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Statements Independent investigation

Statement of the Chairperson and Members of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, at the 42nd Human Rights Council session

16 September 2019

16 September 2019

Ms. Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

Mr. President, Excellences, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and gentlemen,

I chair the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, mandated by this Council to monitor and report on human rights violations, establish the facts and circumstances of violations and related crimes, identify those responsible, and collect and preserve evidence with a view towards supporting accountability mechanisms. My colleagues Andrew Clapham, Barney Afako, and I recently returned from our seventh field mission to South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Between 19 and 24 August, we visited Juba, Bentiu, and Yei in South Sudan, where we met with a delegation from the Government, including local officials, United Nations officials, international organizations, and community members comprising religious leaders and civil society representatives, including women’s groups. We also visited Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and we present this update.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

It’s hard to conceive of such a wealthy and fertile nation where the majority of its citizens go hungry every day, year after year, and where hunger has become the norm.

The numbers are hard to digest – more than six million people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. And it’s horrifying to think how the growth of young children will be stunted. As it is, 1.3 million South Sudanese children under 5 years are now acutely malnourished and will require treatment by next year. That is equivalent to twice the population of Geneva, Zurich, and Bern combined currently starving.

This Commission has documented how, since 2013, humanitarian workers have been prevented by the Government and the opposition from delivering aid to civilians and have had their stores looted and been taxed illegally. The starvation in South Sudan is neither random, nor accidental. It has been part of a deliberate strategy on the part of the warring parties to target civilians in acts that may amount to war crimes. South Sudan’s people can feed themselves if only they were left in peace to farm and eke out a living. There is no doubt that the responsibility for the enduring humanitarian catastrophe in South Sudan rests firmly with the country’s warring politicians.

We appeal to Member States to do everything in their power to help the warring parties find a durable political solution. It’s been a year since the “Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan” was signed. While, in a welcome development, President Salva Kiir and Dr Riek Machar have now met and have said they will meet the November deadline to form the National Unity Government, hardliners who are unwilling to compromise on key issues – namely the number of states, their boundaries, and security arrangements – might sabotage progress towards implementation of the Agreement. According to the current peace agreement, opposition forces must make their way to 35 sites identified for cantonment, while Government forces must be in barracks by the end of this month, in preparation for the creation of a unified military force for South Sudan. Clearly time is rapidly running out for this to happen and if the resources, including the Government’s commitment of 100 million dollars for the implementation of the Agreement, are not made available, these issues will remain unresolved, with the potential to plunge the country into full-scale war once again. Member States must engage and prevail upon South Sudanese leaders to meet their obligations to make the transition work, so that its dividends can benefit the South Sudanese people.

South Sudan’s political elites are strangely able to live oblivious to the intense suffering of millions of their own people. South Sudan still represents Africa’s largest refugee crisis, with nearly 2 million civilians internally displaced and more than 2 million living as refugees in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the third largest refugee crisis in the world, with more than sixty-three per cent of these refugees being children.

My colleagues and I visited these internal displacement sites and refugee camps in the region and saw for ourselves how humanitarian agencies are unable to meet the demands of so many desperate people. If the starvation were not enough, boys under the age of 15 years of age continue to be forcibly recruited—including by members of the SPLA-IO and other opposition groups in Juba and Western Bahr el Ghazal, as well as by the Government in Greater Bahr el Ghazal. Ironically, the prospect of a peace deal has accelerated the forced recruitment of children, with various groups now seeking to boost their numbers before they move into the cantonment sites. In terms of the agreement reached by Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the warring parties recently, the Government and opposition forces should have 41,500 men ready for selection and training for the unified army by the end of September—about two weeks away.

While South Sudanese refugees have been unequivocally accepted and taken care of by neighbouring states, they have also been caught up in the turmoil in neighbouring Sudan. One group of South Sudanese I met had fled north in 2016 because of the conflict. A young widow said to me, “We fled to Sudan to escape the fighting here, we wanted our children to go to school.” Unfortunately for them, the pro-democracy protestors in Sudan singled them out as South Sudanese supporters of former President Bashir because of their ‘dark complexion’. Women were beaten to the point that they wondered if they were going to survive the ordeal. A young man told me about his home in Khartoum being set on fire, forcing the family to flee. Their journey back to South Sudan was equally perilous, and then they found out they were unable to return back to their homes as they are now occupied by members of other ethnic groups. They are living in extreme poverty dependent on the good will of others. The young women also spoke of the sexual violence they had experienced in Sudan and the harassment they face now in South Sudan as single women.

Returning home for good is still near impossible in some areas because of renewed fighting motivated by political rivalries. Disparate splinter groups are intentionally using the cover of conflict to change historical boundaries and ownership of land, motivated by the need to build an ethnic majority and dominance in preparation for future elections. Meanwhile, the Government has not developed any concrete policy or plan to deal with those dispossessed from their land. Many refugees and IDPs we spoke to said they could not go home as their houses and farms had been occupied by rival groups. Humanitarians have repeatedly urged that returns must be accompanied by proper planning and security or it will trigger renewed violence. What no one talks about is how the map of South Sudan has already been redrawn in a way that will prove difficult to roll back.

IGAD, the African Union, and the international community need to deal effectively with groups like the National Salvation Front (NAS) and forces aligned to former Chief of Staff of the national army, General Paul Malong, as they destabilize the peace process, and are responsible for new bouts of killings, coupled with massive civilian displacement in parts of Northern Bahr el Ghazal and also in Western and Southern Central Equatoria from where thousands have been forced to flee across the border to Uganda.

