Human Rights Council discusses the situation of human rights in South Sudan

The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.

Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, noted that the signing of the revitalized agreement of the conflict in South Sudan had led to an overall improvement in terms of security and peace, despite the volatile situation in the Equatorias. The protracted conflict in the country had had the most profound impact on women and girls, who had suffered sexual violence at the hands of both Government forces and the opposition forces. Some 25 per cent of all reported cases of conflict-related sexual violence involved children, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. Those were not random incidents of sexual violence, but a systematic widespread pattern used as a tactic of warfare by all warring parties to sow terror and fear amongst the civilian population. The increase in conflict-related sexual violence since 2013 was directly linked to impunity and the lack of accountability for those crimes.

Barney Afako, Member of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, stated that the Commission remained deeply concerned about the lack of progress in establishing the transitional justice mechanisms, particularly the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Repatriation Authority, which were adopted in the 2015 peace agreement. Women must make up 35 per cent of participants at all levels in the transitional government institutions, including the transitional justice mechanisms, Mr. Afako underlined.

Andrew Clapham, Member of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, expressed the Commission's alarm at the number of executions, with seven reported in the past four weeks alone. Across the country there were 387 people on death row in January 2019, and the Commission called on the Government of South Sudan to call a moratorium on all executions in the country, as per its commitment from 2012 and 2014. The Commission had gathered evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and extra judicial crimes, Mr. Clapham noted.

Paulino Wanawilla Unango, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of South Sudan, said that after listening to the report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, it was surprising to hear that they said the situation had improved following the signing of the revitalized agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan, and then they had proceeded to talk about gang rape and killings. Mr. Unango underlined that the Government of National Unity had signed a permanent ceasefire in July 2017 in Addis Ababa with all opposition groups, which was followed by the revitalized agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan in September 2018. Since then, there had been no serious military engagement between the Government of National Unity and any armed group.

Necessary mechanisms had been established for the implementation of the peace agreement and the Government had deposited funds of one million dollars and one hundred million South Sudanese pounds for its implementation. The issue of rape that was mentioned was not known. About accountability, the Minister said that the penal law punished and prohibited sexual offences. Since September, eight persons from South Sudan's People's Defence Forces personnel and from Police personnel had been tried for human rights violations and were now in prison.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers acknowledged South Sudan's positive steps in the area of human rights and welcomed the signing of the revitalized peace agreement as the best opportunity in a long time for sustainable peace in the country. However, speakers were dismayed by that human rights violations had continued unabated and with total impunity since last year's report. It was particularly concerning that some of the human rights violations committed in South Sudan could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Speakers were shocked about the continued high incidence of sexual and gender-based violence, as well as about the continued recruitment of children. They emphasized that establishing a Hybrid Court was an essential element in addressing the pervasive impunity and assuring accountability. Several speakers called for the renewal of the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. The Government of South Sudan had the duty to prosecute those responsible for crimes and to step up the transitional justice process. Some speakers said that discussions relating to human rights in specific countries should be carried out in bilateral dialogues, and the best way to help address these was in cooperation with the country involved.

Speaking were European Union, Spain, Sudan, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Australia, Russian Federation, Netherlands, France, Botswana, Switzerland, Iceland, New Zealand, Bulgaria, Ireland, China, Albania, Japan, Slovakia, Ukraine, Norway, and United Kingdom.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Lutheran World Federation, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Rencontre Africaine pour la defense des droits de l'homme, and International Organization for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The Council has a full day of meetings scheduled today. It will next hold an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Documentation

The Council has before it the Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (A/HRC/40/69). (Advance unedited version: A/HRC/40/69)

Presentation of Report by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

YASMIN SOOKA, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said the report provided an overview of the human rights situation in South Sudan in 2018, and investigated the facts and circumstances of incidents occurring between May to June 2018 in Unity state, Western Bahr el Ghazal, and Central Equatoria. In the course of its investigations, the Commission had identified 23 individuals bearing command and superior responsibility under international criminal law for serious crimes. Those names had been compiled in a list to be handed over by the Commission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the purpose of future prosecutions. The signing of the revitalized agreement of the conflict in the Republic of South Sudan six months ago, had led to an overall improvement in terms of security and peace, bringing hope to the citizens of South Sudan. That was despite the volatile situation in the Equatorias where there had been ongoing fighting in the Yei River state in Central Equatoria between the forces of the Government and the National Salvation Front, which had resulted in thousands of civilians being forcibly displaced. That was a significant setback for peace in South Sudan. While humanitarian actors had provided humanitarian aid, including food support, the violence had rendered such support utterly inadequate. Humanitarian access outside Yei was severely restricted due to the ongoing fighting and constraints imposed by the warring parties.

