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Statements Human Rights Council

Statement of Ms. Yasmin Sooka – chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council

18 September 2017

18 September 2017

Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delivering this statement on behalf of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, established by the Council to monitor and report on human rights violations, establish the facts and circumstances of the violations and related crimes, identify perpetrators as well as to collect and preserve evidence of these violations.

During its recent visit to South Sudan the Commission encountered a tale of unimaginable brutality - of a little girl, born after independence in Eastern Equatoria, allegedly raped by an SPLA soldier.  She lives in what was once a bustling border town – Pajok - home to about 50,000 people, mainly from the Acholi tribe. In April, SPLA soldiers entered the town and embarked on a spree, killing civilians and systematically looting and destroying property. The Pajok attack was typical of other attacks over the last year in the Equatorias. The 3-year-old and her mother did not flee like thousands of others who crossed into Uganda. They stayed in the town which we observed for ourselves is still occupied by soldiers and their families many months later.

After the rape, the child’s mother complained to the army commander.  Fearful of reprisals from soldiers living in the town, she accepted the commander’s edict that there would be no trial, only compensation from the soldier - of one goat. Compensation in lieu of criminal punishment is utterly unacceptable for such a serious crime but worse still the commander said the goat would only be paid when the soldier received his salary, some time in the future. Literally this is a case of - rape now, pay later.

Impunity is a major concern for this Council – and quite frankly the norm in South Sudan. Weakened by decades of war, the legal system, traditional or formal, hardly functions. A nationwide strike by judges has only made things worse. Under any circumstances the rape of a three year old is an abomination but what is worse, is that the official response is so out of synch with the gravity of the crime. Child rape isn’t just being normalised but it is treated as a banal transaction.  Justice in South Sudan cannot and should not be another IOU, like the goat.   

At the time this little girl was born in 2014, the African Union agreed to establish a Hybrid Court for South Sudan. It has taken all of her short lifetime for the African Union to finalize a memorandum of agreement and legislation to establish the Hybrid Court. The Government of South Sudan now needs to approve the documents through its Council of Ministers. The court must be established swiftly because the most serious human rights violations continue to be perpetrated against the civilian population with impunity, with government forces and aligned militias in the main, being the perpetrators.

However, it isn’t just a Hybrid Court that the people of South Sudan have been promised – but also a Commission on Truth, Healing and Reconciliation and a Compensation and Reparations Authority. Following the establishment of a Technical Committee, there has been little movement on establishing the truth commission. Instead the Government has prioritized a National Dialogue.
This Commission is concerned that the National Dialogue in its current form will not enjoy country-wide participation against the backdrop of continuous fighting, with millions displaced and the prevailing climate of fear. South Sudan is now so heavily securitized that NGOs need National Security Service clearance even to hold a workshop in a hotel. Seemingly benign topics such as the revitalization of the peace agreement are deemed too ‘sensitive’.

International pressure for accountability has resulted in the Government establishing a military tribunal to prosecute soldiers accused of the murder and gang rape of international aid workers at the Terrain Hotel in Juba last year. The Commission salutes the enormous courage of the survivor who returned to Juba with her husband to testify. By all accounts her testimony has helped turn the tide in this case. The Commission has been informed that the other rape survivors in this case will be allowed to testify through video conference. These soldiers are being prosecuted because they were on duty at the time of the incident. The Commission pointed out to the Government that not only junior soldiers should be prosecuted but also those with command responsibility for the attack.

But on behalf of the Commission I have to ask - what about the hundreds of South Sudanese women were also allegedly raped by soldiers during the July 2016 violence? Will member states urge South Sudan to also investigate the rape of its own women survivors, forthwith? The Terrain case should not be an exception.

Some argue that justice should wait for peace to come first. Decades of experience have taught us that peace and justice must be addressed in tandem to build sustainable peace rather than just silence the guns temporarily. If the Government of South Sudan fails to address the impunity that exists, the crisis will deepen and the suffering continue. The ongoing conflict is creating a catastrophic humanitarian situation, with half the population of South Sudan dependent on humanitarian assistance. Delivering aid in South Sudan has become increasingly dangerous – at least 17 aid workers were killed this year alone, including one member of the ICRC just last week.

The Commission personally witnessed the arrival in Gambella of 30,000 refugees, mainly women and large numbers of children separated from their families. They walked for many days and even months to reach safety, witnessing atrocities including killings and rapeOn arrival malnourished children ripped open the high protein biscuit packets they were given, devouring them. Is a biscuit – or a goat - the best we can do for the children of South Sudan? Are we going to accept a country whose children are more likely to be refugees or child soldiers than enrolled in school? Establishing the Hybrid Court and credible domestic justice mechanisms that curb impunity will ensure that these children have the future for which their parents sacrificed so much.

The Commission looks forward to continued cooperation of the Government of South Sudan in the pursuit of justice and accountability.

Thank You.