Human Rights and Democracy Report 2014: South Sudan - in-year update December 2015

Published 21 April 2016

The human rights situation in South Sudan remains dire. We are deeply concerned by continued serious violations. Whilst there was a decrease in the intensity of fighting following the signing of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) in August 2015, a wide range of abuses continue to be reported. In addition, the African Union Commission of Inquiry Report judges that war crimes and crimes against humanity may have been committed during earlier phases of the conflict. Political expression continues to be severely curtailed and the media and civil society report an atmosphere of intimidation.

With the support of the wider international community, including the UK, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD – the regional body mediating the peace process) secured the South Sudanese parties’ signatures on a peace agreement in August. The agreement has so far held, but implementation has been slow. Breaches of the ceasefire continued during the reporting period.

Attacks against civilians continue, and there was a significant increase in violence and abuses in the southern part of Unity State. According to the UN, during a three-week period in October, up to 57 children were killed while fleeing attacks in Leer County. It was also reported that pro-government militia detained 67 civilians and locked them up in an unventilated container in Leer town, where 40 of them died of suffocation. Those that were still alive were reportedly beaten to death. Credible reports indicate the use of government attack helicopters and of civilians being forcibly displaced from their villages. Widespread burning of villages, food, and other items were also reported.

The humanitarian situation remains severe. The number displaced by the conflict had risen to 2.3 million by the end of the reporting period and aid workers continued to report severe difficulties in gaining access to many affected areas. Humanitarian workers are also at risk. Since the hostilities began thirty have been killed, including an aid worker in Juba in September.

A number of important reports were published during the period. The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council’s Commission of Inquiry (AUCOI) report on South Sudan detailed widespread abuses including dismemberment, rape, forced cannibalism, the targeting of civilians, widespread sexual violence and the recruitment of child soldiers. According to the report, these amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Other credible NGO reports highlighted that women and girls continued to be targeted by fighters and were exposed to rape, abduction, beatings and forced labor.

The UK continued to prioritise work on the Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) and press the government of South Sudan to deliver on its commitment to end sexual violence in conflict. Despite the government committing to a joint UN communiqué in 2014, little action has been taken to date. There is also a general lack of awareness of the issue at grassroots level. The UK is currently providing targeted support that aims to establish women’s peace support teams in Lakes State, and to build the capacity of civil society.

The forced recruitment of child soldiers remains prevalent. Credible reports point to opposition commander Johnson Olony carrying out forcible recruitment of an estimated 500-1,000 children during 2015. The UN reported seeing approximately 150 armed children between the ages of 14-17 among some 300 government soldiers at Bor Airport in July.

Civil and political space remains severely restricted, with media outlets and human rights defenders (HRDs) reporting continued intimidation before, during, and after the signing of the peace agreement. There have been reports of arrests, beatings and assaults on journalists as well as the closure of “The Citizen” and “Al Ray” newspapers on 3 August. On 20 August, journalist Peter Julius Moi was shot dead in Juba by unknown attackers. South Sudan has dropped six places to be ranked 125th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index for 2015. Meanwhile, a bill to regulate NGO activity by limiting the number of foreign staff to 5%, and the acquiring of a certificate of registration, is still being considered by the government. We continue to raise issues of political freedom with the government of South Sudan, and also to provide targeted financial support to HRDs.

Continued monitoring and reporting of human rights remains essential. As reported in our previous update, at the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in June, the UK helped to secure a strong resolution which mandated the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to make a comprehensive assessment of the situation in South Sudan. This OHCHR mission was deployed in October 2015.

Both parties to the conflict have failed to deliver on their public commitments to hold perpetrators of human rights abuses and violations to account. The government is yet to report on atrocities committed so far, despite commitments it has made in its own human rights strategy. The peace agreement provides for the establishment of an AU-led Hybrid Court for South Sudan, as well as a Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing. The UK will continue to press for these justice mechanisms to be established as soon as possible to ensure the perpetrators of abuses are held to account.