The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan notes with grave concern the recent escalation in violence in six of the ten states countrywide, as well as throughout the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.
Since June this year, the on-going hostilities in Central Equatoria, Jonglei, Lakes, Unity, Western Bahr el-Ghazal, and Warrap States have resulted in the killing and injury of hundreds of civilians, and the displacement of more than 80,000 others. In the brutality and destruction that has ensued, hundreds of women and children have also been abducted, with women and girls as young as 8 years raped and subjected to multiple forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
In Jonglei, Lakes, and Warrap States, the violence has been characterised by intercommunal strife and revenge killings. Many attacks also involve the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) and members of armed opposition groups, including in Central Equatoria. Most recently, on 8 August, at least 75 people were killed and another 76 were injured following bloody clashes between armed youth from the Dinka Luanyjang community and SSPDF Division X soldiers based in Tonj (Warrap).
Sexual and gender-based violence also continues to be a pervasive characteristic of the on-going attacks in South Sudan, including in the Equatorias. Brutal rapes including gang-rapes have been central to the violations committed by armed forces during cattle raids in Warrap and Lakes States.
“The levels of violence and suffering particularly against women, the elderly and children are deeply disturbing, and demonstrate an utter disregard for human life, making the revitalised peace agreement a mockery,” said Commission Chair Yasmin Sooka. “Violence perpetrated by self-defence community militias in Warrap, for example, has displaced hundreds of residents, mainly women and children, from border communities between Rualbet and Awul. They are starving with no access to food and have been forced to scavenge and eat leaves boiled in muddy rain water for their survival.
The violence has also led to heightened levels of severe acute malnutrition among infants and children in the affected population. This at a time when the vast majority of civilians, particularly the 1.6 million internally displaced persons, continue to remain at risk because of COVID-19, and have limited access to basic services. These callous and brutal attacks have the potential to completely unravel the peace agreement,” she added.
The Commission remained concerned that the parties to the conflict in South Sudan continue to disregard the call for an immediate global ceasefire made by the UN Secretary General António Guterres on 23 March 2020. Emblematic of the brutality of localised conflict has been the recent spate of organised clashes in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area beginning in February 2020, the Commission stated.
“Jonglei State continues to experience unprecedented levels of fighting. Raids in northern Jonglei and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area have involved armed Murle elements pitted against allied Dinka and Nuer ‘White Army’ militias,” noted Commission Chair Yasmin Sooka. “At least 2,800 houses in the Pieri area of Uror County in Jonglei have been destroyed by armed Murle youth reportedly wearing military uniforms. Many residents throughout the area have already suffered years of food insecurity and were severely hit by abnormally heavy rains and devastating floods late last year, including some of the worst ever recorded in South Sudan which affected at least 11 counties in Jonglei,” she added.
Notwithstanding the formation of the Revitalised Government on 22 February 2020, the Commission finds the response to these attacks by Government authorities to be woefully inadequate which President Salva Kiir Mayardit conceded in his 8 July address to the nation on the ninth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence, when he announced the launch of a full-scale disarmament campaign to end violence in the country, as well as an “inter and intra communal dialogue” for healing and reconciliation. President Kiir also recently appointed committees to disarm communities in Warrap and Lakes States, and established another two investigation committees to review incidents of violence in Jonglei and Warrap States.
While the Commission welcomes the President’s statement and efforts, it remains concerned at the complete lack of accountability for these incidents. In the absence of systematic investigations, there have been no prosecutions for these violations which have been exacerbated by the slow pace of disarmament, and the continued proliferation of both heavy and light weapons, despite the recently renewed UN arms embargo.
“Over the past 18 months, the Commission has continued to document and gather evidence on how the armed conflict in South Sudan has transformed into a series of localised conflicts, often presented simply as cattle-raiding,” noted Commissioner Andrew Clapham. “It is important to clarify, however, that these conflicts are increasingly politicized. They include instances where cattle keepers are organised in terms of a hierarchy and where they have been provided with light weapons and heavy artillery, including ammunition, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. Many such groups are therefore operating as organised militias under the command and control of the main parties to the conflict,” he continued.
COVID-19 has also had a severe impact on the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement. While 9 out of 10 state governors have been appointed, the slow pace of establishing functioning local governments has created a vacuum of state authority, which permits on-going inter and intracommunal violence, the Commission found.
“The Revitalised Government sadly has failed to adhere to the timelines set out for implementation of the peace agreement,” stated Commission Chair Yasmin Sooka. “There has been significant delay in establishing the reconstituted Transitional National Legislative Assembly, which has further delayed the prospect of passing the necessary legislation for the establishment of the Commission on Truth Healing and Reconciliation, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority. The increase in violations undoubtedly demonstrates that the absence of accountability continues to foster impunity,” she added.
The failure to observe the ceasefire and the incessant fighting further impede the ability of humanitarian actors to access areas affected by conflict and provide necessary relief to civilians in need, the Commission stated. Moreover, according to South Sudan’s Ministry of Health, some 78 frontline healthcare workers have tested positive for COVID-19, with one man having perished.
“About 56 per cent of South Sudan’s population does not have access to primary healthcare services,” noted Commission Barney Afako. “We also understand that conflict is leading to shortages of lifesaving drugs, including at health facilities in Warrap town. In this regard, on-going conflict and the departure of humanitarian staff due to COVID-19 are severely overburdening and stretching thin the ability of aid actors to reach vulnerable populations. In a country where approximately 6.5 million individuals remain food insecure, conflict is severely exacerbating the spiraling food prices and inflation due to COVID-19,” he added.
The recent violence in Jonglei and Lakes States has had a devastating effect on humanitarian aid workers as can be seen, for instance, when intense fighting erupted in and around Pieri town (Jonglei) on 16 May: three humanitarian staff were killed, further forcing aid organisations to suspend activities in two primary healthcare units in the towns of Gumuruk and Lekongole, which have been abandoned by residents fleeing the clashes. Similarly, on June 28, an attack against an ambulance left one aid worker dead in Cueibet County (Lakes State).
The absence of governance and the lack of a functioning criminal justice system at the community level has also encouraged incidents of murder perpetrated by unknown actors, killing dozens of civilians and which may be a direct consequence of the rampant insecurity countrywide, the Commission underscored.
“Delayed implementation of the revitalised peace agreement has engendered a leadership vacuum at both the State and sub-state levels, which has led to the tragic acceleration of armed violence that we are seeing across South Sudan,” said Commissioner Barney Afako. “We urge the Revitalized Government to fulfil the provisions of the revitalized peace agreement in order to fill this vacuum, and urge all parties including holdout groups to ceasefire,” he added.
The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan was established by the Human Rights Council in March 2016 and extended in March 2017 and for further years in March 2018, March 2019, and June 2020, with a mandate to determine and report the facts and circumstances of, collect and preserve evidence of, and clarify responsibility for alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes, including sexual and gender-based violence and ethnic violence, with a view to ending impunity and providing accountability.