Reflections on the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council’s 46th regular session (HRC46) was historic. It was the first session to take place entirely online, as the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG) complied with the Swiss government’s Covid-19 recommendations, including to work from home and to avoid in-person meetings of more than five persons. 

While these conditions made advocacy more challenging, the voice of African human rights defenders (HRDs) continued to resonate in Geneva. We used remote participation tools to deliver video statements and engage state and UN representatives. Partners from South Sudan and Burundi addressed the Council via video messages. 

Our Geneva office continued to engage diplomatic missions and the UN human rights system, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). 

Ahead of the session, DefendDefenders took the lead in drafting a joint civil society letter on South Sudan. The call made clear that the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) was still vitally needed, as two and a half years after the signature of the Revitalised Peace Agreement, South Sudan faces major governance, security, humanitarian, and human rights issues. These include ongoing grave violations and abuses, mounting inter-communal violence, and generalised impunity. 

The resolution adopted on 24 March 2021 extends the mandate of the CHRSS. A majority of states heeded NGOs’ message, which I reiterated in a short opinion piece released during the session. However, we regret the fact that a number of African states supported the South Sudanese government’s attempt to discontinue the CHRSS’s mandate and move the resolution from the Council’s agenda item 4 (the most serious situations) to its item 10 (technical assistance and capacity-building). Indeed, on 24 March, a second resolution presented by Cameroon on behalf of the African Group was also adopted. 

In practice, this means that we will have twice as much international reporting on South Sudan – an outcome the South Sudanese government clearly wanted to avoid, and a waste of resources for the Council. Any way forward should rely on human rights benchmarks and a thorough assessment of the situation and of risk factors of further violations. We urge South Sudan to continue to fully cooperate with the CHRSS and OHCHR. Read our press release

Since a conflict broke out in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in November 2020, concerns have been mounting over violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including possible international crimes, protection of civilians, and humanitarian access. On 26 February 2021, during the Council’s general debate on the High Commissioner’s update, a group of 42 states delivered a statement on the situation. They listed key concerns and urged unhindered humanitarian access and assistance, and full access for OHCHR, so as to keep the Council informed of the situation. Investigations, monitoring, and reporting are vitally needed. 

During the general debate on agenda item 4, together with AfricanDefenders, we drew states’ attention to the situation in Cameroon – one of the human rights crises the Council has been unable or unwilling to address. We cal­led on the Council to exercise its mandate to address grave violations and abuses, including, but not only, in the North-West and South-West regions. A number of states, UN officials, and independent human rights experts echo these concerns. Considering the inability or unwillingness of the UN Security Council to act, we will continue to push the Human Rights Council to take action regarding the crisis in Cameroon. 

During the session, we also highlighted the ongoing grave human rights situation in Eritrea, as well as its involvement in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. We also addressed the situation in Burundi and mentioned the need for more attention to Tanzania (see our oral statements). 

The next session (HRC47) will take place in June-July 2021. 

We hope that the Council will overcome both logistical challenges associated to Covid-19 and the kind of politicisation we witnessed at HRC46. South Sudan is objectively one of the most serious human rights situations; yet disagreement on the level of scrutiny and accountability needed to address it prevented the Council from speaking with one voice. 

At HRC45, the Council adopted a landmark resolution, which goes a long way toward strengthening its “prevention mandate.” Objective criteria, including civic space indicators and risk factors of violations, should always guide states in assessing human rights situations and formulating appropriate responses. 

Hassan Shire

Oral Statements to the Council

Madam President, Madam High Commissioner,   

We are deeply troubled by the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. While the political dispute between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and its allies is a domestic matter, its implications are not. Violations of international humani­tarian law and human rights violations and abuses associated with armed ope­ra­tions are mat­ters for multilateral discussion. 

Since November 2020, a range of actors, including your Office, the UN High Commissioner for Refu­gees, and the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, have expressed deep concern over the situation. In other areas, violence has been reported, as in Benishangul-Gumuz. 

