If the Government of South Sudan is serious about tackling sexual violence it should immediately remove from office and investigate Governors and County Commissioners credibly alleged to be complicit in systematic rape, said UN experts attending the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) conference in London.
A delegation from the Government of South Sudan is also attending the conference.
“Nowhere in the world do you find so many women who experience conflict by being repeatedly gang raped, year after year since 2013, shunned and stigmatised, suffering in silence, while the men responsible are promoted and rewarded,” said the Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Yasmin Sooka.
“It is meaningless for the Government to come up with an array of declarations, national commitments, pledges and plans if no action is taken against those in high office who are responsible for the repeated violence against women and girls.
It is not enough, now and again, to try a handful of junior officers without holding those in command responsible.”
South Sudan has made repeated commitments to tackle sexual violence.
In 2014, President Salva Kiir signed a joint communiqué with the United Nations agreeing to be a champion in the fight against conflict-related sexual violence in South Sudan; in 2015 the opposition SPLM/A-IO announced its Action Plan to tackle sexual violence and a further Implementation Plan; in 2019 the army unveiled an Action Plan to tackle sexual violence; and in 2020 South Sudan started a Gender Based Violence Court in the capital Juba. Nevertheless, being gang raped is still one of the main ways in which women and girls experience the ongoing conflicts, with the vast majority of cases unreported because of fear of rejection by families and communities.
“This year we have seen the most dehumanising sexual violence in South Sudan for which the Government bears responsibility because of its failure over many years to hold individuals accountable, especially in Unity State where we are dealing with gross and systematic human rights violations amounting to international crimes,” said Commissioner Andrew Clapham.
“South Sudanese are begging the international community to help them in pressuring their leaders to sanction these individuals and remove the people responsible from office.
Tragically victims ask us to speak out and say what they are afraid to say.”
The UN Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that earlier this year a government-appointed County Commissioner in the oil-rich Unity State was present overseeing systematic gang rapes at a cantonment site.
This was part of a well-planned scorched earth offensive against civilians in an area considered loyal to the opposition, that involved beheadings, with rape victims being forced to carry the severed heads, victims being burnt alive, and days of brutal sexual assault by up to ten men at a time against young women and girls some as young as 9 years old.
Multiple eyewitnesses testified that the County Commissioner planned and ordered the attacks led by his Deputy, which followed strikingly similar patterns in different areas.
In several cases the women knew their rapists who openly revealed they were ordered to commit the atrocities by the County commissioner and his Deputy.
This is not the first-time serious allegations have been levelled against the County Commissioner – the UN Commission earlier published details alleging that he instigated attacks against civilians while a Commissioner in 2018 and was briefly put under house arrest but then reinstated.
Victims in this area experienced attacks in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018, and now 2022, and complain that lack of criminal accountability has fuelled the repeated violence.
“Conflict-related rape and sexual violence in Unity State has become so systematic and is a direct result of impunity; the Commission will engage with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Conflict Related Sexual Violence, and the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide on how to hold perpetrators accountable, building on the 2014 joint communiqué,” said UN Commissioner, Barney Afako.
Impunity for sexual violence cuts across all the political factions and actors in South Sudan with the opposition appointing as Governor of Western Equatoria, a militia leader turned military officer with command responsibility in 2018 for the abduction, rape, torture and sexual slavery of more than 400 women and girls.
This is in spite of the opposition initiating an investigation into the incident.
Unsurprisingly the newly appointed Governor did nothing to stop a fresh onslaught against civilians that used rape as a weapon of war to forcibly displace populations.
Also absent is the most rudimentary after-care for women subjected to horrific sexual assaults.
Repeated outbreaks of violence have seen medical clinics looted and razed to the ground.
Government medical services for sexual violence victims are grossly inadequate, while humanitarian agencies, who offer psychosocial support, have seen their funding cut due to the war in Ukraine.
UN Investigators interview rape survivors who after years of suffering still haven’t been able to access medical care for debilitating conditions like fistula that need surgery.
The Commission recently met a pregnant woman whose fetus died in her womb after she spent days hiding in a river to avoid being raped; she struggled to access medical attention to remove the dead child from her womb.
“It’s hard to convey the level of trauma of South Sudanese women whose bodies are literally the war zone.
Mothers and daughters endure assaults on an unimaginable scale and we cannot even patch them up physically afterwards, let alone deal with the long-term scars,” said Yasmin Sooka.
Survivors interviewed by the Commission repeatedly express extreme fatigue with having to tell their stories again and again and nothing changing as a result.
“Victims are tired of talking,” said one man in Unity State, adding, “Arrest people who are killing other people first before you talk about healing”.
The UN Commission on Human Rights is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to collect and preserve evidence for use in a future Hybrid Court, the establishment of which has been delayed for many years.
The Commission has been present on the ground in South Sudan for six years meticulously interviewing more than a thousand witnesses and victims.