UN experts say pervasive impunity exacerbates violence against civilians

By William Madouk

Impunity is a major driver of the human rights and humanitarian crises in South Sudan, which continue to cause immense trauma and suffering for civilians in the country, UN experts said in its latest report.

Commission members, Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako presented the report on Tuesday to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“Senior public officials and military officers should be held accountable for serious crimes, or we will never see an end to the gross human rights violations,” said Clapham.

“Attacks against civilians persist precisely because perpetrators are confident, they will enjoy impunity,” he added.

Based on investigations undertaken in South Sudan and the neighboring region throughout 2022, the report identifies widespread attacks against civilians, systematic sexual violence against women and girls, the ongoing presence of children in fighting forces, and State-sponsored extrajudicial killings.

The Commission’s findings describe multiple situations where State actors are the primary perpetrators of serious crimes under South Sudan’s laws, as well as under international law, Members of non-State armed groups are also identified as the perpetrators of violent crimes carried out in various areas of conflict.

Commissioner Clapham said they have documented human rights violations in the country for many years and continue to be shocked by the ongoing violence, including horrific sexual violence, targeting civilians, and perpetrated by the armed forces and different militias.

“Last month we again visited the country, where we met in Juba and Malakal with brave survivors who shared their experiences of trauma, loss, and hunger,” he said. “Faced with persistent cycles of violence and insecurity, many told us they are disillusioned and losing hope,” Clapham noted.

The Commission documented a devastating operation in Leer County, where government officials directed militias to carry out widespread killings, systematic rape, and forced displacement against civilians in an area under opposition control.

In Tonj North County, the Commission found that security forces launched a campaign of violence against civilians when the heads of the Government’s three main security organs deployed to the area.

The report also details extrajudicial killings in Mayom County, during a military operation overseen by senior government and military officials. Videos of the killings were shared widely on social media, causing outrage in a country that is not unfamiliar with brazen acts of brutal violence.

“It is hard to imagine peace while actors continue to be involved in gross human rights violations,” said Afako. “A true demonstration of the Government’s stated commitments to peace and human rights would involve dismissing the responsible officials and initiating prosecutions.”

The report raises alarm about the escalation of violence in Upper Nile State, where the UN’s protection of civilians site in Malakal has been overwhelmed by tens of thousands of new arrivals.

Survivors of attacks recounted moving from village to village, pursued by armed men engaged in killings, rapes, and destruction. In two separate events, civilians sheltering in makeshift displacement camps were attacked again, and vital humanitarian aid looted.

“No responsible institution took timely measures required to protect them, despite the risks of attacks being well known,” partly reads the statement.

The Commissioners told the Council that South Sudan can be different and that the 2018 Revitalized Peace Agreement remains the framework to address the conflict, repression, and corruption that cause immense suffering and undermine the prospects of peace.

“The challenge of advancing peace and human rights in South Sudan is very heavy, and international attention and support must not flag,” said Afako.

He touched the issue of delayed constitution-making and election planned in next 18 month, and urge government to provide civic space is need to allow activists, journalists and politicians operating under threat of death and detention.

 “We demand that the authorities immediately end the harassment of civil society, and protect political space,” Afako appealed.

Clapham said that although the government has announced special investigation committees on several situations examined by the Commission, only one such body appears to have carried out inquiries, no reports have been published, and no related criminal trials have taken place.

He added that the Commission continued to preserve evidence to enable future prosecutions and other accountability measures.

Additional recommendations to improve the human rights situation are included in the report presented yesterday to the Council. It will be accompanied by an additional paper later this month with further detailed findings.

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