We urge the government and all those exercising control over parts of the Ethiopian territory to allow unhindered humanitarian access, protect civilians, and allow or launch impartial in­vestigations with a view to ensuring accountability. All parties should refrain from inflammatory remarks and incitement to commit crimes under international law. 

We urge the Ethiopian government to engage, rather than dismiss the concerns expressed by UN actors, special procedures, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), states, and NGOs. 

Madam President,  

Regarding Tanzania, we reiterate the concerns a range of actors have expressed over what is becoming a human rights and political crisis. We encourage OHCHR and special procedures to monitor and report on developments, and states to engage the Tanzanian government both bilaterally and publicly, including here at the Council. 

Thank you.

 

Madam President, Mr. Special Rapporteur, 

We thank you for your update and wish you the best in your new role. Your mandate re­mains a vital mechanism to monitor and report on Eritrea’s human rights situ­ation. 

This is the last year of Eritrea’s membership in the Human Rights Council—and it is clear that being a member did not defeat international scrutiny. 

We urge the Eritrean government to move beyond inconsistent, fickle communication streams with the UN human rights system and to invite the Special Rapporteur to visit the country to explore avenues for cooperation and reform. 

We remain deeply concerned over ongoing human rights violations, including the in­commu­ni­cado detention of journalists and unresol­ved cases of disappearances and detentions, including that of Ciham Ali Ahmed. 

Madam President, Mr. Special Rapporteur, 

Since November, there have been independent reports, including by the UN High Commis­sio­ner for Refugees, of Eritrean military involvement in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Infiltration of armed actors in refugee camps has led to violations of Eritrean refugees’ rights, including kil­lings, abductions, and forced return to Eritrea. Refugees must be protected. Elsewhere, as in Axum, reports of egregious violations by Eritrean soldiers have emerged. We urge indepen­dent, impartial inquiries into all these violations. 

Dr. Mohamed: What is your analysis of Eritrea’s involvement in Tigray, and possible violations of international law? 

Thank you. 

Madam President, 

DefendDefenders and AfricanDefenders remain deeply concerned over ongoing grave hu­man rights violations and abuses in Cameroon. Since 2016, this Council has failed to take steps to address the situation in the North-West and South-West regions, where violations by armed sepa­ratists and govern­ment forces have led to killings, kidnappings, looting, SGBV, and attacks on schools, students, and aid workers. Despite the Grand National Dialogue, the grie­vances that gave rise to the “Anglophone cri­sis” remain unaddressed. 

In the Far North, there has been a resurgence of exactions by terrorist group Boko Haram. Security forces’ response has also resulted in grave violations. 

The deterioration of civic space is alarming. Cameroonian authorities have in­tensified their crack­down on the political opposition, demonstrators, the media, and civil society. Laws are being used to restrict free­doms of expression, peaceful assembly and asso­ciation. 

Enhancement of cooperation between OHCHR and the government is a positive step. However, high levels of violence and impunity continue to be reported. The hu­ma­nitarian situation re­mains dire. Four million people are in need of assistance. To date, more than 3,000 civilians have lost their lives, and more than one million have been internally displaced. 

Madam President, 

Cameroon is among the human rights crises this Council has been unable or un­willing to ade­quately address. Being a member of the Council should not shield a State from scrutiny. 

We call on states to collectively make clear that should Came­roon fail to take concrete steps to improve its human rights situ­ation, they will stand ready to take action. 

Thank you. 

Madam President, 

DefendDefenders and the Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) Burundi thank the Commission of Inquiry for its update. In September 2020, the Commission’s mandate was extended for the fourth time. Therefore, it is now the fifth year in which the Commission docu­ments killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, sexual violence, extorsions, and other violations against Burundians. 

This mandate extension was imperative in light of the gravity of the human rights situation, which remain largely unchanged. The release of four Iwacu journalists, on 24 December 2020, is a welcome step. However, it is important to recall that they were detained for 430 days; they should never have been held. It is also important to recall that several human rights defenders remain in detention, including Germain Rukuki and Nestor Nibitanga, for conducting legiti­ma­te, peaceful human rights activities. 

