South Sudan

Human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists in South Sudan still face continuous threats to their personal security while operating in the country as targets for both rebel forces and state authorities. 

Human rights situation in South Sudan

Throughout 2018, several incidents of arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention were reported by HRDs by both rebel forces and state authorities as civilians continue to be caught in the crossfire of clashes between the state and rebel groups. Furthermore, the UN Mission in South Sudan has documented instances of pillaging by government forces in rebel territories. Sexual violence, the recruitment of child soldiers and public executions were all mechanisms adopted by the state in order to instil fear and assert authority over rebel territories.

A newly signed revitalized peace agreement has yet to garner a spirit of reconciliation between statesmen operating within government and rebel authorities. Since the signing of the peace deal in 2018, the international community has taken small steps to respond to cries for justice calling for safety for civilians and for the South Sudanese government to prioritize the implementation of the peace agreement.

Freedom of Association

On 22 May 2017, President Salva Kiir announced that he was no longer running the national dialogue he initiated in December 2016. Both international and domestic observers have criticised Kiir’s decision to act as “patron” of the dialogue – he abdicated this role so citizens would have more faith in the process.[1]

A report issued by Human Rights Watch on 31 May 2017 outlined how people with disabilities and older citizens in South Sudan face greater risks of being caught in fighting and greater challenges in getting necessary humanitarian assistance. Throughout the conflict, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of people with disabilities and older people being shot, hacked to death, or burned alive in their houses by belligerents.[2]

On 19 August 2017, unknown armed men briefly abducted South Sudan rebel spokesman Paul Lam Gabriel in Uganda, but released him after police intervened.[3]

Freedom of Expression

On 8 June 2017, the South Sudan Media Authority banned 20 foreign journalists from entering or operating in the country for “unsubstantiated and unrealistic stories” with the potential to incite hate and violence in the country. The authority did not provide specific names or agencies included in the ban.[4] The ban was lifted in late June.[5]

Adil Faris Mayat, head of South Sudan’s state-owned national TV broadcaster SSBC, was arrested on 10 July 2017 for not providing live coverage of President Kiir’s speech on 9 July commemorating independence. Although Mayat attributed the failure to technical problems, the government considered it a “clear case of sabotage.” He was held incommunicado until his release on 19 July and was later fired from his position on 25 July.[6]

On 17 July 2017, South Sudanese authorities blocked access to several online news sites and blogs, including Paris-based Sudan Tribune and Dutch-backed Radio Tamazuj, as well as the popular blogs Nyamilepedia and Paanluel Wel. Minister of Information Michael Makuei Lueth accused the online news resources of publishing “subversive” content.[7]

American journalist Christopher Allen was killed on 26 August 2017 while reporting on fighting between government and rebel forces in Kaya, near the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Allen had been embedded with opposition forces for two weeks. South Sudan army spokesman Lul Ruai Koang said journalists who enter the country with rebel forces would not be protected stating that “anybody who comes attacking us with hostile forces will meet his fate.”[8]

[1]    Voice of America, “President No Longer Runs South Sudan National Dialogue,” 1 June 2017, https://www.voanews.com/a/president-no-longer-runs-south-sudan-national-dialogue/3883157.html, Accessed 29 September 2017.

[2]    Human Rights Watch, “South Sudan: People with Disabilities, Older People Face Danger,” 31 May 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/05/31/south-sudan-people-disabilities-older-people-face-danger, Accessed 29 September 2017.

[3]    Sudan Tribune, “S. Sudan rebel spokesperson abducted in Uganda, released,” 19 August 2017, http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?article63292, Accessed 29 September 2017.

[4] Reporters Without Borders, “South Sudan closes its borders to foreign reporters,” 12 June 2017, https://rsf.org/en/news/south-sudan-closes-its-borders-foreign-reporters, Accessed 24 October 2017.

[5]    News 24, “S Sudan to lift ban on foreign journalists: media official,” 22 June 2017, http://www.news24.com/Africa/News/s-sudan-to-lift-ban-on-foreign-journalists-media-official-20170622, Accessed 29 September 2017.

[6]    Reporters Without Borders, “Journalist held incommunicado for past week in South Sudan,” 18 July 2017, https://rsf.org/en/news/journalist-held-incommunicado-past-week-south-sudan, Accessed 29 September 2017.

[7]    Committee to Protect Journalists, “South Sudan authorities block access to at least four media websites,” 20 July 2017, https://cpj.org/2017/07/south-sudan-authorities-block-access-to-at-least-f.php, Accessed 29 September 2017.

[8]    Committee to Protect Journalists, “US freelancer Christopher Allen killed while reporting in South Sudan,” 29 August 2017, https://cpj.org/2017/08/american-freelancer-killed-while-reporting-in-sout.php, Accessed 29 September 2017.

Relevant News

To Permanent Representatives of member and observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council

Geneva, 26 February 2016,

RE: Addressing the human rights situation and the need for accountability for past atrocities and on-going violations in South Sudan

Your Excellencies,

We, the undersigned South Sudanese and international non-governmental organisations, write to urge your delegation to address the lack of accountability for severe, widespread and ongoing violations and abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law committed in South Sudan, many of which amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity, during the upcoming 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council.

The final report of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (AUCISS)[1] established to investigate human rights abuses committed during South Sudan’s internal armed conflict, found that parties in the conflict had murdered, tortured, inflicted cruel, inhumane and other degrading treatment, raped and committed other sexual and gender-based crimes against civilians. It also found that parties to the conflict had forcibly conscripted children, and looted and destroyed civilian property. The report emphasised that accountability is central to building sustainable peace in South Sudan and recommended the establishment of a hybrid judicial mechanism to bring those responsible to account, among other transitional justice processes.

