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Opening Remarks at Press Conference by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

UNMISS HQ, Juba, South Sudan, Friday, 15 December 2017

Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS):  Good morning everybody.  My name is Yasmin Sooka.  I am the Chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.  I am joined by my fellow Commissioner Andrew Clapham who is with me.  I would like to thank you all for joining us this morning.  As you know, our interactions with the media are very important for us.   And, quite frankly, if we want the voices of South Sudanese to be heard, then the media is going to be a critical role player in that regard. 

Just to remind you, the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan is an independent body that has been appointed by the Human Rights Council in Geneva in order to determine the facts and circumstances of alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes.  We are going to do this by collecting and preserving evidence, with a view to ending impunity and providing accountability.

Today as we commemorate the fourth anniversary of the conflict in South Sudan, the Commission wishes to express its condolence and solidarity with the people of South Sudan for the immense loss of life and livelihoods that they have suffered, as we have seen in our visits across South Sudan.  We are very grateful and appreciative to all of those we met with this week, including the survivors who shared their testimonies with us. 

On Monday, here in Juba, we met with the Government, including the First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, the Ministers of Defence, Interior and Justice, as well as the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and we met with the representatives of JMEC [Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission] in Juba, as well.

On Tuesday, Andrew and I broke up into two teams.  Supported by members of the Secretariat, I visited Wau, and he visited Akobo.  I met with the State Governor in Wau where I requested that a copy of the government’s investigative report on the 2017 attacks, that took place in April this year, be made available to me. I also visited the Protection of Civilian (POC) sites as well as the IDP site in the Cathedral, where we met with the community leaders, women’s’ groups, and we listened to testimonies of many of those living there who described the horrors that displaced them.   And, as you know, in Wau you have the Wau triangle, and much of that has been inaccessible, even to the UN.  It is only last week that a patrol went down to Bazia, and they found that these were very much deserted places with many people still living in the bush, and too frightened to come out and speak to anyone. 

But we listened to the stories from those who described the attacks that came and which displaced them.  The overwhelming story that we encountered included not just attacks against civilians, but the looting, the rape and sexual violence, as well as the burning of villages, cattle raids, the abduction of women and children, the lack of access to food and education.  The scale of the abuse and neglect is mind boggling, to be very frank.  It’s no longer just confined to one or other parts of South Sudan; this is really happening all across South Sudan.  The people we met with described how they were forced out of their homes and how their villages were burned.  Wau is an interesting place.  Because you actually see some of the most beautiful homes there, brick homes, when you look at them properly, and in detail.  We were taken on a drive of the area, you see the roofs have come off and everything being burnt.  And you ask yourself the question: ‘How are people going to rebuild their lives one day when this war is over, because there has been so much destruction?’

As one woman put it:  “We were in our homes and they came and fired on us and they forced us out.  When we fled, we witnessed dead people everywhere.”  At the Catholic Church precinct in Wau town, amongst the IDPs living there, an 89 nine-year-old widow described how her husband and her two sons were brutally shot by the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] and how she too begged for her life.  And can you imagine the horror of it?  You are witnessing, and you’re hearing two soldiers discuss, one says: ‘Let’s just kill her and be done’, and the other one says: ‘She’s an old woman, why don’t we just leave her and go.’   And you see your life flash in front of you.  And this tiny, petit woman said…at that point she thought that her life would be over too, and now, in fact, she is burying three people.   The more she goes out of her village, the more she discovers that more people have actually been killed. 

An old church leader, who had once been the head of the Church Council, spoke tearfully about how he had lost his son in the violence. One of the women we spoke with actually said that the conversation she heard from the soldiers was that they had been instructed to target people who were not of their particular ethnic group and were lighter skin, because that would identify them as not belonging.  And she mentioned she was a Dinka woman married to somebody from another tribe, and she asked her husband to hide because she was so fearful that he would lose his life. 

Many of the survivors in the POC sites spoke to how their loved one’s bodies had been exhumed and reburied near them in the POC Camp at Wau.  The camp authorities showed us where they have been burying peoples’ bodies.  A 60-year-old woman described to me how she was gang raped by three soldiers and left on the side of the road to die.  A young pregnant woman also spoke to her gang rape by soldiers. 