As regards accountability for violations, the few instances of arrests and prosecution of mem­bers of the ruling party’s youth league and of security forces are exceptional cases. Impunity remains the norm. 

Commissioners: 

Does the Commission have information as to: (1) the recurrence of cases of rape and assassina­tions of young women in several of the country’s regions; and (2) violations committed against recent Burundian returnees? 

I thank you. 

Madam President, dear members of the Commission, 

We thank you for your report and presentation. The situation in South Sudan continues to call for the Human Rights Council’s utmost attention. As you reported, staggering levels of violence continue and threaten to spiral out of control. We are particularly concerned over conflict at the local level, ongoing SGBV, and attacks against the civilian population. Some of the violations may amount to crimes against humanity. 

We concur with your analysis of the situation of civil society. Human rights defenders, including civil so­cie­ty members and journalists, are subjected to pervasive surveillance, in particular by the National Security Service (NSS). We urge the government to cease its intimidation of inde­pendent actors and to fully uphold freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, in line with its constitutional and international obligations. 

We welcome the recent cabinet approval of a plan by the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to start setting up accountability and transitional justice institutions as per Chapter V of the Revitalised Peace Agreement. Operationalisation of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan and other Chapter V institutions is key to building sustainable peace. The process must now be fast-tracked. 

Commissioners: 

In a joint letter released ahead of this session, 38 civil society organisations stres­sed that “the mandate of the Commission should continue until such a point as demons­tra­ble progress has been made against human rights benchmarks and based on an assess­ment of risk factors of further vio­lations.” What could such benchmarks and indicators be?  

Thank you for your attention. 

Advocacy documents and press releases

To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council

5 February 2021

Re: Extend the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

Excellencies,

We, the undersigned non-governmental organisations, write to urge your delegation to sup­port the extension in full of the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (“Commission” or “CHRSS”) at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council’s (“HRC” or “Coun­­cil”) 46th session (22 Feb­­ruary-23 March 2021).

As the only mechanism currently collecting and preserving evidence of violations of inter­na­tional humanitarian and human rights law with a view to accountability and addressing human rights and transitional justice issues in South Sudan from a holistic perspective, the CHRSS re­mains vital. Two and a half years after the signa­ture of the Revitalised Peace Agree­ment for Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), the country faces major governance, security, hu­ma­­ni­tarian, and human rights issues.

Fighting continues in parts of the country, in particular with holdout opposition groups in Yei. In other areas, particularly in Tonj, Bor, and Grea­ter Pibor/Jonglei, inter-communal tensions and conflict con­tinue to threaten the coun­try’s stability and people’s safety, human rights, and livelihoods.

On 22 June 2020, the Council adopted resolution 43/27,[1] which extended the mandate of the CHRSS for a year. By doing so, the international community made clear that continued human rights scrutiny, justice, and sustainable peace were closely interconnected.

HRC resolution 43/27 reaffirmed the importance of the mandate of the CHRSS and acknow­led­ged that “demon­s­trable progress in key human rights issues of concern is critical to any future change to the mandate of the [CHRSS].”[2] Unfortunately, there has neither been progress on key human rights issues in South Sudan nor accountability for human rights violations and abuses.

Many of the concerns a group of more than 20 organisations highlighted in a letter[3] released ahead of the Council’s 43rd session, in February 2020, remain unaddressed. These include:

