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Statements Multiple Mechanisms

Statement by Yasmin Sooka Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan to the Human Rights Council

11 March 2021

11 March 2021 (Geneva)

Link to the Report:

Link to the Conference Room Paper:


Good morning, Mme. President, and Members of the Council. I have the pleasure of presenting the fifth Report of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, together with my colleagues Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako. The Commission’s latest report is accompanied by a more detailed Conference Room Paper.

Mme. President – South Sudan is fast approaching its 10-year anniversary since independence. South Sudanese should have been celebrating democracy but instead have to contend with devastating localised violence and the fear of conflict escalating across the whole nation.

We believe the current violence wreaked on South Sudanese civilians is the worst since the onset of the civil war in December 2013. This is especially true for people in Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Warrap State, and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.

The situation is worsened by the humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and floods. In addition, South Sudan is currently facing its highest levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in a decade.

Take just one region of this huge country –Jonglei and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area they are three times the size of a country like Switzerland. But sadly, independence hasn’t brought peace to its nearly two million inhabitants. There are now a staggering number of fighters there – tens of thousands of well-coordinated men in this one area – armed with sophisticated military-grade weapons. Abducted boys have been forced to fight, and, in some instances, were forcibly recruited into rival groups. Militia groups have murdered and forcibly displaced thousands of civilians after entire villages were razed.

All of the warring groups target women and girls, using them as chattels, and treating them as the “spoils of war”. Last year, hundreds of women and girls were abducted, they were raped and gang-raped, and sexually enslaved or forcibly married off. During a particularly brutal attack in a village in Jonglei, at least 140 women and children including infants were abducted. In this raid, militias took more than 175,000 head of cattle, all of the homes were torched, with property looted. Even NGO compounds were destroyed.

“They raped us for 10 days in a row,” said a woman in Jonglei who was abducted during the attack. “We did not cook nor wash for them. They just used us as their ‘wives’ to have sex,” she told our Commission.

The armed conflict in Central Equatoria

Central Equatoria is experiencing an upsurge in violent insurgency for the second year in a row. This is led by the National Salvation Front or NAS, led by Thomas Cirillo, a former senior military officer in the South Sudan army. NAS has remained outside the Revitalised Peace Agreement, although it is a signatory to the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement of 2017. Along with other holdout groups, NAS continues to negotiate with the Government assisted by Sant’Egidio and the Vatican. The conflict in Central Equatoria is driven in part by competition for control of territory, access to the lucrative gold mines, and the opportunity to extort money from civilians. The Commission documented numerous accounts of rape and gang-rape perpetrated by Government soldiers in Central Equatoria between 2019 and 2020. The absence of state structures has enabled abductions, sexual violence, sexual slavery and forced marriages across Central Equatoria.

The localised conflict

Competition over land and cattle has fuelled the violence at community level, which has become increasingly politicised. Sadly, the Revitalised Peace Agreement has not reduced levels of violence at the local level. Political elites have remained preoccupied with sharing power and resources at the centre, and have failed to establish governance structures and equitable resource sharing at the local level. Instead, they have deliberately fuelled local ethnic violence for political gain.

Mme. President, South Sudanese, will need to collectively identify the most durable solutions, for breaking these cycles of inter-communal violence which are not unique to this region. The Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing can contribute towards such a process.

Attacks on civil society

Mme. President, since 2011 the Government of South Sudan has systematically clamped down on freedoms of speech, expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Through its pervasive surveillance of journalists, activists, and human rights defenders, the Government has continued to stifle dissent and instil fear amongst communities. These acts are carried out primarily by the National Security Service or NSS.

Even under the Revitalised Government, the NSS has expanded its reach beyond security institutions. It systematically targets civil society organisations, the media, and universities. This instils fear of being infiltrated, and fuels distrust amongst colleagues. As one man who has been detained by the NSS told us, “The Government is desperate, and therefore anyone who is criticising it, irrespective of wherever he is from, will face consequences”.

