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South Sudan: serious risk of massive, ethnically targeted violence, warns High Commissioner Zeid


​Statement by the High Commissioner at the Human Rights Council Special Session on South Sudan

Mr President,
Madam Chair of the Commission,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

I welcome the convening of this Special Session, which honours the Council’s commitment to addressing the most critical human rights situations.

The people of South Sudan have by now endured three full years of wanton conflict. Killings, sexual violence, ill-treatment, abductions, forcible recruitment and the looting and destruction of homes and villages are taking place on a massive scale across many parts of the country. Over 2 million people have been forced to leave their lands and homes. More than one million have fled to neighbouring countries, while within the country, over 200,000 are sheltering from the belligerents in “protection of civilians” bases adjacent to UN compounds.

South Sudan’s economy has been ravaged. Some 4.8 million people, stripped of resources, face the very real spectre of severe food insecurity and famine. Infrastructure, healthcare and education systems are in advanced stages of collapse. The work of humanitarian agencies has been repeatedly impeded by both government and armed opposition forces, including violent attacks, abductions, denials of access and demands for illicit payments. More than 65 humanitarian staff have been killed since the outbreak of conflict in 2013. The appalling attack on humanitarian staff in July demonstrated the acute challenges of this security context, and led a number of humanitarian personnel to leave the country.

The levels of sexual violence related to this conflict are shocking. According to a survey by UNFPA last June, 70% of women at one protection of civilians site in Juba reported having suffered sexual assault. Gang rape on such a scale is not the act of a few "rogue elements," as the authorities frequently imply. All armed actors in the country appear to be responsible, and I urge close examination by relevant mechanisms of issues of command responsibility within both Government forces and the SPLA. Cases of sexual slavery have been reported, as well as the sexual assault of children. In many cases this sexual violence has appeared to be targeted at members of particular ethnic groups, or on the basis of perceived political affiliation.

Other human rights violations are widespread, including arbitrary arrests, abduction, prolonged and arbitrary detention, forced displacement of civilians and infringement of the rights to freedom of movement, expression and opinion. I am deeply concerned by multiple allegations that human rights defenders, journalists and civil society actors have been targeted by the security services because of their work, including reports of reprisals against people who engaged with members of the Security Council during their visit to South Sudan in September.

In recent months, many leaders from across the political spectrum have intensified calls to ethnic animosity, and repeated surges of violence have set off waves of revenge and counter-revenge across an increasingly broad swathe of territory. For example, following an attack on SPLA soldiers on 12 July in Yei, in Equatoria province, the SPLA launched a series of revenge attacks against civilians in the surrounding zone. Credible reports suggest a number of atrocities against civilians in Yei can be attributed to armed militia formed by mainly Dinka youth, and may have been ethnically targeted.

With the beginning of the dry season, South Sudan teeters on the brink of a disaster. Weather conditions mean unidentified armed groups, militia and bandits can roam more swiftly across the landscape and there is high potential for clashes between Government forces and armed group fighters on multiple fronts. Many South Sudanese have lost faith in the peace process, which has been stalled following a number of breakdowns. Reports from the field indicate increasingly intense arming, recruitment and training of military forces by both main parties to the ongoing armed conflict across a steadily growing number of zones. Many fear conditions are in place for the conflict to take on a stronger ethnic dimension and escalate into massive and generalised violence.

At the same time, we have recently noted that when some local leaders have intervened to halt hate speech, this has led to decreasing threats of violence. In other words, there may still be some space for consequential action to pull the country back from a worst-case scenario – and this Council has the opportunity for real impact.

Mr President,

I urge the Council to use all possible means within its remit to discourage violence and push for peaceful dialogue in South Sudan. The highest priority must urgently be given to protection for those most at risk from killings, sexual violence and other serious human rights violations. And it is time for all national and regional actors to advocate decisively for a political process that is both inclusive and implemented on the ground. I encourage this Council to call on IGAD, the African Union and other key actors to bring all possible influence to bear on the parties.

I also urge you to call on South Sudan’s leaders to refrain from incitement to violence and ethnic hatred. I encourage UNMISS to continue to monitor hate speech, acts of violence and other indicators of potential mass atrocities. This will allow various actors, including this Council, to take appropriate action to expose those responsible and advocate for their accountability.

The knowledge that accountability structures exist and will be deployed against the perpetrators of mass atrocities can have real preventive impact. I urge the African Union to quickly establish the hybrid court envisaged under the Peace Agreement ,with a strong focus on command responsibility for atrocities, including conflict related sexual violence and ethnically based violence. Alongside all UN partners, my Office stands ready to support the establishment of the hybrid court by assisting it to comply with international human rights standards.

In closing, permit me to emphasise my appreciation for the work of my staff and others who continue to monitor the human rights situation in South Sudan, and provide humanitarian assistance to large numbers of people in highly challenging circumstances. I deplore the restrictions imposed on their work by security considerations as well as by government authorities, and I condemn the increasing threats of reprisals against witnesses, victims and sources who contact my Office, and other actors, for help.

Thank you

14 December 2016

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