The Commissionto use the opportunity created by the renewal of the peace agreement to ensure justice and accountability for the victims of the many crimes committed against its population.
While welcoming in its oral update before the Human Rights Council the "Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan" signed on 12 September, the Commission expressed doubts that the peace deal would endure as deadly fighting between opposing parties and attacks on United Nations peacekeepers had resumed less than 24 hours later.
South Sudanese civilians continue to live in complete insecurity as the violence is ongoing, arbitrary detention and torture at the hands of the National Security Service are on the rise, some 6 million people – around 60 per cent of the population -- live under "emergency" food insecurity and humanitarian assistance convoys are routinely attacked.
The many victims of the five-year conflict need justice if communities are to heal and rebuild the fabric of their society. The ongoing sexual violence against women and girls in South Sudan is pervasive and requires a sustained commitment to holding perpetrators accountable and addressing impunity.
"South Sudan is at war with its citizens and currently stands at the crossroads between hope and peace, on the one hand, and more missed opportunities, on the other hand," said the Commission's Chairperson Yasmin Sooka. "Sustainable peace requires justice and accountability for serious crimes"
The Commission in particular urged the African Union and the Government of South Sudan to agree on a timeline to fast-track the long-awaited Hybrid Court for South Sudan, the Commission on Truth, Healing and Reconciliation and the Compensation and Reparations Authority, all set out in Chapter V of the Peace Agreement to render justice and facilitate national reconciliation.
"Six months later, we are still waiting for this signature [by the President of South Sudan or his foreign Minister], which is required by the African Union to set up this court," stressed Ms. Sooka.
The Commission, which includes two other international human rights law experts Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako, was mandated by the Council to monitor and report on violations, establish their circumstances, identify perpetrators and collect and preserve evidence that could be used to try perpetrators of serious crime. It recently visited South Sudan to meet with senior government officials, UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), humanitarian workers, civil society, the religious communities, as well as internally displaced persons. It also visited refugee camps in Eastern Darfur in Sudan, Arua in Uganda and Kakuma in Kenya, to talk with refugees from South Sudan as well as representatives of the opposition parties. The Commission is due to submit its report to the Human Rights Council in March 2019.
Just hours after the revitalized peace agreement, government forces (SPLA) were alleged to have attacked Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) forces in Yei River State, South of Juba, resulting in the deaths of 17 members of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Moreover, two days ago, on 15 September,a SPLA soldier shot in the leg a UN peacekeeper in Yei about 1.4 km from a UNMISS base. Yei town experienced heavy shooting throughout the night, prompting the UNMISS to put it on security alert.
South Sudan is considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for humanitarian workers, with more than 13 aid workers killed this year alone. In April, 10 aid workers were abducted and a UN peacekeeper killed in an ambush targeting a humanitarian convoy. In Wau, between June and late August, access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance was denied "for security reasons", the Commission's Chair noted.
Gender-based sexual violence
Despite the stated commitment of the Government of South Sudan to address sexual violence, little has been done. According to a 2017 study by the Global Women's Institute and the International Rescue Committee more than 65 per cent of women and girls in South Sudan have reportedly experienced physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lives. Women in South Sudan have been treated by government soldiers and armed actors to the conflict including local militias as spoils of the conflict. They also experience sexual violence during inter-communal violence between rival ethnic groups clashing over land and cattle and live with the threat of sexual violence on a daily basis which is fuelled by the lack of accountability and justice for these crimes.
And yet the Commission noted that, under pressure by the international community, the Government of South Sudan could muster the political will to combat impunity, as evidenced by the recent judgment in the Terrain Case, in which a Military Tribunal handed down jail sentences to ten soldiers for murder, rape, sexual harassment, theft and armed robbery.
While the victims in the Terrain case have welcomed the verdict, they have expressed their disappointment that only the foot soldiers were prosecuted while those with command responsibility have gone unpunished.
The Commission recalled that UNMISS in 2017 investigated and documented that more than 217 South Sudanese women were gang raped by government security forces including at SPLA checkpoints in Juba in the same cycle of violence of July 2016. To date, none of the perpetrators have been held accountable and nor have any of these women received any compensation from the government.
"The plight and suffering of South Sudanese women and girls can no longer be ignored; they urgently deserve justice, compensation and medical and trauma support services. The Terrain trial verdict should not be the exception, but the rule in South Sudan from now on," declared Ms. Sooka.
The appalling living conditions have displaced 1.7 million people inside South Sudan. Another 2.5 million South Sudanese have fled the country, including more than 65,600 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border into neighbouring countries since the outbreak of South Sudan's civil war in 2013, according to UNCHR.
Amongst the refugee population are a number of unaccompanied minors -- 65,600 of them according to the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) -- who crossed the border into neighboring countries since the outbreak of South Sudan's civil war in 2013. These unaccompanied minors are vulnerable to child-soldier recruitment, sexual abuse and exploitation, child labour, drug abuse, criminality, and poverty. They experience intense anxiety and trauma due to separation; they do not know where their family members are, or whether they are alive or dead; in addition they are left to fend for themselves. UNHCR, UNICEF and the ICRC are doing incredible work in dealing with unaccompanied minors. UNHCR ought to have more resources to carry out their work, declared the Commission.
Given the acute levels of food insecurity in the country, the Government of South Sudan would be expected to do its utmost to facilitate unimpeded access to UNMISS and humanitarian organizations. Instead the authorities resort to constant bureaucratic stalling which denies access and more alarmingly. Targeted attacks against humanitarian convoys together with these obstructions make it almost impossible to deliver emergency relief.
Finally, the Commission deplored that the Government of South Sudan has not abolished the death penalty or put in place a moratorium on executions despite calls from civil society and the international community to do so, with three executions taking place in May alone this year. A further 40 death-row prisoners have been transferred from state and county prisons to Wau and Juba central prisons, which are the only prisons equipped with execution chambers. The Commission said it feared that the next few months could see many more executions among the 345 death-row prisoners detained across the country.