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UN human rights experts call for perpetrators of widespread human rights violations to be brought to justice in South Sudan

Four years following the start of the current conflict in South Sudan, gross human rights violations continue to be committed in a widespread way by all parties to the conflict, in which civilians are bearing the brunt, says the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan* at the conclusion of a 12-day visit to the region

“The Commission welcomes yesterday's announcement made at the High Level Revitalization Forum of the Inter-Governmental Authority (IGAD) of a cessation of hostilities agreement yet remains gravely concerned over the lack of accountability for serious crimes which is fuelling impunity throughout the country,” stated Commission Chairperson Yasmin Sooka. “Those responsible for this war against civilians must be stopped with the perpetrators of these horrific acts brought to justice,” she added. 

Over the course of the Commission’s visit to South Sudan, eastern Ethiopia and northern Uganda (11-22 December) Ms. Sooka and fellow Commissioner Andrew Clapham met with numerous victims of the conflict who shared harrowing accounts of indiscriminate attacks, revenge killings, torture, abduction of women and children, forced displacement, looting and burning of homes and crops, starvation, rape and other forms of sexual violence. In a country where food insecurity is acute, crops are destroyed leaving villages starving.

“We are deeply disturbed by what we witnessed and heard throughout our visit. The deprivation and range of sexual violence are hard to describe, people are targeted and suffering just for being who they are. The atrocities and violations are no longer just confined to a few parts of South Sudan; they are happening all across South Sudan,” Professor Clapham stated.

While in South Sudan the Commissioners travelled to Wau, Bor and Akobo and visited Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites in Juba and Wau where individuals and families have sought protection from the violence and are provided the essentials of daily life by non-governmental organizations and humanitarian agencies. The Commissioners met with camp leaders, elders, and women’s and youth representatives.

In Wau the Commission met with an 89 nine-year-old widow who described how her husband and two sons were shot in front of her and how she too begged for her life. Several witnesses and victims described how they were forced to flee their villages as they watched their homes burned and family and friends killed before their eyes. A 60-year old woman told the Commission how she was gang raped by several soldiers and left for dead.

Many of the women the Commission met spoke of how they were sexually abused when their homes were attacked, often when they were collecting firewood. The Commission also heard of young men who were gang raped, often in front of family members. The Commission was also told that young men have been forced to rape relatives in front of family members. “Those perpetrating these crimes seem to be intent on breaking all social norms resulting in societies being torn apart,” Ms. Sooka stated.

In Akobo, the Commission met with a number of internally displaced people who explained in great detail how they fled recent fighting in the Jonglei region and their trek of some 160 kilometers to the border town with Ethiopia, where they were now struggling to survive by eating leaves from trees and where their children were not able to attend school as they had no money for the fees.

"As another Human Rights Day passes and the world’s focus shifts to other matters people here feel forgotten and are really suffering horrific violations of their rights.  The scarcity of food in many parts of the country is worrying, while incidents of rape and killing continue. The situation is really tragic,” stated Professor Clapham. 

Equally disturbing testimonies were shared with the Commissioners during their visits with refugees in Gambella, Ethiopia and northern Uganda.  Those the Commission met with included several visibly traumatized unaccompanied minors who described the horrors and overwhelming sense of insecurity that forced them to flee the world’s newest nation state. 

“I saw of lot of killing. I felt very unsafe. I came here to escape the violence and seek a better way of life,” recalled a 17-year boy who had just arrived at the Elegu collection point on the South Sudan-Uganda border who lost both his parents to the conflict. Another recently arrived refugee in Gambella refugee camp in Ethiopia stated: "I love to go back to South Sudan because it is my home country but I chose to stay here because I still want to live. There, it is either I would die of war or of starvation." 

Refugees told the Commission that nearly everyone in South Sudan has a weapon which is now used to settle disputes resulting in the level of killings rising. A young man in the Palabek refugee camp in northern Uganda, where some 40,000 South Sudanese refugees have now settled having fled the fighting in the Pajok region in April this year, equated the vast presence of arms to a “silent killing”.

“Civilians in South Sudan have become a football between the warring parties causing them to flee.  They have lost everything.  All they want is to be able to send their children to school, tend to their crops, feed themselves and live in peace,” Ms. Sooka declared. 

The Commission met with humanitarians who spoke of the heightened insecurity around their work including the restrictions on access to several parts of the country obstructing humanitarian aid to those who need it most. Attacks and abductions of aid workers continue. While in Juba, the Commission sat in on the Terrain Hotel trial hearing the case concerning the rape of foreign aid workers and killing of a South Sudanese journalist in July 2016.  

The Commissioners held meetings with various Government officials, United Nations staff, members of the diplomatic community, members of the National Dialogue for South Sudan, and the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee(JMEC), responsible for monitoring and overseeing the implementation of the August 2015 Peace Agreement

The Commission’s visit overlapped with the IGAD-led peace talks in Addis Ababa aimed to reach a solution to the conflict which began on 15 December 2013. 

"Our Commission calls for the parties to respect the agreement on the cessation of hostilities, protection of civilians and humanitarian access and work towards building sustainable peace," Sooka stated. “Sustainable peace is linked to ensuring that the provisions of Chapter Five of the Peace Agreement are implemented. The Hybrid Court and the Commission on Truth, Healing and Reconciliation must be established without further delay. Justice delayed is justice denied,” she added.

“Even if peace does come, there will need to be a lot of reconciliation,” stated a young man from Juba, now in Kiriyandongo refugee camp in Uganda. “We are desperate for peace. Please advocate for our peace and our human rights,” he added.

The Commission is due to report to the Human Rights Council with its detailed findings in March next year. 

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).