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The human rights situation in the first three months of 2014 continues to be dominated by the effects of the conflict that broke out on 15 December 2013, and remains of serious concern.
There have been numerous credible reports of serious and widespread human rights violations, particularly in the states most directly impacted by the conflict. On 21 February, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) issued an interim human rights report which alleged the following: deliberate targeting of civilians; mass and extrajudicial killings; arbitrary detention; enforced disappearances; sexual violence, including rape and gang rape; recruitment of child soldiers; and ill treatment and torture by forces from all parties to the conflict. A full final UN report will be released in April. The government of South Sudan did not make a formal comment on the interim report, but has said that it will respond to the final report once released. Recent reporting from Médecins Sans Frontières and Human Rights Watch have reinforced these reports, and underlined that the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. Fighting continues in several areas of the country, in breach of the Cessation of Hostilities agreement signed on 23 January. Weak command and control structures within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (government forces) and opposition forces are likely to have contributed significantly to the scale and breadth of atrocities.
An African Union (AU) Commission of Inquiry was announced by the AU’s Peace and Security Council on 31 December 2013. The Commission was formally launched on 7 March 2014 with former Nigerian President Obasanjo as Chair. The terms of reference include a mandate to collect human rights information and report, with a view to holding those responsible for wrongdoing to account. We understand that the Commission intends to undertake an initial visit to Juba in early April.
The South Sudanese government has publicly acknowledged that human rights violations have taken place. A government committee to investigate events in Juba in December 2013 has been established but, as yet, no official report of its findings has been released. The government maintains that most violations have been committed by opposition forces, and that a small number of violations committed by government security forces were the responsibility of rogue elements, who are now being held to account. The UK continues to press the government of South Sudan publicly to condemn human rights violations, cooperate with UN and AU investigations, and take tangible action to bring perpetrators on both sides to account.
The South Sudan Human Rights Commission released an interim report on 15 March 2014, which noted the wide scale and unacceptable violations of the right to life and the disruption of the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of civilians, as well as the disruption of social services provision. The report calls for a full enquiry into violations, with a view to identifying the perpetrators and holding them accountable. A full annual report will be presented to parliament in April 2014.
Widespread displacement of civilians continues. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that over 708,000 people had been displaced by the end of March 2014. Over 68,000 of these individuals continue to seek refuge in various UN compounds around the country. 249,000 people were seeking refuge across international borders.
Meanwhile, seven of the eleven political dissenters detained in December without charge by the government of South Sudan have now been released on bail into Kenyan custody. The trial of the remaining four began on 11 March 2014. The UK is following proceedings closely, and has made clear that, to be credible, the trial must be open, impartial and follow all due legal process.
Restrictions on freedom of expression have continued throughout the conflict. Harassment, intimidation and detention of journalists and human rights defenders have increased in frequency. The Union of Journalists of South Sudan reports that numerous such incidents took place in the first two months of the year. Journalists report increasing constraints on their independence, including seizure of publications and restrictions on coverage of opposition leaders. In March, Information Minister Michael Makeui stated that journalists who interviewed opposition figures risked possible arrest or expulsion from the country. Self-censorship by journalists and media houses is now understood to be widespread. The future of the Media Bill, passed by parliament before Christmas, but not yet signed by the President, is unclear.
The UK continues to emphasise the importance of a comprehensive and independent human rights investigation, resulting in those responsible for violations being held to account. The UK helped to secure a strong Presidential Statement at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, reiterating the need for swift action by the AU Commission. We continue to demand freedom of movement for UNMISS to undertake its protection of civilians mandate and human rights investigations.
This publication is part of the 2013 Human Rights and Democracy Report.