United Nations human rights office, OHCHR, is pressing for military and political officials in South Sudan supporting community-based militias in the Greater Jonglei region, to be held accountable for violence that killed more than 700 people over a six-month period last year.
Previously, there has been a report of undue restrictions on freedom of expression having a “chilling effect” and “further shrinking the space for debate and dissent” in war-torn African country.
In a joint report by the UN Mission in the country (UNMISS) and the Organisation’s human rights wing, the also warned that incitement to hatred continues to cause mistrust, fear and violence as well as of a growing climate of self-censorship in the world’s youngest country.
“South Sudan’s people have been denied the right to life, the right to justice, and, as this report details, the right to freedom of opinion and expression – rights that are not luxuries but are essential to bring about peace and development”, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in a news release announcing the findings in 2018.
Across South Sudan, five years of ongoing conflict has uprooted more than four million people but peace efforts are under way both internationally and at grassroots level to end violence.
“It is vital that the voices of all the people of South Sudan are heard so that genuine, inclusive and durable peace can be achieved,” said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of UNMISS, David Shearer.
“All parties to the conflict must respect people’s right to freedom of expression regardless of their ethnicity, beliefs or political views,” he stressed.
The report identifies 60 verified incidents – including killing, arbitrary arrest and detention, closure, suspension or censorship of newspapers, and blocking of websites – in the period from July 2016 to December 2017.
It also found that Government security forces, including the National Security Service, Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and the South Sudan National Police Service, were responsible for two-thirds of the verified cases of human rights violations.
However, many victims said they had not lodged formal complaints because of fear of reprisals by influential people and a lack of trust in institutions including law enforcement and the judiciary, notes the report.
To address the situation, the report urges amendment to legislation to decriminalize defamation and ensure that powers given to security forces do not infringe on the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression.
It also calls on all armed forces to guarantee the protection of journalists, civil society, and human rights defenders and respect their right to monitor and report on the armed conflict; as well as urges the Government to ensure that violations of the right to freedom of expression are promptly investigated and prosecuted.
In the news release, OHCHR also noted that the violations contained in the report include only those within the Government-controlled territory and not those in the opposition-held areas due to insecurity and access restrictions.
Now, between January and June 2020, organized and heavily-armed militias from the Dinka, Nuer and Muerle communities, carried out planned and coordinated attacks on villages across Jonglei and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area (GPAA), according to a joint report issued on Monday by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and OHCHR.
“Six months after the last devastating attack in Greater Jonglei, it must be made clear that those key figures at both local and national levels, who deliberately fuelled and exploited localized tensions, will be held accountable”, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
“The risk that these community-based militias will reignite armed violence is too grave to ignore. It is of paramount importance that the government takes effective steps to ensure that members of the security forces are prevented from supplying weapons from government stocks to these militias,” she added.
The report underlines that the South Sudanese Government needs to take full responsibility for the harm inflicted on civilians.
Killings, abductions, rape
More than 738 people were killed, and 320 wounded, during the reporting period, while at least 686 women and children were abducted, and 39 women were raped.
The violence also displaced tens of thousands of people. Civilian property and humanitarian facilities were looted or destroyed, and at least 86,000 cattle, worth over $35 million, were stolen.
Although grassroots efforts to reconcile the affected communities have been underway for months, the authorities have not taken meaningful action to investigate and prosecute those responsible, the authors said.
The report found at least 50 traditional chiefs and spiritual leaders, as well as military and political elites, supported the attacks, whether directly or indirectly. Members of government and opposition forces actively participated in the fighting, according to their kinship, or as part of a calculated move to reinforce political alliances.
UNMISS peacekeepers were deployed to affected areas when the violence erupted, establishing temporary bases and conducting regular patrols in efforts to deter further attacks.
The UN Mission engaged with political and traditional leaders, both at the national and local level, to promote reconciliation and to support efforts to release the hundreds of women and children who were abducted.
The report calls for the government to finalize the appointment of local administrators and assemblies throughout Jonglei and the GPAA. The authorities are also urged to investigate all allegations of human rights abuses and to prosecute the perpetrators, and to ensure state-owned weapons are securely stored to prevent theft or supply to community-based militias.
The authors also called for immediate action to facilitate the release and reunification of abducted women and children with their families.