While some commentators argue that the intense political violence of the past has disappeared, and that South Sudan is just experiencing localized violence and intercommunal conflict or cattle raiding, the reality is far more complex. Cattle herders, who have a history of having been integrated in the armed groups, no longer wield only wooden sticks but are equipped with AK-47s and heavy weapons like rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. In some cases, these arms are reportedly supplied by local authorities and politicians using herders as proxy elements. Their motivation for seizing livestock may also be to forcibly displace other ethnic groups from land, killing community leaders and abducting women and children while burning and looting villages, and destroying food supplies, and might therefore be much more sinister in the long run.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

As you know the Commission has a specific mandate to address sexual violence. If the transitional justice process in South Sudan fails to deliver justice and accountability as well as reparations for the vast number of victims of sexual violence, it will have failed. Sadly, the rapes have not stopped: women in Bentiu, Yei and Wau are still, in 2019, reporting high levels of sexual and gender-based violence. South Sudan is supposed to establish a Special Court to prosecute sexual and gender-based violence but it has yet to begin to function properly. Most cases of rape and sexual violence are still referred to the customary courts who continue to pass sentences ordering rapists to marry their victims to exempt them from prosecution. In the Military Courts that are trying to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence, the judges don’t even have ink and paper to print their judgements and have been going to the market to print court documents, paying out of their own pockets. This is a Government that can’t supply stationery or even food, but has no problem buying bullets.  

Surveillance and securitization have created a climate of fear and heightened paranoia among civil society. As one activist recently told us, “Citizens are so afraid [of being watched] that they do not even buy newspapers.” The onslaught on fundamental freedoms by National Security Service continues; South Sudanese journalists and human rights defenders are being unlawfully detained and disappeared. A journalist told us printing presses were being removed in order to prevent the publication of articles critical of the Government. Increasingly, civilians speak of their fear of informers and the need for witness protection. The Commission met members of the Red Card Movement; these are mainly young people who have gone into hiding for fear that they may be abducted by South Sudanese intelligence officials, including those operating in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia and taken back to South Sudan to languish in detention. One of their female colleagues was detained in July after their attempted protest in Juba, and allegedly tortured and disappeared. These are young activists, incredibly brave and passionately committed to the cause of building democracy in South Sudan.

In South Sudan, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has so far registered 451 persons who disappeared this year alone, bringing the total figure of the disappeared to over 4,200 since December 2013. The Commission continues to monitor the cases of Dong Samuel and Aggrey Idris who were allegedly abducted from the streets of Nairobi and returned to South Sudan in 2017. In April of this year, the UN Panel of Experts reported to the Security Council that both men had been executed by National Security Service at their detention and training facility in Luri. The South Sudanese Government has consistently denied having any knowledge of their whereabouts and has indicated that all queries should be referred to the Government of Kenya. As with many cases of those forcibly disappeared, their relatives and friends deserve to receive an investigation and official confirmation of whether their loved ones are alive or not.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

This Commission’s mandate includes the collection and preservation of evidence in order to assist the Prosecutor to the Hybrid Court as set out under Chapter 5 of the ARCISS. This Hybrid Court could be established tomorrow if the Government of South Sudan were to sign the memorandum of understanding and statute for its creation, already approved by the Council of Ministers in 2017. While the Government has previously said that it is awaiting the formation of the Unity Government before establishing the Court, some officials now suggest that the court may never come to fruition. This is of great concern. For the African Union and the international community, the court is a test of your credibility. Are you prepared to move forward with the establishment of the Court if the Government of South Sudan does not?  

The Commission has so far identified 66 individuals who it believes bear command or superior responsibility under international criminal law for serious crimes related to the conflict in South Sudan. In the absence of the future Hybrid Court, the Commission has set out a legal framework that would allow for other states to prosecute those responsible using their jurisdiction over torture and enforced disappearances.

As part of its mandate to support the transitional justice mechanisms of the Peace Agreement, the Commission is also working on proposals for transitional justice in South Sudan, including how to create a conducive environment for people to come forward and speak about their experiences without fear of reprisal. South Sudan requires a robust, holistic approach to transitional justice which builds complementarity between truth telling, reparations, conflict transformation, and the establishment of rule of law institutions as envisaged under Chapter V of the R-ARCISS. Implementing Chapter V requires the Hybrid Court, the Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Commission, as well as the Reparations and Compensation Authority to be established. It may be the only opportunity for the Government of South Sudan to restore trust between the itself and its citizens, building institutions for long-term peace and reconciliation, which citizens believe will work for them irrespective of ethnic identity, religious belief, or political persuasion.

Meanwhile, victims cannot wait decades for reparations. There is South Sudanese money available – if just one percent of the annual oil revenues could be placed in a reparations and compensation fund, instead of being diverted for personal benefit by political elites as has been reported. Member States of the African Union and the United Nations have the power to make this happen.

In closing, I will pose to the Council the question I was asked by a sixty-year-old woman in Bentiu. She came to me emaciated and dressed in tattered clothing. Though she was younger than me, she looked worn and aged because of the unimaginable suffering she had endured. She told me she had been raped in 2014, gang-raped again by six men only a few days later near Guit, and gang-raped again by 10 soldiers not far from the POC in 2017. As a result of these brutal assaults, she suffers from a prolapsed uterus and is physically unable to take care of herself. After all she had experienced since the start of the conflict, her final question to me was, “What is this Commission and the international community going to do for me and the many others like me?