At any given time, there are between 100 to 200 detainees arbitrarily held in the NSS detention facility known as “Blue House” in Juba. Many have been detained simply for expressing their opinions or voicing their dissent. Others were forcibly disappeared. Over the last year, we have identified 21 men who were unlawfully detained, tortured, and murdered by the NSS at the Blue House and the Riverside detention facilities. Most of these men were brutally tortured and sexually tortured, including suffering anal rape.

The Revitalised Peace Agreement

Despite the formation of the Revitalised Government in February last year, hardly any of the provisions of the Peace Agreement have been implemented. This has serious consequences: the single national army to be drawn from rival forces has not yet been formed; neither has the new Legislature been established. The transitional justice provisions under Chapter V of the Peace Agreement, including the Hybrid Court, the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing and the Compensation and Reparations Authority have not been implemented. And without a legislature, constitutional legislation and other laws to effect economic and institutional reforms, are still to be enacted.

Transitional justice and Support

The lack of accountability for gross human rights violations entrenches impunity and is building resentment and deepening ethnic divisions and the violence. During 2020, the army established an ad hoc District Court Martial in Yei (Central Equatoria), to try 26 government soldiers between July and September 2020, for rape and sexual violence, sentencing them to lengthy prison sentences. A similar Court Martial was set up in Bentiu last year, to conduct trials in 16 cases involving 33 members of government forces. The Commission reiterates, however, in line with international best practices and CEDAW, that military courts are not the ideal forum to deal with rape and sexual violence involving civilian victims.

Mme. President, the Commission has remained concerned about the non-implementation of the Chapter V transitional justice provisions. We therefore engaged the Government in extensive dialogue on the matter, and have provided it, through the Minister of Justice, with benchmarks which constitute a strategic roadmap for an inclusive and participatory transitional justice process. We believe that this would help build sustainable peace in South Sudan. The Commission also continues to participate, as an observer, on the transitional justice committee of the Revitalised Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission.

Although the Government recently announced that it would begin the process of establishing the Hybrid Court and other transitional justice mechanisms, to be frank, without constituting the Revitalised Transitional National Legislature, the enabling laws cannot be enacted. The Commission therefore urges the Government as a sign of good faith to sign without further delay, the Memorandum of Understanding with the African Union, which will pave the way for the Hybrid Court and the other transitional justice mechanisms to be established.

We believe that the Truth Commission and the Compensation and Reparations Authority can also contribute to unpacking the truth about historical grievances and ethnic cleavages, which continue to foment division and violence in South Sudan. Transitional justice processes, if participatory and inclusive, can help build a bridge between the past and a shared future for all South Sudanese.

Support for prosecutions and accountability

Mme. President, in line with our mandate to clarify responsibility for alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes, and to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes, including the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and other transitional justice mechanisms the Commission continues to build dossiers on alleged perpetrators.

We have compiled dossiers on 111 individuals with command or superior responsibility, and who are linked to violations that warrant further investigations and prosecutions. This past year we added 17 more names to the list. And the list includes high-ranking military officials, senior government officials, politicians, opposition members, as well as businessmen. The Commission intends to hand over these dossiers to the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the purpose of future investigations and prosecutions. The names and the material remain confidential, and access by prosecutorial and relevant authorities will be strictly in conformity with appropriate protocols and procedures.

Vision for South Sudan’s future

In conclusion Mme. President – sometimes it seems absolutely unbelievable that I and the women present at the Human Rights Council are discussing the future of South Sudan when women’s bodies there are used as the spoils of war, and they are raped for days on end. South Sudan’s women and families look to us not just to tell the world what is happening but to find a way out of this nightmare they live in. We know from other countries there are ways of transitioning from difficult conflicts to peace; of learning to live with our enemies; and of healing broken societies. But this needs political will, sustained international pressure and continued engagement to kick-start and accompany the process.

I thank you Mme. President and Members of the Council.