  • Ongoing human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law,[4] including rape and sexual and gender-based vio­lence (SGBV), deliberate starvation of civi­lians, recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, and attacks on civilian in­fra­structure,[5] which may amount to cri­mes under international law, including war crimes and crimes ag­ainst huma­nity;
  • Inter-com­mu­nal violence, which is fuelled by disputes over land and livelihoods, grie­van­ces over past atrocities, arms trafficking, dis­­pla­cement, and unresolved governance-related is­sues—all of which constitute significant risk factors of violations, putting individuals at con­­tinued risk of crimes under international law;
  • Serious humanitarian challenges, including displacement, acute food insecurity, denial of hu­ma­nitarian access, and attacks against humanitarian personnel;
  • Failure to complete the implementation of Chapter II of the R-ARCSS (transi­tio­nal secu­rity arran­ge­ments), which could lead to further failure of the security forces to protect civilians, renewed instability and more human rights violations;
  • Attacks on civil society and civic space, evidenced by routine violations of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, unlawful arrests, prolonged detentions and tor­­ture of cri­tics and perceived dissidents, sustained pres­sure over human rights defenders (HRDs), jour­na­lists, and other independent actors;[6]
  • Widespread impunity for human rights violations and abuses, in particular at the com­mand res­­pon­sibility level—for cri­mes per­petrated since the start of the conflict, in December 2013; and
  • Failure to establish the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing (CTRH) and the Compensation and Reparation Authority (CRA), and failure to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Afri­can Union (AU) on the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Su­dan (HCSS) as per Chapter V of the R-ARCSS and enact­ legis­la­tion to opera­tio­nalise the Court.[7]

Since June 2020, all parties to the conflict have perpetrated serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including the unlawful killing of civilians, the recruitment and use of children, and acts of sexual violence. The security forces continued to arbitrarily arrest and detain actual and perceived government opponents and other critics. The government has con­ti­nued to fail in its obligation to respect and protect the right to health. Early and forced mar­riages are still commonplace, with detrimental effects on women’s and girls’ sexual and repro­ductive health. Despite the dire human rights situation, impunity for human rights vio­la­tions and abu­ses remains the norm.

When they signed the 2015 Peace Agreement, and more recently the R-ARCSS, South Su­da­nese parties committed to ensuring justice for human rights violations and abuses, and African actors, such as the AU and the Intergovern­men­tal Authority on Development (IGAD), sup­por­ted this ap­proach.

African human rights bo­dies have also repeatedly called on parties to im­ple­ment Chap­ter V of the Agreement, including provisions on the establishment of the Hybrid Court, a CTRH, and a CRA. In a resolution[8] adopted at its 65th ordinary session, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) strongly condemned continued violations and stressed the need to opera­tio­nalise R-ARCSS provisions, in particular Chapter V.

However, violations and abuses continue as the Re­vi­talised Tran­sitional Government of Na­tio­­nal Unity (Na­tio­nal Unity Govern­ment) has failed to take key steps to prevent, deter, inves­ti­gate, and punish them.

In October 2020, the CHRSS released two papers, on starvation as a method of warfare[9] and transitional justice and accountability,[10] respectively. In the former, the CHRSS de­tai­led the coun­try’s dire humanitarian situation and acts that may amount to crimes under in­ternational law. In the latter, the CHRSS highlighted the importance of Chapter V of the R-ARCSS and the absence of concrete progress in realising any accountability, national healing, or recon­ciliation in South Sudan. The CHRSS also analysed how national actors fuel violence by ethnic militia and paramilitary groups at the local level—which contributes to maintaining violence as a tan­gible option throughout the country. 

*   *   *

As the Council recognised in June 2020, the mandate of the CHRSS should continue until such a point as demonstrable progress has been made against human rights benchmarks, and based on an assessment of risk factors of further violations. As noted above, necessary progress has not yet been made to consider a change of approach in this regard.

Eight months on, South Sudan continues to require multilateral attention. Sig­nificant chal­lenges and threats remain, and the Na­tio­nal Unity Govern­ment, which is still pending full formation, needs to further build confidence with African and international partners. While sustained enga­ge­ment by the AU, IGAD, and the UN Security Council remains needed, the Human Rights Council has a crucial role to play.

