Ahead of the UN Human Rights Council’s (“HRC” or “Council”) 52nd session (27 February-4 April 2023), we, the undersigned non-governmental organisations, write to urge your delegation to support a two-year extension of the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (hereafter “Commission” or “CHRSS”) in full.
The CHRSS is the only mechanism tasked with collecting and preserving evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law with a view to ensuring accountability and addressing human rights issues in South Sudan from a holistic perspective. Its work remains vital as the conditions that prompted the HRC to establish the Commission, in 2016, have not significantly changed to warrant less scrutiny. In fact, reports by the CHRSS and other independent actors do not indicate that the conditions on the ground have significantly improved, thereby underlining the importance of keeping the CHRSS and extending its mandate for at least two years.
Last year, parties to the 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) agreed to extend the country’s transitional period by 24 months. The transitional period is now due to end in February 2025.
This agreement, as well as the HRC’s consideration of an upcoming report by the CHRSS, occurs at a critical time, as violence and impunity remain pervasive in the country, uncertainty over the constitution-making and electoral process is high, and South Sudanese civil society faces intensifying repression. Through its public monitoring and reporting mandate, the CHRSS can also play a crucial role in preventing further atrocity crimes during this period.
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In 2022, the Council adopted two resolutions on South Sudan. The first one extended the mandate of the CHRSS, whereas the second focused on technical assistance and capacity-building. We stress that all elements of the CHRSS’s mandate should be preserved. A mandate renewal, as in HRC resolution 49/2, does not preclude, but rather enables, the provision of advisory services to South Sudan. A purely technical assistance and capacity-building focus would be unsuitable to tackle South Sudan’s continuing serious human rights issues, including ensuring perpetrators of conflict-related and other violations and abuses, including crimes under international law, are held to account. The South Sudanese authorities’ failure to address these is grounded in the government’s lack of political will, not solely a lack of capacity, and as such, is not adequately resolved by technical assistance and capacity-building.
Since the onset of the conflict in 2013, justice remains elusive for the victims and survivors. The continuation of the CHRSS’s mandate is the best means to safeguard prospects for future accountability, including through the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS), whose establishment continues to be paralysed at the time of writing.
The factors that prompted the Council to establish the CHRSS in 2016 have not changed. Until there is meaningful and genuine change, there is no reason for the Council to lift its scrutiny. The Council’s scrutiny, through the Commission’s mandate, should at the very least cover the entirety of the transitional period, after which an assessment should be made again whether the conditions that prompted the Commission’s establishment have sufficiently changed.
Progress on key human rights issues of concern has not been reported by the CHRSS, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), or other independent actors. If anything, 2022 witnessed an increase in violence and risk factors of further atrocities. In its update to the HRC, on 5 October 2022, the OHCHR stressed that it remained concerned by the “continued high levels of localised violence and the increase of conflict-related sexual violence.” The CHRSS warned that the international community needs to “urgently […] pay more attention to the escalating violence proliferating at a local level all over South Sudan,” including sexual violence and the use of rape and gang rape as a weapon of war.5 The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) also expressed the grave concerns it shares with its UN partners about “escalating violence,” especially in the Greater Pibor area.
African human rights bodies and mechanisms, such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), have also expressed their concern. In a resolution adopted at its last session, in November 2022, the ACHPR deplored the “continuing human rights violations and abuses suffered by the people of South Sudan, including the deliberate targeting of and retaliatory attacks against civilians, particularly women and children, including sexual and conflict-related sexual violence, gang rape, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, deliberate starvation, recruitment and use of child soldiers, abductions, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions,” as well as “violations of economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to food, education, and health.” The ACHPR also expressed alarm at “obstacles to humanitarian aid […], reported intimidation and harassment of and attacks against humanitarian workers, including killings, and extrajudicial executions of prisoners” and its deep concern over “the shrinking of the civic and political space, exemplified by the reported arbitrary arrests and detention of protesters.”
All trends and patterns outlined in a civil society letter released one year ago have worsened. Our organisations continue to monitor the situation and note the lack of structural improvements with the utmost concern. Ongoing violations and abuses include extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, violations of international humanitarian law that may amount to crimes under international law, politically instigated and supported violence between community-based militias and vigilante groups, repression against peaceful protesters, and harassment of civil society actors, in a climate of widespread impunity. Nationally instigated localised conflicts and intercommunal violence are pervasive in Tonj and other parts of Warrap State, Magwi, Nimule and Kapoeta in Eastern Equatoria State, as well as in Greater Upper Nile State, and parts of greater Jonglei and Unity State.
Human rights defenders (HRDs), civil society organisations, journalists, and others face undue restrictions to their rights to freedoms of opinion and expression both online and offline, peaceful assembly and association. Independent actors face harassment, intimidation, surveillance, threats, attacks, and arbitrary arrests and detentions, including incommunicado detention.
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Parties to the R-ARCSS committed to ensuring justice for crimes under international law and human rights violations and abuses. The African Union (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) supported this approach. Yet four and a half years after the signature of the R-ARCSS and over seven years after the signature of the initial peace agreement, none of the mechanisms provided for by Chapter V of the agreement, namely the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing (CTRH), the Compensation and Reparation Authority (CRA), and the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS), have been established.
In its latest resolution on the country, the ACHPR highlighted that “while the transitional justice mechanisms envisioned by Chapter V of the [R-ARCSS] […] are yet to be established, there is a need for continued monitoring of and reporting on human rights violations.” As the ACHPR stressed, the extension of the transitional period should be used to “open the political space, adopt an election law, establish an inclusive electoral system, and advance the permanent constitution-making process.” All these issues are intertwined with human rights issues and reinforce the need for ongoing human rights scrutiny.
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This is not the time to relax the Council’s scrutiny. The mandate of the CHRSS remains critical and should continue until the reasons that led the Council to establish this mechanism have been addressed in a meaningful manner. The CHRSS should remain in place at least for the national elections (scheduled for December 2024) to be held and the end of the transitional period, in February 2025.
We urge the Council to continue its meaningful action on South Sudan by extending the CHRSS’s mandate in full for a period of two years to enable it to comprehensively report on the election and transition process. The Council should request the CHRSS:
We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues and stand ready to provide your delegation with further information as required.