conflict in all parts of the country, and the creation of local armed groups fighting against government troops, South Sudan faces the risk of fragmentation and related human rights violations.
While conflict-related violence remains a serious concern, human rights are under attack throughout the country. As UNMISS recently documented in a report on the human rights situation, the space for freedom of expression and dissent has narrowed considerably. Several radio stations and newspapers have been closed for having reported on topics deemed too critical of the government or, in the case of the Al Rai newspaper, reportedly on the grounds that one of its board members had recently joined SPLM/A-IO.
Human rights defenders and journalists have also been intimidated, harassed, attacked, and detained. In late December 2015, it was reported that a journalist of the El Tabeer newspaper had been arrested following the publication of an article he had written, criticising the Government’s economic policy. In 2015, seven journalists were killed by unidentified gunmen.
This pattern of deliberately silencing dissenting voices seriously contributes to the shrinking of democratic space and negatively impacts the attainment of a sustainable peace.
A series of reports have repeatedly concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes have been committed by the parties to the conflict. These include human rights reports of UNMISS, the report of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, and the report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 2206 (2015).
However, no action has been taken. Perpetrators of these violations have not been held accountable. South Sudan has a long history of forgiveness and amnesties, even for the most serious crimes. To break this longstanding cycle of impunity, and to prevent future violations of international human rights law, we must ensure that the transitional justice mechanisms outlined in the peace agreement are implemented.
Chapter V of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict includes provisions to create a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, a Hybrid Court for South Sudan, and a Compensation and Reparation Authority. The establishment of these mechanisms in line with international norms and standards is crucial for achieving sustainable peace.
But their formation faces tremendous challenges. The need for resources will be enormous and require the international community’s focus and funds over a long period of time. Once established, an independent Hybrid Court will only be able to put to trial the most senior officials responsible for human rights violations and abuses. However, many more perpetrators will need to face justice in South Sudanese courts, which currently do not have the capacity to conduct such trials.
In concluding, let me put forward three recommendations.
First, I urge the South Sudanese parties to the conflict to immediately cease all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and abuses of human rights. The parties to the conflict must abide by and implement their commitments made to end hostilities, to prevent conflict-related sexual violence, and to stop child rights violations. The Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict needs to be implemented in letter and spirit in a timely manner. Civil and military leaders have a command responsibility under international humanitarian law to prevent violations and to punish them, if they occur, otherwise they are responsible themselves.
Second, I urge members of the Security Council and regional leaders to continue engaging the parties to conflict in this regard. It cannot be tolerated that leaders make declarations in Juba, while the hostilities and attacks on the civilian population continue and intensify across the country. Not only is South Sudan on the verge of fragmenting, but the conflict seriously threatens stability in the entire region.
And third, I call on members of the Security Council and the entire international community to provide support, including financial, for the establishment of the transitional justice mechanisms outlined in the peace agreement. The United Nations need to extend all necessary support to the African Union and the Transitional Government of National Unity, once established, to ensure that the cycle of impunity is broken and justice is served.