The Council should allow the CHRSS to ful­fil its res­pon­sibility with regard to all aspects of its man­­date: inves­tiga­tion, evidence collection and preservation, monitoring, re­por­­ting, technical cooperation, and advice on transitional justice in all its di­mensions: criminal accountability, truth-tel­ling, reparations, full re­­ha­­­bilitation of survivors, and gua­ran­tees of non-recur­ren­ce (inc­luding through legal and ju­di­cial reform, institution-building, and ultimately re­con­­ci­lia­tion).

Any way forward should rely on human rights benchmarks and a thorough assess­ment of the situation and of risk factors of further violations.

Until the HCSS is fully operational and functional, the Council must ensure the renewal of the mandate of the CHRSS to secure the collection and preservation of evidence of serious crimes committed since 2013, with a view to transferring such documentation to independent and competent judicial authorities in the future. 

In this context, we urge the Council at its 46th session to continue its meaningful ac­tion on South Su­dan by extending the CHRSS’s mandate further. We urge Member and Ob­server States to sup­port the deve­lop­ment and adoption of a reso­lution that:

  • Extends the mandate of the CHRSS in full under the same agenda item;
  • Recalls that the Government of South Sudan has the responsibility to protect its popu­la­tion from, among other human rights violations and abuses, war crimes, and crimes against hu­manity;
  • Urges the Government and opposition groups to allow and facilitate access to all locations and per­­sons of interest to the CHRSS;
  • Urges the Government to adopt the Statute of the Hybrid Court for South Su­dan and sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to for­mal­ly establish and opera­tio­na­lise the Hybrid Court.[11] The Government should also ensure a transparent and consultative process for progress on all three transitional justice and accountability mechanisms and finally es­ta­blish its new Parliament, so that relevant legislation can be enacted;
  • Urges the South Sudanese legislature, when established, to incorporate crimes under in­ter­national law into the Penal Code, including but not limited to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture, in line with definitions under international law;
  • Requests that reports and updates of the CHRSS be transmitted to the UN Security Council and IGAD for conside­ra­tion and further action;
  • Requests that reports and updates of the CHRSS be transmitted to the ACHPR, so that they inform the latter’s briefings to the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) and to support and in­form future investigations of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan;
  • Encourages the AU Commission to:

(a) work on a clear timeline with the South Sudanese Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs for the HCSS to effec­tively be made operational;

(b) consider the ongoing failure of the Government of South Sudan to reconstitute the Transi­tional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA), stand ready to take steps, including the esta­blish­ment of the Hybrid Court for South Su­dan, to ensure justice for serious crimes committed, as rec­om­men­ded by the AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan and provided for in the 2015 Pea­ce Agree­ment and the 2018 Revitalised Agree­ment; and

(c) guarantee the transparency of the process for establishment of the Court, and ensure that South Sudanese civil society actors will be consulted throughout;

  • Urges all States to encourage further concrete action to deter and address ongoing vio­la­tions of international law at the UN Security Council, and to exercise their jurisdiction over crimes under international law committed in South Sudan under the principle of uni­ver­sal juris­dic­tion and where the opportunity arises;
  • Calls on the CHRSS to articulate clear human rights reform benchmarks or indicators ag­ainst which any progress can be measured; and
  • Calls on the CHRSS to enhance its engagement with civil society and human rights defen­ders on deliverance of its mandate, giving due attention to the increasing restrictions, threats, and attacks civil society and media actors face. 

We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues.

Sincerely,

 

