(Nairobi) – Pope Francis’ visit to South Sudan on February 3-5, 2023, alongside Anglican and Presbyterian church leaders is an opportunity to call on South Sudan’s leadership to respect dissenting voices and address the country’s ongoing human rights crisis and widespread impunity, Human Rights Watch said today.
“The Church leaders should use their visit to emphasize that it is far past time for the country’s leaders to implement essential reforms and end the suffering of people in South Sudan,” said Mausi Segun Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They should also press South Sudan’s leaders to take concrete steps to end attacks on civilians and to ensure accountability for serious abuses.”
Civilians in various parts of the country continue to face violent attacks. Since mid-2022, clashes between armed opposition groups and government forces and allied armed groups in Upper Nile and parts of Jonglei state, where armed opposition groups are fighting for political and territorial control, have been accompanied by serious human rights abuses and the displacement of thousands of people. The United Nations recently warned that the Agwelek, as mobilizing and creating greater risk for civilians. Cycles of attacks and counter attacks between cattle herders and farmers in the greater Equatoria region has led to loss of lives and livelihoods, with little mitigation from national authorities. An attack by cattle keepers in Kajokeji on February 2, 2023, left at least 20 people dead including pregnant women and children and nearly 3,000 people displaced.
South Sudan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers. Armed attackers have killed at least three aid workers while on duty since the beginning of the year in separate incidents in the restive Jonglei and Abyei administrative area.
Impunity for serious crimes committed by various groups, including government and rebel forces, across South Sudan during the conflict and after the signing of the Revitalized Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) is the norm. The government has only prosecuted a handful of security force members for crimes against civilians.
The authorities have neither investigated nor held accountable officials and allied militias implicated in planning and carrying out attacks on civilians and civilian properties in territories under Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO) control in southern Unity State, between February and May 2022. The United Nations reported that as a result of that violence, at least 44,000 people were displaced, 173 unarmed civilians killed, 131 women raped, including gang rapes, and at least 12 people seriously injured.
South Sudanese authorities and the African Union Commission have also failed to move ahead with the creation of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan proposed in the 2015 peace deal and 2018 R-ARCSS to prosecute the most serious violations, or even to provide a clear timeline for the court’s establishment. The establishment of two other accountability mechanisms, the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing and a Compensation and Reparations Authority, is also pending.
Over the last year, civic space has significantly shrunk.
The authorities have harassed, arrested, and detained members of civil society, media and opposition parties using trumped up charges and malicious prosecutions to silence critics. This has resulted in the decline of space for debate and dissent, deterring political participation and resulting in self-censorship.
One journalist told Human Rights Watch: “There is so much we could say and report on the situation in South Sudan, but critical journalism is dangerous. You might be killed or disappeared, and your family threatened. We cover events but we don’t criticize. We just keep silent.”
The authorities have also violated due process and custodial safeguards of accused people. In early January 2023, the National Security Service (NSS) arrested six media workers with the state broadcaster, South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC) in relation to a leaked video showing President Salva Kiir urinating on himself. The six men were detained in the NSS headquarters at the Blue House, a detention facility notorious for torture and other abuses. They are: Joval Tombe, a SSBC control room director; Joseph Oliver, a senior camera operator; Mustafa Osman, a senior camera operator and technician; Victor Lado, an editor; Cherbek Ruben, a control room technician; and Jacob Benjamin, a camera operator.
On January 16, another staff member of the SSBC, Garang John, was reported missing, presumed to be forcibly disappeared. He is believed to be held at the NSS headquarters at Blue House, but authorities have not confirmed his detention or his whereabouts.
Last week, the authorities released three of the journalists: Tombe, Oliver, and Ruben. None of the men had been charged or allowed access to a lawyer or their families while in detention. The others, Osman, Lado, and Benjamin remain in NSS detention at risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Pope Francis and his fellow religious leaders should call for the immediate release of the detained media workers and for any charges against them to be dropped, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by the NSS and called for accountability for members of the service as well as limiting the agency’s powers of arrest, detention, and surveillance. NSS officials are rarely held to account for abuse of civilians. In December 2022, NSS officers arrested and beat an activist, Bol Deng Bol, in Jonglei state. None of the officers involved in the incident have been investigated or held to account.
A delegation of Human Rights Watch staff visited South Sudan between January 16-23, 2023, where they met with government officials, diplomats, human rights defenders, media workers, and members of opposition parties. Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to make a genuine commitment to end impunity for atrocities and to ensure full exercise of freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
“The climate of fear within which South Sudan’s civil society has operated for years is deeply distressing and unwarranted,” Segun said. “The Church leaders should make clear that opening up the space for critical dialogue and debate on issues of public interest will be key to a fairer and just future.”
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