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Strengthening generations of human rights defenders, even during COVID-19

09 July 2020

women smiling


Before the Presidency of South Sudan issued a statement announcing measures to loosen restrictions previously adopted to contain the spread of COVID-19 on 7 May 2020, the Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in South Sudan had received numerous allegations of human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest and detention, ill-treatment, and extortion by national defence and security forces implementing COVID-19 preventive measures.

Isha Kanu-Moriba is a Human Rights Officer in the Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in South Sudan. She is assigned to the Field Office for Central Equatoria in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. She told us how she continues to build the capacity of civil society and other actors to protect human rights and report violations.

How has COVID-19 affected your work?

The COVID 19 pandemic has come at a time when I was about to carry out several human rights events. I had planned a training for students of the University of Juba and civil society activists to establish a human rights club in the University. The beneficiaries were deeply disappointed because they were strongly motivated to learn more about human rights. I also had to stop my face-to-face meetings to carry out investigations and monitoring of detention places, as well as meetings with local partners. 

What is OHCHR doing to protect the rights of people during this epidemic?

The Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in South Sudan has been monitoring the human rights situation following the imposition by the COVID-19 national taskforce of restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The Division has been monitoring how the security forces are implementing those new measures. My office has followed closely the situation in places of detention, especially Juba Central Prison which hosts inmates from all over the country and is highly congested. The Division has advocated with the judicial authorities for the review of cases for the possible release of suspects on remand and inmates with health problems or held for minor cases. We are also organizing talk shows on the UN radio to raise the awareness of listeners about the pandemic, the preventive and response measures to observe, and human rights issues to consider during this emergency.

What are the main human rights issues at stake in your country in the COVID-19 response?

The measures introduced by the Government of South Sudan to prevent the spread of COVID-19 impact directly on the rights to freedom of movement, association and assembly, and somehow also freedom of expression. They, however, have indirectly affected the access to food, healthcare and water. The joint Government armed forces enforcing the curfew and social distancing measures are grossly violating human rights and rule of law procedures. Based on reports received, they are engaged daily in looting and extorting money from civilians, using excessive force and sometimes arbitrarily arresting people with some incidents of civilians shot dead during curfew hours.

Biggest challenges and lessons learned thus far during the pandemic?

Our primary challenge is the restriction on our movements: we cannot hold meetings as before to avoid possible exposure, hence, our contacts are only on the phone or through e-mails. The current situation has shown the importance of having a close and healthy relationship with local partners. We shared with them guidance documents to help them understand the key issues requiring monitoring and reporting. Since the beginning of the emergency, we are indeed working much more closely with them, and they are learning through our guidance and requests for more detailed information. Because of this emergency, the civil society actors are more involved in monitoring the human rights situation than they were before. We are both benefiting from this strengthened relationship and I am confident that after this “on-spot” training they will be able to use the acquired knowledge in other circumstances. 

Why is it important to stand up for human rights during this pandemic?

The current crisis has clearly highlighted that human rights is a collective responsibility and made us learn that we need to put additional energies and resources in building the capacity of our national stakeholders, including State institutions, civil society organizations and most importantly students, who have more determination in changing the status quo. 

9 July 2020

women smiling