  1. African Child Care Network (ACCN)
  2. AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
  3. Amnesty International
  4. Assistance Mission for Africa (AMA)
  5. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  6. Center for Human Rights Lawyers (CHRL) – South Sudan
  7. Center for Inclusive Peace and Justice (CPJ) – South Sudan
  8. Center for Peace and Advocacy (CPA) – South Sudan
  9. Center for Reproductive Rights
  10. CIVICUS
  11. Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO) – South Sudan
  12. Crown The Woman – South Sudan
  13. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  14. Dialogue and Research Institute (DRI) – South Sudan
  15. Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) South Sudan
  16. FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
  17. Geneva for Human Rights / Genève pour les Droits de l’Homme
  18. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P)
  19. Humanitarian Development Organization (HDO) – South Sudan
  20. Human Rights Watch
  21. International Commission of Jurists
  22. International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)
  23. International Service for Human Rights
  24. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada
  25. National Alliance for Women Lawyers – South Sudan
  26. National Press Club (NPC) – South Sudan
  27. Nile Initiative for Development (NID)
  28. Pan African Peacemakers Alliance (PAPA)
  29. Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS)
  30. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
  31. South Sudan Action Network on Small Arms (SSANSA)
  32. South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (SSHRDN)
  33. South Sudan Law Society (SSLS)
  34. SOWETO Community Based Organization
  35. The Advocates for Human Rights and Democracy (TAHURID)
  36. Union of Journalists of South Sudan (UJOSS)
  37. West African Human Rights Defenders Network (ROADDH/WAHRDN)
  38. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

[1] Available at https://undocs.org/en/A/HRC/RES/43/27 

[2] Operative paragraph 9. 

[3] DefendDefenders et al., “Joint letter: Extend the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan,” 6 February 2020, https://defenddefenders.org/joint-letter-extend-the-mandate-of-the-un-commission-on-human-rights-in-south-sudan/ (accessed on 3 February 2021). 

[4] Amnesty International, “South Sudan: UN arms embargo must be maintained after surge in violence against civilians in 2020,” 30 November 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/11/south-sudan-un-arms-embargo-must-be-maintained-after-surge-in-violence-against-civilians-in-2020/ (accessed on 3 February 2021). 

[5] Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Doc. A/HRC/40/69, https://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/40/69 (accessed on 25 January 2021).

[6] Amnesty International, “These Walls Have Ears: The Chilling Effect of Surveillance in South Sudan,” 3 February 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/AFR6535772021ENGLISH.pdf; Human Rights Watch, “‘What Crime was I Paying for?’ Abuses by South Sudan’s National Security Service,” 14 December 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/12/14/what-crime-was-i-paying/abuses-south-sudans-national-security-service; DefendDefenders, “Targeted but Not Deterred: Human Rights Defenders Fighting for Justice and Peace in South Sudan,” 19 May 2020, https://defenddefenders.org/targeted-but-not-deterred-human-rights-defenders-fighting-for-justice-and-peace-in-south-sudan/ (all accessed on 3 February 2021). 

[7] On 30 January 2021, the media reported that the South Sudanese Government had approved a plan by the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to start setting up Chapter V institutions, including the HCSS (Eye Radio, “Cabinet approves establishment of hybrid court,” 30 January 2021, https://eyeradio.org/cabinet-approves-establishment-of-hybrid-court/ (accessed on 1 February 2021).

However, swift and concrete action is needed to operationalise these mechanisms (Human Rights Watch, “A Glimmer of Hope for South Sudan’s Victims,” 31 January 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/31/glimmer-hope-south-sudans-victims# (accessed on 1 February 2021)) and to hold perpetrators of the most serious crimes to account. The Government has repeatedly delayed and obstructed the process of establishing the HCSS.

The January 2021 announcement follows similar announcements. In March 2018, the CHRSS reported that “[i]n December 2017, the South Sudan Council of Ministers approved the legal instruments for the establishment of the [Hybrid] court, including a draft statute and a draft memorandum of understanding between the African Union and the Government of South Sudan” (“Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan,” UN Doc. A/HRC/37/71, 14 March 2018, para. 115). However, to date, the Presidency has neither approved them nor sent them to Parliament. The Council of Ministers now seems to have authorised the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to move ahead with the establishment of the three transitional justice mechanisms, but the key issue remains as to whether this plan will be implemented in practice.

[8] African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ACHPR/Res.428 (LXV) 2019. 

[9] “‘There is nothing left for us’: starvation as a method of warfare in South Sudan; Conference room paper of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan,” UN doc. A/HRC/45/CRP.3, 5 October 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session45/Documents/A_HRC_45_CRP.3.docx (accessed on 25 January 2021). 

