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Statements Independent investigation

Statement by Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Johannesburg, 20 February, 2020

20 February 2020

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen and thank you for coming today. We appreciate your interest in the human rights situation in South Sudan and in the work of the Commission in investigating the situation there. As you may be aware, this Commission has an unusual mandate, in that we are not only investigating and reporting on the human rights situation in South Sudan, but we are also mandated to gather and conserve evidence and will make this evidence available to any existing or future transitional justice mechanisms.

South Sudan is at a critical juncture at which its leaders need to make firm choices to move forward the stalled political process of implementing the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan.

While the Commission welcomes the decision by the Government of South Sudan and President Salva Kiir to reduce the number of States to ten, it notes that the creation of three administrative areas: Abyei, Pibor and Ruweng is still a subject of dispute for the opposition. The Commission is concerned that this issue should be addressed speedily and in a manner that does not generate new grievances or plant seeds for future conflict.

Along with the question of security arrangements, including the formation of unified forces and protection for senior opposition leaders, the issue of the number of states and their boundaries has been a major sticking point in progress towards implementation of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan. The parties will also need to restructure the Council of States and enact the Constitutional Amendment Bill expeditiously.

As we rapidly approach the February 22 deadline for the formation of the new unity government, we therefore urge all the parties to redouble their efforts to resolve the key outstanding questions.

The long-delayed formation of a new government, would send a positive signal to the longsuffering people of South Sudan and to regional and international partners that the leaders of the country are prepared to put the interests of their citizens first and to be genuine partners in South Sudan’s transformation. The continuing uncertainty about the future of the government, and associated tensions this raises, are unnecessary and simply untenable.

The revitalized peace process has led to a fragile peace at national level in South Sudan, the conflict having morphed and shifted to an intensification of ethnic violence at a localized level resulting in an increase of nearly 200 per cent in the number of civilian casualties in 2019 over 2018.

Between late February and May 2019, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan recorded 531 deaths and 317 injuries in 152 incidents of localized violence. Of grave concern is the number brutal attacks involving cattle raiding by members of the State apparatus and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, the SPLA-IO (RM), which supports Riek Machar, resulting in alarming rates of displacement along ethnic lines, particularly in Western Bahr el Ghazal, Unity and Jonglei States.

The Commission has analysed localized conflicts in the context of the ongoing conflict in South Sudan and finds that the proliferation of heavy weapons at local level is exacerbating the killings and casualties arising from localised conflicts, in greater Upper Nile, Bahr el Ghazal, and parts of Equatoria states, contributing to lawlessness and the absence of the rule of law which is evidenced by the spike in cattle-raiding and an increase in intercommunal violence.

The vast majority of these incidents have ethnic overtones. Our report includes detailed findings related to the Jur River area (Western Bahr el Ghazal), Twic (Warrap), Mayom (Unity) and Jonglei in which scores of civilians have been killed and injured and critical livestock killed and stolen.

The Commission also received credible information that members of government forces armed local militias with light and heavy weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles (Kalashnikovs), rocket-propelled grenades and PK machine guns, so that these local militias could carry out brutal attacks against neighbouring communities, often during periods of cattle migration.

Although localized conflict is often characterized as traditional ethnic clashes over cattle or criminality involving private citizens, the Commission has found that local militias aligned to the warring parties, including the government, benefited from personnel and weaponry, including military grade weapons, supplied by parties to the conflict.

The Commission was able to link cattle camps to the state and non-state actors, and in some instances found that such groups constituted organised militias operating under the command and control of parties to the conflict with the deliberate intention of displacing civilians of a particular ethnic group. Wau is a case in point.

These acts of violence against civilians perpetrated by members of both government forces and armed opposition groups violated article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and provisions of Additional Protocol II, as well as customary international law, and constituted war crimes, including murder, pillage, destruction of property and sexual violence.

The Commission has found that all parties to the conflict including the government and local governors have exploited local rivalries, manipulated historical divisions between communities and instrumentalized ethnic identities in order to marginalize and drive the displacement of population, creating ethnic enclaves which were seen as critical to the finalization of the future number of states and the determination of boundaries.

These troubling developments demonstrate the need for urgently forming a new government which can then invest its energies in addressing these localized orchestrations of violence, including through the rebuilding of the rule of law.

Armed hostilities involving the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces, local militias and the National Salvation Front (NAS) a non-signatory to the Revitalized Agreement) – also continues in flashpoint areas, including Yei and Lobonok (Central Equatoria) and Maiwut (Upper Nile).

These incidents of armed conflict continue to manifest an ongoing threat to peace and security, and raise the urgent need to comprehensively address issues relating to accountability, entrenched impunity and the arming of local militias and holdout groups.

The Commission notes that the National Salvation Front (NAS) and other non-signatory armed groups under the umbrella of the South Sudan Opposition Movements Alliance (SSOMA) have been engaging the Government in talks in Rome, and have pledged to respect the cessation of hostilities and to participate in its monitoring and verification arrangements.

The Commission’s fourth mandate report to the Human Rights Council shines a spotlight on the human rights situation, including the shrinking civic space in South Sudan and continued denial of fundamental freedoms; the root causes of the conflict; starvation, localization of the conflict; child recruitment; sexual and gender-based violence; and transitional justice and accountability.

A major focus of the report and one of the root causes of the conflict in South Sudan is that millions of South Sudanese civilians have been deliberately deprived of access to basic services and many deliberately starved, while up to 80% of monthly non-oil revenues are unaccounted for, having been diverted from official accounts by the country’s politicians.