In August 2015, parties to the conflict signed an Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS). The agreement provides for the formation of a Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) and for national elections after three years. It also envisages broad security sector reform, the establishment of a Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) by the African Union Commission to provide accountability for crimes under international law, a Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing (CTRH), a Compensation and Reparations Authority (CRA), and for a permanent constitutional development process

In January 2016, the UN Mission in South Sudan Human Rights Division released a report which found that despite the August 2015 peace agreement, “[t]he scale, intensity and severity of human rights violations and abuses have increased with the continuation of the hostilities, particularly during spikes in fighting in the middle and latter part of 2015.”[2] It also found that conflict had spread to the Equatoria region of the country, which had previously been relatively unaffected by violence. UNMISS noted the absence of any tangible domestic accountability despite the rhetoric of the main belligerents, thus reinforcing the need for international accountability measures.

The AU Commission has not yet taken any specific steps towards the creation of a hybrid court.

The government of South Sudan and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army-in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) should swiftly implement the transitional justice and accountability provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement. The AU, UN, and partner countries should ensure swift action particularly on the envisioned hybrid court. A credible, independent hybrid court to try crimes under international law committed during the conflict and that meets internationally accepted standards of fairness and impartiality has the potential to make a critical contribution to the achievement of sustainable peace.

In June 2015, the Human Rights Council adopted resolution A/HRC/RES/29/13 calling for the deployment of an OHCHR mission to monitor and report on the situation of human rights, and setting forth indicators for the mission to assess the effectiveness of steps taken by the government, including to ensure accountability for human rights violations and abuses, inter alia by working to establish appropriate criminal justice mechanisms.

Given the still limited progress towards accountability, our organisations believe that the Human Rights Council should take meaningful action at the 31st Session to follow-up on the Office of the High Commissioner’s expert mission report, in order to contribute to providing justice to the victims of the grave human rights situation in South Sudan.

The Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution during its up-coming 31st session to:

Background:

Since the beginning of South Sudan’s civil war in mid-December 2013, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in horrific attacks, often targeted because of their ethnicity or perceived allegiances. Large parts of towns and cities, including civilian infrastructure such as clinics, hospitals, and schools, have been looted and destroyed.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are over 2.3 million civilians displaced internally or to neighbouring countries as of February 2016.[3]

In addition, the UMISS report found that South Sudan’s military and National Security Service (NSS) “operate in a space above the law and with virtual impunity.”[4] Both the SPLA and the NSS have continued to unlawfully detain civilians without access to a lawyer or presenting them before a judge, sometimes for many months, despite constitutional provisions limiting their power to do so. Detainees, often accused of supporting South Sudanese opposition forces, have been kept in poor conditions, and in some instances tortured or brutally beaten. Gender-based violence has been rampant throughout the conflict, and survivor accounts to UNMISS indicate as well that incidents of conflict related sexual violence could amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.[5]

Moreover, the space for civil society and independent media to express themselves has significantly narrowed since the beginning of the conflict. The harassment of independent civil society actors and the introduction of legislation restricting the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly severely undermine on-going efforts to effectively monitor and report on the human rights crisis in the country. Journalists have been repeatedly targeted for their coverage of the conflict, with at least 7 killed last year alone and dozens more arbitrarily detained, physically assaulted and intimidated.[6] Human rights defenders and activists seeking to cooperate with the Human Rights Council have been the subject of escalating threats, attacks and reprisals. The President of the Human Rights Council as clearly stated that such threats are unacceptable.

As the High Commissioner has noted, a lack of accountability for decades of violence during Sudan’s long civil war has helped fuel the conflict. Despite announcements by parties to the conflict that perpetrators of serious violations and abuses of human rights and humanitarian law would be held to account, no decisive action has been taken towards this end. Although the Government took some initial steps, establishing several committees (including a national investigation committee into human rights abuses), these have failed to produce any identifiable results to date. [7]

The Human Rights Council should ensure that combatting impunity is put at the core of the international agenda, and should support on-going African Union efforts to assist South Sudan’s weakened state institutions and justice system to ensure justice to victims of the war. We once more urge your delegation to echo the call of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to ensure that a human rights special procedure is established to respond to the long-standing need of the people of South Sudan for justice and accountability.

We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues.

Sincerely,

[1] The AUCISS report was completed in September 2014, but was not released until October 2015.

[2] United Nations Mission in South Sudan, The State of Human Rights in the Protracted Conflict in South Sudan, 4 December 2015, p. 1, available at: http://unmiss.unmissions.org/Portals/unmiss/Human%20Rights%20Reports/Human%20Rights%20Update%20Report%20of%204%20December%202015%20(final).pdf

[3]    OCHA, South Sudan Humanitarian Bulletin, 10 February 2016.

[4]    UNMISS, The State of Human Rights in the Protracted Conflict in South Sudan, p. 31.

[5]    UNMISS, The State of Human Rights in the Protracted Conflict in South Sudan, p. 19.

[6]    EHAHRDP, “South Sudan: Journalists under Brutal Government Attack”, 23 September 2015, https://defenddefenders.org/2015/09/south-sudan-journalists-under-brutal-government-attack/

[7]    UNMISS, The State of Human Rights in the Protracted Conflict in South Sudan, p. 2.