[10] “Transitional justice and accountability: a roadmap for sustainable peace in South Sudan; Conference room paper of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan,” UN doc. A/HRC/45/CRP.4, 5 October 2020, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session45/Documents/A_HRC_45_CRP.4.docx (accessed on 25 January 2021).

[11] See footnote no. 7 above.

African states should support the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

This week, in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council will consider a report by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS). A group of states will also present a resolution aiming to extend the Com­mis­sion’s mandate and maintain a high level of attention to South Sudan’s human rights situation.

The CHRSS is one of the strongest mechanisms ever created by the Human Rights Council. It has a broad man­date to monitor and report, investigate, collect and preserve evidence of abuses, and provide advice and support, inc­lu­ding regarding transitional justice. Its reports have been among the most compelling released by a UN human rights body. Since 2016, the Commission has shed light on atrocities committed against South Sudanese citizens, applying thorough methodologies and documenting abuses with the highest level of pro­fessionalism.

Among the abuses documented: violations of international law that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including deliberate starvation of civilians, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) with a “recognizable pattern of terror and subjugation,” violations of fundamental rights, and deeply entrenched impunity. This year’s report shows that while a full-on civil war has not resumed, myriads of localized conflicts pose a massive risk to the country’s stability.

Since last year, attacks on civilians by armed groups and militias have intensified. The scope and scale of violence documented by the CHRSS “far exceeds the violence between 2013 and 2019.” This means that the situation is actually worse than last year, when the Council last renewed the Commission’s mandate.

The CHRSS remains a vital mechanism. While it focuses on its human rights mandate, its work is also part of African and international efforts to usher in sustainable peace, stability, and respect for human rights in South Sudan. By accepting its establishment and extension, on several occasions, the South Sudanese government sent positive signals to its international partners, in an effort to build confidence and trust.

As the government, which is now almost fully constituted, two and a half years after the signature of the Revitalized Peace Agreement, is claiming that it only needs “technical assistance” and attempting to discon­tinue the mandate of the CHRSS, states should reject this premature move. They should make clear that they expect South Sudan to deliver progress before considering a different approach. African states, in particular, should support the Human Rights Council’s current approach – which is grounded in the work of the CHRSS.

When South Sudan has made demonstrable progress against key human rights benchmarks – including ope­ra­tio­nalizing transitional justice institutions as per Chapter V of the Peace Agreement, putting an end to pervasive SGBV, ensuring accountability for the most serious crimes, including at the command responsibility level, and reforming the abusive National Security Service – then another type of international engagement and scrutiny will make sense. But the steps that must be taken go way beyond mere political announcements, like those of 29 January 2021.

That day, the cabinet approved a plan by the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to start setting up Chapter V institutions, including the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS). However, we need much more from the govern­ment. Swift and concrete action is needed to implement this plan and operationalise all transitional justice mecha­nisms. In particular, the legislature must be re-established to pass the necessary legislation. In the meantime, the mandate of the CHRSS remains critical to ensure collection and preservation of evidence for prosecution of per­pe­trators with a view to ensuring accountability for the victims.

As risk factors of further atrocities exist, local-level violence is increasing, and civic space is under intense pressure, African states should heed the message a group of South Sudanese, African, and inter­na­tional NGOs sent ahead of the session: send the right signal to the South Sudanese people; support the extension of the CHRSS’s mandate in full.

Hassan Shire

Executive Director, DefendDefenders

Chairperson, AfricanDefenders

South Sudan: the UN assumes its responsibility to maintain a focus on human rights violations 

The UN Human Rights Council has assumed its res­pon­si­bi­lity to maintain international pressure on South Sudan over its human rights situation. Defend­De­fen­ders welcomes the extension of the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS). We regret that the Council failed to speak with one voice as it adop­ted a second resolution on the country today; in practice, this will enhance report­ing on the country. 