The Commission was shocked to hear the stories of young men and women raped in front of their family members; much of this was deliberately strategized so that a husband would witness that his wife was being raped, a woman would see her son being raped…Part of these efforts is to break down the social mores.  Many of the community leaders, in fact one of the chiefs I spoke with said: “How do we rebuild our societies after these types of horrors?”  A farmer that I spoke with said: “I am a farmer, I want to return to home, I want to grow my crops, and to be very honest I don’t want to live on handouts.  I don’t want the UN to give me rations. I can feed myself if only I am allowed to do what I have done, and my family has done, for many hundreds of years”.

The local Governor said that since the National Security Services (NSS) had come to Wau, peace had returned and that the SPLA soldiers had been sent to the outskirts of the town.  He was insisting that people should leave the POC sites and go back to their homes, and that the UN should be distributing rations to the communities instead.  All of the witnesses interviewed by the Commission noted that they were fearful for their safety and many of them had said they only are going home if the war ends completely.

A new dynamic we are witnessing is the increasing tension between the NSS soldiers who are now in occupation of the town of Wau, and the SPLA who have been pushed out to the perimeters.  The NSS soldiers have been paid, the SPLA soldiers have not been paid.  That in itself is creating its own conflict. 

Wau was once a bustling market town that served many of the areas beyond; I think you know the different roads fork out to the neighbouring states.  Today, it’s a ghost town with hundreds of beautiful homes burnt and destroyed, crops destroyed and, to be very frank, no life.  In protected sites, many of the IDPs, many of their chiefs said to us that they are of the view that they were deliberately targeted because of their ethnic identity. 

All of those we spoke to said that the most important thing now is for South Sudan to find some way of the war ending, and of sustainable peace coming to South Sudan.  Not just the guns stopping, but real and durable peace. 

The humanitarian workers we spoke to complained about continuously having their access to remote areas being blocked by the SPLA.  So, you can get permission from the top, but when you’re on the road, you’re actually stopped by a checkpoint.  Your food and medical supplies, some of that gets confiscated, and you’re often prevented from reaching where you want to go.  Many of the humanitarian workers are deeply traumatized.  Some of them we spoke with spoke to eight occasions when they had been told to get out, and a gun had been put to their foreheads and they were told they are going to die now.  You can imagine what kind of experience that is.  That is what people in South Sudan live with on a daily basis, but the enormous amount of trauma is, quite frankly, unacceptable.  The humanitarians continue to deliver aid where they can, but food insecurity in South Sudan is increasing with many going hungry. Aid is just not enough.  When you think, as some of the people in Wau told me, that was once one of the bread baskets for the region, how is it possible today that people don’t have enough food to feed themselves. 

Yesterday, we returned to Juba where we met with members of the National Dialogue Committee and try to understand where their work really fits into all of this. 

Many of the survivors we spoke with talked about the absence of the rule of law in many parts of the country and the blatant disregard for justice.  Many spoke to how justice for the perpetrators of the crime perpetrated against them remains elusive. Many of them actually doubt that the international community and the African Union will succeed in setting up the Hybrid Court.  Our job is to find that evidence, to collect it, to preserve it, for the possibility that that is going to happen.  It’s not restricted to the Hybrid Court, but to any court that will be set up to deal with the atrocities that have been committed here.   Collecting evidence is like insurance, once you have it, nobody can take it away.   So, whether this is two years, three years, five years, it will be there.  That is really our job at the end of this process.  

The one thing that we came across is that this impunity is completely unacceptable.  What we need to ensure is that there is a meaningful judicial process where perpetrators of these horrible acts can be brought to justice.  There needs to be accountability for impunity which has become endemic in the country over the last few years.  Almost every single one of the victims we spoke with express the need for accountability and the need for people to be held to account. 

The food scarcity and insecurity has really reached disastrous proportions.  This is a double tragedy because what happens is that it is the women and girls that walk out to find food, to find firewood, to find wood to make charcoal with…that is when they are at the most vulnerable.  That is often when they are dragged into the bushes and raped.  When we spoke to the men, they said if they went out they would be killed.  This is a similar story.  It doesn’t matter whether you go to Wau or if you go to Bentiu or Malakal, or anywhere else in the region.  It is women really in this country who are bearing really a triple burden – that of holding their family together, the question of finding the resources to enable them to continue living – and really they take the risks in this country.   All the people we spoke with expressed their hopes and dreams for peace.