Millions of dollars have been diverted from the National Revenue Authority, depleting resources that could have been used to protect, fulfil and promote the vital economic, social and cultural rights of millions of vulnerable civilians. Extreme levels of poverty and lack of access to essential services such as healthcare and education were exacerbated by acts that amount to economic crimes perpetrated by members of the State apparatus.

Officials in the Government of South Sudan are implicated in the pillaging of public funds in South Sudan as well as money laundering, bribery and tax evasion. High ranking officials have used their official positions to influence decisions on the allocation of State resources and official procurement, diverting public funds for personal gain and advantage.

The Commission finds that such officials were unduly enriched by this conduct and fully aware that diverting such funds constitutes a violation under South Sudanese law consequently depriving the Government of South Sudan of the resources essential to providing vital services to civilians and improving social welfare.

The plundering of the public purse by officials is having a catastrophic impact on the humanitarian situation in South Sudan with ordinary people of South Sudan food insecure and unable to live with dignity. Instead of channelling resources into development, cynical officials have siphoned off essential resources to line their own pockets while South Sudanese citizens go hungry and sick and children are not getting the education, they need to promote the future development the country so desperately needs.

The Commission finds that civic space in South Sudan is shrinking. The systematic denial of fundamental rights and freedoms, include overt threats and attacks by government forces on journalists, activists, human rights defenders and political dissidents, significantly undermining participation in the public sphere, violating the freedoms of expression, opinion and assembly.

In the continuation of the pattern we identified in our previous report, the National Security Service continues to play a pivotal role in the onslaught on fundamental freedoms through surveillance, suppression and arbitrary arrests. It is imperative that the security sector reforms envisaged by the Revitalised Agreement are scrupulously implemented in order to create a National Security Service that facilitates rather than obstructs the freedoms of citizens

Both government forces and the opposition continue to forcibly recruit men and boys in violation of International Humanitarian Law. Government forces have continued to forcibly recruit men and boys into their ranks through extensive campaigns in Warrap, Western Bahr el-Ghazal and Unity States, while opposition forces forcibly recruited men and boys in Unity and Central Equatoria States.

The Commission has documented incidents implicating eight separate units of both armed forces and armed groups recruiting, training and using children aged as young as 12 years old in Wau, Warrap, Unity and Central Equatoria States, the latter the powerbase of the National Salvation Front, which remains a non-signatory to the peace agreement.

The recruitment of children is contrary to South Sudanese domestic law and to treaty law, including the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which South Sudan acceded in September 2018. Recruitment is also listed as a crime for children under 15 years of age in the draft statute of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan.

The Commission has found that more than 55 per cent of civilians countrywide, mainly women and children, face acute food insecurity due to the deliberate policy of preventing humanitarian aid to reach civilians by different parties to the conflict. This is exacerbated by climate-induced factors and large-scale conflict-induced displacement. The suffering of the people of South Sudan is also now being added to by the locusts that have beset the region.

Deliberate starvation is quite clearly occurring along ethnic and political lines, in an effort to marginalize dissident communities as well as those perceived to be too disenfranchised to challenge the status quo or demand transitional justice mechanisms, as their day-to-day lives revolve around basic needs required for their survival. We will release a dedicated conference room paper on cases investigated by the Commission demonstrating how starvation constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity under certain circumstances.

Sexual and gender-based violence, including conflict-related sexual violence, continued to be widespread and pervasive, characterized by a recognizable pattern of terror and subjugation used as a tactic of war. The environment remained insecure and deadly for South Sudanese women and girls, as bodily integrity was not guaranteed. Denial and stigmatization, compounded by the lack of accountability for sexual and gender-based violations, remained a grave challenge.

On Conflict-related Sexual Violence (CRSV) and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), we documented violations including rape and gang rape, sexual mutilation, forced marriage, abduction and sexualized torture.

The Commission also documented incidents of SGBV in the context of localized conflicts which have increased considerably. Local authorities have neither investigated nor prosecuted any cases reported.

Entrenched impunity and a lack of accountability characterized by the persistent failure to address past and ongoing violations has been the key driver of violence in South Sudan. This pattern will need to change if the stabilization and democratic transformation of South Sudan is to be achieved.

The Commission views transitional justice is critical, indispensable and holistic response for achieving sustainable peace, national reconciliation and healing, and rebuilding the rule of law after decades of violent conflict in which grave violations have been committed in South Sudan. 

The Commission has continued to build dossiers on perpetrators and to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes, including the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and other transitional justice mechanisms. During this last year, it has identified additional alleged perpetrators whose names, and accompanying materials, will be presented in a confidential dossier to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. This information will be made available to support future prosecutions before regional or national courts and tribunals upon request, and if certain conditions are fulfilled.

One of the key steps that will need to be taken urgently by the government is to establish the transitional justice mechanisms provided for under Chapter Five of the Revitalized Peace Agreement. The establishment of the Hybrid Court, the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority are essential, and should be complemented by measures to strengthen formal and other national systems to provide accountability and promote reconciliation and healing.

In the face of a lack of political will on the part of the government, and the absence of decisive action by the African Union and regional actors, the implementation of the transitional justice mechanisms have stalled, as the delay in the formation of the new government has been used as justification for holding up the establishment of the Hybrid Court, denying justice to South Sudanese victims.

All three elements of transitional justice; accountability, healing, and reconciliation are needed and mutually reinforcing, and should be equally prioritised in the weeks ahead.

The Commission has called upon the African Union and the Government of South Sudan to establish a timeline for the setting up of the Hybrid Court of South Sudan and the other Transitional Justice instruments without delay.