7 December 2018
Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the CHRSS: Thank you for being present today. We value the opportunity to be able to speak to the South Sudanese community, and the international community through your work. The Commission was set up by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and essentially our mandate is to determine the facts and circumstances of the violations which have taken place here, and related crimes, and also to collect and preserve evidence, with a view to dealing with impunity, and, of course, to assist the work of a future Hybrid Court, as well as the other mechanisms in Chapter 5 [of the Revitalized Peace Agreement]. The Commission presented a report to the Council in March, and also provided an oral update in September.
We have been very fortunate to have a team of investigators and researchers on the ground here in South Sudan; that has enabled us to be in touch with what is happening in the country. The way the Commission usually does these visits, we spend some time in Juba meeting with stakeholders, including the Government, a number of different institutions, and civil society. What we have also done is often visited different States in South Sudan, and usually we end by going to different refugee camps. Then finally we congregate in Addis where we are able to meet with the African Union, and relay to them questions people have had with regard to what the African Union is doing to promote accountability for South Sudan. As you know, they have the obligation to assist with setting up the Hybrid Court, to set up in Chapter 5 of the Agreement.
Yesterday, we met with Government officials, including the Cabinet Minister, the Minister of Defence, and the President of the Court Martial. We also met with members of the diplomatic corps here, the CTSAMVM [Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements] people and the National Dialogue people. This morning we had a meeting with civil society groups involved in the transitional justice working group. In terms of what we gathered from them, we really got the message that everybody is hopeful about the revitalized peace process. What everybody desperately wants is peace. There are people who talk about the fact that, and in the words of one civil society person, at this time they characterize the moment in the country as “no peace, no war”. At the same time they raise their fears that people are also continuing to forcibly recruit children, so that remains an abiding concern, how this peace can translate into real and durable peace.
In our discussions with the Government, the Commission is always wanting to raise the issues that concern them. We picked up on the question of the political detainees, and again we asked for a list of those people who had been released, and we also asked the Government to communicate around the two cases which have occupied people’s interest around why they have not been released. The Government also communicated to us that they also received from the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] a list of the 18 people who had been released by the IO [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In-Opposition; SPLM-IO], that is also of interest to the Commission.
We congratulated the Government on the Terrain Trial, but also indicated to the Government that victims had written to us expressing two concerns. The one concern was around whether commanders would ever be prosecuted as they see the ones to be convicted as really the foot soldiers. The second issue we raised with the Government is the question of the compensation. As I understand it, the defence lawyers have already filed an appeal against the judgement in relation to the question of compensation. What is important about the Terrain Trial is that it demonstrates that the Government does have the capacity, and if there is political will, it can do these kinds of prosecutions of sexual and gender-based violence [SGBV] quite successfully. But it is one thing to do it in respect of international aid workers, and it is another issue when one looks at the question of many of the South Sudanese women who themselves have also been victims of this kind of heinous crimes. In that respect, again we asked for the list that the Government had promised us of the 200 cases of SGBV which they said had been dealt with by the military tribunals. Again we said it was important we look at that.
We also welcomed the Government indicating that they know there have been many requests from gender-based organizations that the Chief Justice set up a special court to deal with much of the violence around sexual and gender-based violence. As we know, when these kinds of crimes take place, they really linked to the question of the low status that women and children hold in a society. From that perspective it’s absolutely critical that side-by-side, with looking at the question of accountability, we also look at legal reform, and policy reform on how to ensure that the rights of women, and the status of women, are actually improved. These were some of the questions we raised with the Government.
We also expressed our gratitude to the Government for allowing us into the country. This Commission is in a unique position in the sense that it has been able to access, not just South Sudan, we have also been able to access refugees in camps across the neighbouring countries. That is very different in the way in which many different commissions work. That is also a tribute to the Government’s expressed commitment to the joint resolution that it sponsored in the Human Rights Council, which not only set the Commission up, but which also expressed this important note around collaboration.
Many of the people that we met on our last trip, both in South Sudan and in the neighbouring refugee camps, have all expressed their desire for peace. A farmer that I met said to me: “What I really want to do is to be able to go home. I don’t want to depend on aid. I don’t want food handouts. I could actually, if I am allowed to go home, and if I could live with peace and security, I could actually grow my own food and become total self-dependent.” This is the goal we need to have in our minds. When we think about the revitalized peace process, that it is not only about political leaps, but it is something that has to filter down to people at the grass roots level. That is going to take a different focus on this question of reconciliation. If it is going to translate into sustainable peace, it has to be about reconciliation at a communal level where communities find ways to live with each other again without fear.