We are also concerned about the fact that the whole question of the education system is completely in tatters.  While there is some education going on in the POC sites, what you hate of course is the fact that you’re seeing another generation deprived of education; and ultimately deprived of an opportunity to make a life for themselves in the future.  That’s really tragic because the future really depends on young people.  If we destroy their opportunities, then I think we are also looking at destruction and the inability to realise the hopes and dreams of what liberation was about.  When you think about the joy with which South Sudan came into being, and you look at it now so many years down the line, you ask yourself the question, ‘how do we change this around?’  That really raises the responsibility of the region, of the Government, of the leadership of all the warring factions.  They need to make peace, because if this goes on it is going to be almost impossible to turn the tide again.   

We are going to be reporting back to the Human Rights Council in March.  We have been very fortunate that the Government of South Sudan has provided us with the cooperation to go where we need to go.  We have had meetings with the Government at which the questions we’ve asked to them they have tried to make the responses available.  From that perspective, we look forward to the continued engagement with the Government of South Sudan, as well as with the States in the region. 

On Saturday, we separate again.  Andrew is going to speak about his visit to Akobo and the impressions he gained there.  But we separate again on Saturday.  I am going down to northern Uganda to meet with the refugees there, then to Adjumani.  And Andrew is going to go to Gambella.  I was in Gambella in August.  And I was there just after the attack in Pagak.  I also witnessed the re-opening of a new camp in Gambella to accommodate the more than 30,000 refugees that had come from Pagak into the area, with their cattle and livestock looking for refuge.  It was not a good sight.  You saw all of these old and young people.  You saw them...in a really bad state because they had been walking for many, many days.  This is not the life for the people of South Sudan, with so many refugees, and so many IDPs.  And all the people you speak to say ‘I want to go home, I want to be able to take care of myself’.

This is a country where there is enormous resilience.  The way this war is being conducted is actually wearing people down.  It has to stop, and there has to be accountability.  That is the commitment we have, to try and make sure that we do everything in our best to enable that to happen.  Thank you.

Andrew Clapham, Member of the CHRSS:  Thanks you very much.  My name is Andrew Clapham.  I am a professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute.  I am very pleased to have been asked to join this Commission.  I am relatively new to the Commission.  Obviously, the statement reflects our joint opinion on this. 

Maybe a couple of details from the trip to Akobo.  We met with many internally displace people, IDPs.  Many of the stories are similar to ones you have just heard.  I do remember one woman explain to me in great detail how she had fled the fighting and she was heavily pregnant.  And as she was fleeing she gave birth on the road, which was obviously quite traumatic.  Luckily the boy did survive, and we met the boy.  Which brings me to a second point.  She was surrounded by this very child/infant, but there were several other children, and we asked about whether they were able to go to school.   The irony is that they had set up a sort of temporary camp around the primary school, but when we asked further questions it was clear that they could not send these children to school.  As my colleague said, we feel now that there may very well be a lost generation of children who have no hope of going to school in the near future and they are missing out on that.   

The second point, I suppose particular to that trip, is that we did visit the UN encampment which had been attacked on the 19th of December 2014, where I was shown the tent where a number of civilians were killed; there is a whole series of testimony to that.   Clearly, attacking civilians in that context is a war crime, as is the attack on the UN compound and the material itself, which would be a war crime which, as was explained, could be prosecuted in the Hybrid Court, or indeed in any court that would have jurisdiction over such a crime.  With that I’ll close and pass the chair back.

Yasmin Sooka:  Before I close and open up for questions.  I do think, and I did say initially that we really have to acknowledge really the significance of today, that it’s four years since the conflict began in South Sudan.  I think the one thing we can’t walk away from is that there have been people who were born into a conflict, and have lived in a conflict.  And really it is our obligation to ensure that more people don’t die in this particular conflict.  It is really significant when you think about the IGAD Revitalization Conflict that begins on Sunday, the 17th, because this, I think, is going to be, quite frankly, one of the opportunities to really end this conflict and to bring peace…I think the Director of OXFAM released a statement this morning…there is a huge responsibility on the parties who sit there to actually ensure that they come with a seriousness to the table.  Because the people who are suffering are the ordinary people on the ground.  Many of them say ‘we had such high hopes of liberation.  If you look at our plight now, we kind of wonder what this was all about’. 

Thank you.