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PRESSURE mounts over NSS Bill

By Philip Buda Ladu

 

United Nations Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has urged President Salva Kiir Mayardit not to sign the National Security Service (NSS) Act, 2014 Amendment Bill 2024 and return it to the parliament for revision.

The National Security Service (NSS) Act (Amendment Bill 2024) was passed by legislators last week in a two-third majority vote, following a heated debate on sections 54 and 55 that grant the NSS powers to arrest without warrant.

In a statement extended to No.1 Citizen Daily Newspaper on Wednesday, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan condemned the passing of the bill by lawmakers.

The rights body echoed that the amendment bill when assented into law by the president will entrench arbitrary detention and further repression by the National Security Service.

They urged the President to return the bill to legislators to align it with South Sudan’s human rights obligations.

“If accepted by the President, these amendments to the National Security Service Act would signal that rights violations by this powerful institution are endorsed not just by the rest of government, but legislators as well,” said Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the Commission.

“The Bill should be returned to legislators to work on amendments that align with the government’s commitment to scrap this institution’s arrest powers, which are systematically abused and unlawful,” she added.

The Commission previously reported in detail on human rights violations committed by the NSS, including the illegal practice of prolonged and arbitrary detentions without judicial oversight or accountability.

It noted that victims have been tortured, with many having allegedly died in detention.

According to UN, rights violations have included extraordinary renditions of South Sudanese civil society members and political opponents from neighbouring countries, into National Security Service detention.

Over the past week, civil society leaders critical of government policies have reportedly been pursued and threatened with detention or worse.

Barney Afako, one of the Commissioner for the Human Rights Commission on South Sudan said these security amendments bill was intended to open up civic space.

However, he underlined that in their present form, their effect is the opposite.

“As South Sudan prepares for its first elections since independence, the citizenry must be able to exercise their civil and political rights without fear of retribution,” Commissioner Afako emphasized.

Section 54 of the 2014 National Security Service Act empowers officers to arrest and detain, without a warrant, any person suspected of committing an offence against the State.

These offences are very broadly and loosely defined in section 7 of the Act, resulting in many people being arrested and detained for legitimate civic and political activities.

Although according to law any detainee must be brought before a judge within 24 hours, this rarely happens.

Section 55 of the Act empowers officers to arrest after obtaining a warrant, but this provision is rarely used.

Commissioner Carlos Castresana Fernández pointed out the “Courts” lack independence, and are chronically under-resourced, and thus unable to protect citizens against arbitrary detentions.

He added that to ensure the legislation complies with human rights law and constitutional protections, the Government must invest in a credible functioning judiciary.

“In a democratic society, intelligence services should not and do not have powers of arrest and detention. The unchecked powers of the National Security Service are yet another manifestation of the lack of rule of law and any judicial oversight,” Carlos stressed.

On 5 February 2024, South Sudan acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes protection from arbitrary arrest and detentions, and requires that anyone arrested or detained be brought promptly before a judge.

The process of amending the 2014 National Security Service Act has been underway for over six years, with progress stalling due to disagreements about the arrest and detention powers of NSS officers.

On 21 February 2023, media reports quoted the Minister of Cabinet Affairs announcing that the President and First Vice President had agreed to remove all NSS powers of arrest.

Government documents reviewed by the Commission show that on 24 March 2023, the Council of Ministers also resolved to abolish NSS arrest powers.

However, these positions were not reflected in the Amendment Bill sent to the Transitional National Legislative Assembly on 28 April 2023. And on 3 July 2024, during a heated session, a two-thirds majority of legislators passed the Bill, which retains the NSS powers to arrest and detain.

Nonetheless, the rights experts insist President Kiir can return the Bill to legislators for revision, within 30 days.

They further hinted that it is imperative that Kiir return the bill, to ensure that South Sudan meets its human rights obligations to prevent further arbitrary arrests and detentions, to avoid further abuses, and to enable accountability regarding the NSS.

 

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