The protracted conflict in South Sudan had had the most profound impact on women and girls, who had suffered sexual violence, including multiple rapes, at the hands of both Government forces and the opposition forces. Some 25 per cent of all reported cases of conflict-related sexual violence involved children, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. Those were not random incidents of sexual violence, but a systematic widespread pattern and characteristic of the conflict in South Sudan, where rape and sexual violence were used as a tactic of warfare against women and girls by all of the warring parties to sow terror and fear amongst the civilian population. The increase in conflict-related sexual violence since 2013 was directly linked to impunity and the lack of accountability for those crimes. There could be no lasting peace in South Sudan without justice and accountability for the victims of those crimes. The current stalemate in the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, and the absence of real measures taken at the national level to prosecute those crimes, was an incentive as the perpetrators knew that little would be done to hold those responsible accountable.

The Commission noted with deep concern the role of the National Security Agency and the military intelligence in censoring freedom of speech and movement in South Sudan, which had become increasingly securitized resulting in an increase in arbitrary detentions, ongoing torture, executions, enforced disappearances, and the refoulement of South Sudanese citizens from countries in the region. That had generated paranoia among civil society. The Chairperson reminded that South Sudan had been blessed with natural resources, including oil, which tragically had become a key driver of the ongoing conflict. The oil producing areas of the country in the Upper Nile region were central to where the conflict was being waged and were increasingly militarized by the Government forces. There was a distinct lack of transparency in reporting on the oil dividends, which had not contributed to the GDP or the funding of any social welfare and development programmes in the country. Furthermore, oil revenues had continued to fund the war, enabling its continuation and the resulting human rights violations.

The ongoing conflict in South Sudan had left 60 per cent of the population severely food insecure. Statistics indicated that there were 2.2 million refugees and 1.9 million internally displaced persons. The humanitarian situation continued to be precarious and was exacerbated by the deliberate obstruction of the work of humanitarian actors. South Sudan had been ranked the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarian workers for the third consecutive year. The Commission had also reviewed the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Those cases had been swiftly investigated by the United Nations mission, resulting in the repatriation of peacekeepers implicated in sexual activity with women in one of the protected civilian sites. The Commission remained deeply concerned about the lack of progress in establishing the transitional justice mechanisms, particularly the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority, which had been adopted in the 2015 peace agreement. Those mechanisms were essential for dealing with the past, preventing fresh violations, ensuring accountability, and constructing a cohesive society, Ms. Sooka stressed.

BARNEY AFAKO, Member of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, stated that the Commission remained deeply concerned about the lack of progress in establishing the transitional justice mechanisms, particularly the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, and the Compensation and Repatriation Authority, which were adopted in the 2015 peace agreement. The Commission expected the revitalized transitional government to establish these transitional justice mechanisms. Vulnerable groups such as women, children and the internally displaced must be the core stakeholders of the transitional justice mechanisms. Women must make up 35 per cent of participants at all levels in the transitional government institutions, including the transitional justice mechanisms.

ANDREW CLAPHAM, Member of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, expressed the Commission's alarm at the number of executions, with seven reported in the last four weeks alone. Across the country there were 387 people on death row in January 2019, and the Commission called on the Government to call a moratorium on all executions in South Sudan, as per its commitment from 2012 and 2014. Furthermore, the Commission had concluded that there had been violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including South Sudanese laws, as well as violations of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights. They also had reasonable grounds to believe serious crimes had been committed, some of which constituted war crimes, and some of which were violations of the Geneva Conventions. The Commission had this year identified a further 23 individuals whose prosecution for crimes could be pursued, and the Commission had preserved evidence of these crimes for possible future prosecutions. The Commission had evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and extra judicial crimes such as crimes relating to forced disappearance and attacks on United Nations personnel. Some prosecutions had taken place, particularly in military courts, and in addition a number of individuals suspected of crimes held dual citizenship, which could allow for their prosecution under either jurisdiction, or in the International Criminal Court if their second nationality was that of a State that was party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Committee called upon the President and Vice President of South Sudan to ensure that crimes were prosecuted under the laws of South Sudan.

Statement by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of South Sudan

PAULINO WANAWILLA UNANGO, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs of South Sudan, provided an update since his presentation in September 2018 to the Council on the ongoing activities of the Government of National Unity. After listening to the report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, it was surprising to hear that they said the situation had improved following the signing of the revitalized agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan, and then they had proceeded to talk about gang rape and killings. Mr. Unango underlined that the Government of National Unity had signed a permanent ceasefire in July 2017 in Addis Ababa with all opposition groups, which was followed by the revitalized agreement on the resolution of the conflict in South Sudan in September 2018. Since then, there had been no serious military engagement between the Government of National Unity and any armed group. The incidents mentioned were referring to activities of the National Salvation Army, operating in Western Equatorial state and carrying out destruction of civilian infrastructure such as a bridge in Yei River state. So there was no continuation of fighting. The Commission talked of gang rape and violence, so this contradiction was noted by South Sudan and hopefully by other Member States. Necessary mechanisms had been established for the implementation of the peace agreement and the Government had deposited funds of one million dollars and one hundred million South Sudanese pounds for its implementation. The issue of rape that was mentioned was not known.