Many of the people raised with us their concerns around the amnesties which have been characteristic of many of the peace processes in South Sudan. Many of the individuals we spoke to said: “It is not for the State to forgive. This is something that has to happen between individuals. And it has to be after there has been a full disclosure around who, what and why. We need to know what we have to forgive before we are actually able to do that.” These are two important messages that the Commission took away with it.
As we celebrate the fact that South Sudan is really looking at setting up a new transitional government, we are quite saddened by the recent attacks that took place in Bentiu. Before the Commission expresses any particular view, and there have been a number of statements going around in terms of the horror of what has happened, the fact that again you have had women targeted in ways that are particularly gruesome, and for which one needs to find those who are responsible so that they can be held accountable, at the same time it is really important to begin to do the fact-finding so that when we speak about it we speak about it in ways which are authentic to the experiences of women; and we have to really be careful that in the rush to do the right thing we actually don’t do any harm. That is really going to be able to inform the way the Commission looks at this matter. We did raise this question with the Government, who also said it happened in the Government-controlled areas. At the same time, they spoke about the fact that they believe there are many criminal elements out there. They also undertook to put a team together to investigate the matter. What we were really pleased about is that the Government indicated that they would provide the Commission with those facts, they would corroborate the findings that they make with the Commission. We see that as a positive step in taking the matter forward.
We also raised with many people the horrible case of a child, a young bride, whose virginity was auctioned off in a very public way, with somebody who was much older and much richer being able to pay for the bride price. In the photographs that we saw on Facebook, what is very clear was the fact that the young woman looked very, very unhappy. This is certainly an issue that one has to address, both in terms of CEDAW [Convention on the Discrimination against Women], and the fact that this kind of practice also continues to demean the status of women. That is something we are also going to pay attention to in the work that we carry forward.
Much of the Commission’s work was focused on Chapter 5 of the [Revitalized] Peace Agreement. While Chapter 5 has not been tampered with by the revitalized peace process, what certainly is happening is that there are different time periods that are now going to come into force around the setting up of the structures. From that perspective, the Commission has raised with the Government, and it will do so again in its afternoon meeting with another Government minister, the question of how we preserve the integrity around much of the implementation steps that have been taken around Chapter 5 already. This is certainly an issue that we will be looking to address when we speak to the African Union, because one of the issues that has been raised with us, besides the question of the time period, is also the needs to have the perspectives of those groups who have been outside of the process and whose views now need to be taken into account.
Our concern is to ensure that we address impunity, that we are able to set up the Commission on Truth, Healing and Reconciliation speedily, as well as the Hybrid Court, and certainly to look at the beginnings of the reparations and compensations authority. To do that one also needs political willingness, national ownership, and a conducive environment within which to do that. These are questions we will pick up with the Government.
The Commission was also encouraged to hear of the joint monitoring missions that have been carried out in former conflict areas in the country by the Government and the SPLA-IO. This is really important in order to build bridges. Since we were here last, South Sudan ratified the two Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child [on children in armed conflict, and on the sale of children child prostitution and child pornography]. This is quite critical when one looks at the question on forcible recruitment. That is an issue the Commission will certainly be looking at.
The Commission also met with the team dealing with the national dialogue, the Chairperson of the Commission [Standing Committee], and the two Rapporteurs. We were greatly encouraged by the National Dialogue’s notion that this is a bottoms-up process, and that they want to convey an uncensored message to the Government of what emerged. They also conceded that there were some areas that they did not get to; they did not get the views of people who support the opposition, and this is something they are looking forward to.
As we leave here, my colleague Andrew [Clapham, Commission member] will be remaining with the team for a few more days. I will be going to Khartoum and to Darfur to visit refugee camps. My colleague Barney [Afako, Commission member] is going back to Uganda to the refugee camps to again meet with new refugees. This will help us to deepen the strength of our work.
On Monday, we are going to celebrate Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We would certainly like to celebrate and remember all of those human rights defenders and activists who continue to work for peace in South Sudan under incredibly difficult conditions. We also would like to support the work of victims and ensure that their voices are heard more powerfully. This is an issue that the Commission is going to give a lot of attention to in the next few months. How do we ensure that their voices are amplified and heard, so that they could be taken seriously in the processes going forward? Our eternal hope for South Sudan is peace so that people could return home and people could live with peace and security.
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More information about the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan
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