Amid a “massive” increase in gross human rights violations, as well as an escalation in fighting in South Sudan, the head of a United Nations rights probe said today that to prevent further escalation and abuses in a country where “impunity is the norm,” the international community must be bold enough to push for establishment of a court and bring prosecutions.
“There can be no more delay, no more excuses,” said Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, as she presented her report to the UN Human Rights Council, the Geneva-based body that mandated the three-member panel's work almost exactly one year ago.
“The alternative,” she continued, “is policy of appeasement – making us complicit in the bloodshed that is happening.”
Among a host of experts that will this week update the Council on their work, Ms. Sooka, presenting the report alongside fellow Commissioners, Godfrey Musilla and Ken Scott, said the situation in South Sudan continued to deteriorate over the past nine months as unlawful arrests and detentions, torture, rape and killing “have become the norm,” including in places that had once been relatively peaceful.
Pattern of ethnic cleansing, 'population engineering' in some villages
“Whole villages burnt to ashes, attacks on hospitals and churches, bodies dumped in rivers, allegations of young girls held as sexual slaves, women young and old gang raped and boys and men forcibly recruited,” she said, adding that South Sudan is the world's third largest refugee crisis, with nearly two million internally displaced and more than one and a half million refugees having fled to neighbouring countries.
The report, she said, makes it clear that South Sudanese civilians have been deliberately and systematically targeted on the basis of their ethnicity by Government and government-aligned forces, for killing, abduction, unlawful detention, deprivation of liberty, rape and sexual violence, the burning of their villages, and looting.
“On the ground, this translates into bound corpses left on roadsides, hunger where once there was plenty, and thousands of children ripped from their mothers – some forced to carry guns and kill – yet another lost generation,” stated Ms. Sooka, stressing that citizens are treated like enemy combatants because of their perceived political allegiance to the other side, calculated by ethnicity. Opposition forces too have been responsible for human rights abuses although to a lesser extent, she added.
Relief agencies, including the UN, have little choice to accept the restrictions imposed by South Sudan as they cannot walk away and let millions of people starve
She went on to say that the scale of sexual violence in South Sudan “is so horrifying that the consequences of doing nothing are unthinkable.” Indeed, perpetrators will be emboldened if the international community ignores the issue.
The experts also reported on a pattern of ethnic cleansing and “population engineering.” When the Commission visited the northern town of Malakal, it saw how the redrawing of state boundary lines had helped depopulate the town of its Shilluk and Nuer inhabitants. Civil servants had been forcibly relocated out of the town on the basis of their ethnicity.
Reiterating the Commission's call for an international impartial and independent investigation to be established by the UN – to examine the most serious crimes, including conflict-related sexual violence, committed since December 2013, she said the findings should establish the extent of ongoing violations and support the work of the promised Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing and the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, which should be operational by the end of the year.
Small coterie of political leaders has 'plundered the country
“There can be no more delay, no more excuses,” stated Ms. Sooka, underscoring that the deterioration in the human rights situation in South Sudan is directly attributable to impunity. The challenge for accountability is that alleged perpetrators still occupy senior political and military positions.
“A small coterie of South Sudan's political leaders show total disregard not just for international human rights norms but for the welfare of their own people. They have squandered the oil wealth and plundered the country's resources. Today the Government of South Sudan has effectively devolved most of its service delivery to the international community,” she said, adding that international humanitarians, including the UN, have little choice to accept the restrictions imposed by the State as they cannot walk away and let millions of people starve.
“The dilemma between being outspoken on human rights and securing access has never been more stark,” she said adding that: “In a country where impunity is the norm, the mere knowledge that credible information is being gathered can act as a deterrent. But only if we are bold enough to push for the immediate establishment of the Hybrid Court and prosecutions.”
South Sudan gained independence in 2011 but fell into violence in late 2013 when a political rivalry between President Salva Kiir and his then-deputy Riek Machar erupted into full-fledged conflict.