About accountability, the Minister said that the penal law punished and prohibited sexual offences. Since September, eight persons from South Sudan's People's Defence Forces personnel and from Police personnel had been tried for human rights violations and were now in prison. Concerning allegations of rape of 125 women in Bentiu within 10 days, a Committee had been established to investigate the incidents and they found that in fact there were only 16 cases of rape that occurred during one year and they were isolated acts of random criminality. Further on accountability: 227 children, associated with former armed groups, had been demobilized in Gbudue state, and another 93 had been identified for demobilization. The revitalized peace agreement had reaffirmed the commitment to the establishment of the Hybrid Court. The process for the formation of the court would start after the formation of the government of national union. The Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing would also be established after the government of national unity was formed.

Interactive Dialogue

European Union acknowledged South Sudan's positive steps in the area of human rights, but was dismayed by the recent executions of persons condemned to death and about the continued securitization of the State. The European Union was appalled that human rights violations had continued unabated and with total impunity since last year's report. Spain noted that it was particularly concerning that some of the human rights violations committed in South Sudan could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Spain was also concerned about the sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls by all the warring parties. Sudan stated that South Sudan as a new country needed the support of the international community and its neighbouring countries. Since the beginning of its independence, South Sudan had dealt with multiple challenges due to the conflict and the international community should continue to support it.

Denmark said that the signing of the revitalized peace agreement provided the best opportunity in a long time for sustainable peace in South Sudan, and it strongly encouraged all parties to fully commit themselves to the implementation process. Reporting on the human rights abuses was a stepping stone for ending impunity. Belgium welcomed the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, but was shocked about the continued high incidence of sexual and gender-based violence. Establishing a Hybrid Court was an essential element in addressing the pervasive impunity and assuring accountability. Germany strongly condemned the horrendous human rights abuses in South Sudan, especially sexual and gender-based violence and the recruitment of children. The Government of South Sudan had the duty to prosecute those responsible for the crimes and to step up the transitional justice process.

Australia condemned in the strongest possible terms the ongoing violence against civilians, including sexual and gender based violence. Australia deplored the serious human rights violations and abuses committed by all parties to the conflict, as well as the shrinking civic space for journalists and civil society.

Russia reiterated its position that discussions relating to human rights in specific countries should be carried out in bilateral dialogues, and the best way to help address these was in cooperation with the country involved. They believed that constructive dialogue should form the basis of any such work, rather than politicized processes. Netherlands remained deeply concerned about the increase of violence in South Sudan and the systematic sexual and gender based violence, and welcomed the Commission's work to bring the perpetrators to justice. The Netherlands supported the recommendations of the Commission and the extension of their mandate and called on South Soudan to work with the African Union to establish a Hybrid Court.

France stated that despite the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, France remained concerned that human rights abuses persisted. France called on South Sudan's Government to end forced disappearance, and other human rights violations, and also called on the Government to place a moratorium on executions.

Botswana stressed the need to protect those that participated the least in the conflict, such as women and children, from abuse and violence. They thanked the African Commission on their further intention to deepen their collaboration with other African Union and United Nations human rights, peace and security bodies for the benefit of South Sudan.

Switzerland welcomed the adoption of the revitalized peace agreement, which saw a reduction in violence overall. However, they regretted that violence persisted in certain regions. Switzerland called for an immediate end to human rights abuses committed by all parties, and remained extremely concerned at the significant instances of sexual and gender based violence.

Iceland noted with grave concern that sexual and gender based violence remained a central characteristic of the conflict, used as a tactic of warfare by all parties. Ending impunity for conflict-related sexual violence was the only way to end its widespread practice and the Commission was asked how the overall status of women in South Sudan could be improved? New Zealand was concerned that despite the signing of the peace agreement, there were continued reports of violations, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity. South Sudan was ranked as the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarian workers, with 14 killed in 2018. Bulgaria was concerned about the Commission's conclusion that the protracted conflict had the most profound impact on women and girls, and supported the recommendation to expedite the finalization of the national gender policy which would incorporate equality provisions. What were the most pressing actions needed for protecting the rights of children in South Sudan?