“The resolution that extends the mandate of the CHRSS reflects the reality of the situation in South Sudan and deserves full support,said Has­san Shire, Exe­cu­tive Direc­tor, Def­end­­Defen­ders.We regret that African states did not openly support the Commission’s mandate as it is the only mechanism that collects and preserves evidence of violations for future prose­cu­tions.” 

In addition to extending the Commission’s mandate, resolution L.29/Rev.1 expres­ses concern at widespread and pervasive violence at the subnational level, localised conflicts, on­going crimes (some of which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity) such as re­cruitment and use of child soldiers, the use of starvation as a method of warfare, attacks on civilian infrastruc­ture, violence against human rights defen­ders, humanitarian per­son­nel and journalists, and se­xual and gender-based violence. It stresses that those responsible should be held accountable. 

The resolution recognises the vital role played by human rights defenders, women peace­builders, the media and civil society organisations in promoting human rights. 

“Discontinuing the mandate of the CHRSS, with its investigative functions, would have sent the wrong message to perpetrators of abuses,” said Estella Ka­bach­­wezi, Advocacy, Research and Communications Ma­na­­ger, Def­end­­Defen­ders. “Accounta­bi­lity, including through the Hybrid Court for South Su­dan, remains a priority to break the cycle of violence and usher in a better future for all South Sudanese citizens.” 

Resolution L.29/Rev.1 acknowledges that “demonstrable progress in key human rights issues of concern is critical to any future change to the mandate” of the CHRSS. It encourages the deve­lop­ment of a transition plan, with benchmarks and milestones to inform the Human Rights Council’s future consideration of South Sudan. It also includes a number of technical assistance elements. 

The second resolution, L.20, was presented by Cameroon on behalf of the group of African states. It focuses on technical assist­ance and capacity building. It sought to discontinue the mandate of the CHRSS, in particular its collection and preservation of evidence functions. In practice, its adoption will enhance ­scru­tiny of and report­ing on the country. 

This resolution does not fully reflect the human rights situation in South Sudan. As myriads of local-level conflicts threaten to spiral out of control, the situ­ation is actually deteriorating. 

Ahead of the session, a group of 38 NGOs urged states to support the extension of the mandate of the CHRSS, in a joint letter.1 During the session, DefendDefenders stressed that South Sudan still required the UN’s utmost attention.

In June 2020, the Council had extended the mandate of the CHRSS, which was created in 2016, for the fourth time.3 Independent reporting on the country, including by the CHRSS, other UN bodies such as the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), and NGOs, demonstrate the prevalence of grave violations and abuses. Civic space is under intense pressure. In particular, human rights defenders and independent actors have been targeted.4

 

For more information, please contact:

Hassan Shire

Executive Director, DefendDefenders; [email protected] or +256 772 753 753 (English and Somali)

Estella Kabachwezi

Advocacy, Research and Communications Manager, DefendDefenders; [email protected] or +256 782 360 460 (English)

Nicolas Agostini

Representative to the United Nations, DefendDefenders; [email protected] or +41 79 813 49 91 (English and French)

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1  DefendDefenders et al., “Human Rights Council: Extend the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan,” 5 February 2021, https://defenddefenders.org/human-rights-council-extend-the-mandate-of-the-commission-on-human-rights-in-south-sudan/ (accessed on 24 March 2021).

2  Hassan Shire, “South Sudan still needs the UN’s utmost attention,” 9 March 2021, https://defenddefenders.org/south-sudan-still-needs-the-uns-utmost-attention/ (accessed on 24 March 2021).

3  DefendDefenders, “South Sudan: UN rights council extends investigators’ mandate,” 22 June 2020, https://defenddefenders.org/south-sudan-un-rights-council-extends-investigators-mandate/ (accessed on 24 March 2021).

4  DefendDefenders, “Targeted but Not Deterred: Human rights defenders fighting for justice and peace in South Sudan,” 19 May 2020, https://defenddefenders.org/targeted-but-not-deterred-human-rights-defenders-fighting-for-justice-and-peace-in-south-sudan/ (accessed on 24 March 2021). 

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