Ireland was appalled at the reported cases of sexual violence against women and girls in South Sudan, and called on the Government to implement the transnational justice and accountability mechanisms. What concrete steps should be taken to ensure full accountability for the alleged violations of human rights? China always supported African people in solving African issues in their own way. The South Sudan peace process had achieved important progress and China hoped that all parties would implement their responsibilities and that the international community would provide support. Albania was concerned about the recent violence, attacks against civilians, sexual based violence, and the recruitment of boys. Perpetrators, some of whom were identified by the Commission, had to be brought to justice and the Government should sign the Memorandum of Understanding to establish the Hybrid Court.

Japan welcomed the signing of the revitalized peace agreement, expressing hope that the parties concerned would implement it. Japan was concerned about reports of sexual violence and other human rights violations, and asked about the evaluation of cooperation between South Sudan and the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights? Slovakia was alarmed by various United Nations' reports that children were still being recruited as soldiers in South Sudan. It reiterated its previous calls for the speedy establishment and operationalization of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. Ukraine noted that while there had been progress in the implementation of peace agreements in South Sudan, it reminded that 60 per cent of the population experienced severe food insecurity. Ukraine remained deeply concerned about attacks on civilians, recruitment of children, and sexual and gender-based violence.

Norway underlined that the Commission's work was vital in order to ensure accountability in South Sudan and bring perpetrators to justice. It strongly urged the Government to support the extension of the Commission's mandate; it called on all parties to stop human rights abuses and urged the Government to investigate all abuses. United Kingdom emphasized that impunity and silencing of human rights defenders in South Sudan were drivers for continuing abuses and violations. It urged the Government of South Sudan to engage fully with the Council and to ensure that the peace agreement delivered change.

East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project welcomed attempts to prosecute perpetrators of sexual and gender based violence, but regretted that hundreds of other victims still needed justice. They called on the Commission to urge the African Union Commission to set up the Hybrid Court for South Sudan to ensure accountability for crimes committed. Lutheran World Federation called on armed groups that had not yet signed the peace agreement to do so. The Federation called on the Government to establish the legal framework for transitional justice mechanisms, and for marginalized groups such as women and children to be included in this. Human Rights Watch stated that after the six years of civil war, human rights abuses were still prevalent, including enforced disappearance, sexual violence and murder. Impunity continued to be the main driver of these serious abuses, and the Commission's work in collecting evidence of such abuses was vital, so its mandate must be extended.

Amnesty International was extremely concerned about the widespread use of executions in South Sudan and called on the Government to implement a moratorium. They believed that there was a clear need for independent investigations and prosecutions into alleged violations of international humanitarian law, including killing of civilians and sexual violence. Rencontre Africaine pour la defense des droits de l'homme welcomed the signing of the peace agreement, but believed it was precarious due to the lack of funding. They called for the strengthening of sanctions to address abuses, and for an arms embargo to better secure the safety of the population. International Organization for the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination strongly urged the Government of South Sudan to work on reparation and justice for the victims of crimes. They also called for all parties involved in the peace agreement to work closely with civil society organizations, as well as woman and children.

Concluding Remarks

ANDREW CLAPHAM, Member of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said that not only was the death penalty leading to injustice, but it was also a factor that was feeding tension and instability. South Sudan's use of the death penalty represented a violation of international law. The Commission called on South Sudan to resume its moratorium on the death penalty. As for the specialized court on sexual violence, it was encouraged. The general court martial had prosecuted four rape cases and 12 cases of sexual violence, but more cases should be brought forward, particularly those who had command responsibility, which was the way to address impunity and lack of accountability in South Sudan.

BARNEY AFAKO, Member of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said that tackling impunity had to start with political leadership and political will, expressed at the highest level, so the President of South Sudan was called upon to be active in ensuring that institutions that addressed accountability were established and functioning without interference. The legislative framework also had to be established, including the participation of victims. The role of the African Union was assigned by the peace agreement on establishing a specialized court. The African Union's Peace and Security Council had endorsed the agreement and the establishment of the Hybrid Court.

YASMIN SOOKA, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said that a link between the low status of women, contradictions under the transitional constitution, and the fact that customary law was seen as a source of law, all meant that a gender policy was needed. The Government was urged to finalize the national gender policy to deal with all these issues. The Government should also take seriously the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to really strengthen and improve the status of women. The setting up of a special court dealing with gender based violence was encouraged, but it had to be victims centred. Accountability would only come if the Hybrid Court of South Sudan was finally established. She expressed her appreciation to the Government of South Sudan for the cooperation and support that they had extended to the Commission, as they had been able to travel around the country without hindrance. Governments from the region were also thanked for allowing and facilitating visits to refugees from South Sudan. Conflict continued to target civilians, including women and girls. Stopping the conflict required sustainable involvement of the Government and African Union. The Hybrid Court was critical in ensuring long term stability and it required the support of the international community.

Source: UN Human Rights Council

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