Increased violence in South Sudan is increasing difficulties for human rights defenders

CIVICUS spoke to a civil society leader based in Juba, South Sudan about why the government threatened and prevented human rights defenders from travelling to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva for reviews on South Sudan and the general state of human rights and media freedoms in the country five years after the country became independent. The activist requested to remain anonymous for security purposes.

1. How and why did the authorities prevent human rights defenders from travelling to the UNHRC to participate in pre-Universal Periodic Review sessions?

The actions of government against civil society activists and human rights defenders have forced many to leave the country and abandon their participation in the UPR-pre sessions. After testifying in a meeting organised by the visiting United Nations Security Council delegation in Juba, the national security agents blacklisted all those who spoke about the human right situation in the country including those that called for justice and the need to expedite the establishment of a Hybrid Court for South Sudan. One activist was killed the next morning; others were being sought after while those who were fortunate managed to escape to neighboring countries. Just as the government tries to deny the flow of information on South Sudan they are quite aware that the pre-session would provide a platform to expose the unabated human right situation and probably demand for international intervention. Members of civil society whose invitations were leaked to the security agents received anonymous calls threatening to deny them return to South Sudan if they dare attended the UPR-pre session. Phone tapping of human rights defenders including accusing certain civil society organisation leaders of being collaborators with rebel groups is being commonly used to undermine the work of civil society.


2. What is the current state of human rights in South Sudan?

South Sudan has one of the worse human right records in the region. The long history of violence has perpetuated gross human rights violations mostly instigated by tribal militias under the watch of untouchable military generals. The government is the military and the military is the government. This harsh reality has undermined prospects for justice and accountability for so long. In the last two months alone, the number of citizens who have been forced to leave the country has doubled compared to those who left in during the outbreak of conflict in December 2013 and the recent one in July 2016. This clearly demonstrates that the biggest threat to peace and stability is the current government much as similar threats are also experienced in the rebel-controlled areas. Hundreds of women have been raped in the last three months of July to September 2016 with some cases reported close to United Nations protection of civilian sites and government-manned road blocks; civilians are being summarily executed by pro-government soldiers and thousands besieged in towns like Yei and Lainya. The country’s economic situation has worsened with inflation estimated to be more than 600%. The economic hardships have driven many South Sudanese to leave the country, join rebellion or become involved in banditry. Most major roads to Juba the capital have been closed due to increased targeted killings. The nature of violence is occurring along tribal lines prompting a possibility of genocidal sentiments if not addressed.

3. What do you think are the causes of the current human rights climate?

The ongoing conflict defines the current human rights climate. The government of South Sudan has been complicit in protecting human rights violators. The culture of impunity has been nurtured by a lack of clear separation of the military from the executive arm of governance. The so-called national army is a collection of tribal militias whose loyalty is directed to their tribal generals other than a central command. The country’s leadership has been taken hostage by powerful tribal elders whose mission is to portray the current conflict as being directed against the person of the president and his ethnic group other than a national crisis that must be addressed by all South Sudanese. Without justice and accountability for past and current crimes, hatred would take charge of the actions of victims and more human rights violations are bound to occur. The crackdown on dissenting voices by national security agents and shrinking space for media and civil society means violation are not being reported and the plight of victims ignored. The current situation is bound to put South Sudan on the path to a genocide.

4. Five years after independence, what is the state of media rights and the rights of journalists? 

South Sudan media laws and existing regulatory bodies like the Independent Media Authority have been rendered dysfunctional due to increasing censorship on media rights and rights of journalists. The government controls the freedom of press and access to information by imposing stringent measures on what goes on air and publishes in newspapers. The repressive nature of the government is demonstrated through continuous threats to media houses, the closure of newspapers like the Nation Mirror in September 2016 and in some instances withdrawal of operation licenses for media organisations. One notable example has been the withdrawal of the license of Eye Radio in 2014 and the intermittent closer of newspapers such as the Juba Monitor. In the last year alone more than 11 journalists have been killed and others arbitrary arrested like the case of the chief editor of Juba Monitor Alfred Taban and dozens forced to leave the country. These actions confirm South Sudan’s standing as one of the worse countries for media freedom. 

The targeted killing of John Galuak in July 2016, a journalist attached to Internews who was brutally murdered because of his work and ethnicity in Terrain Hotel in Juba and Isaac Vuni in September 2016, a veteran journalist and former correspondent for the Sudan Tribune, are some of the examples that define the risk of being a journalist in South Sudan. Many media houses have chosen self-censorship and this includes avoiding live radio talk shows, taking live calls and reporting on “red line” news. Despite being a member of United Nations and ratifying international and national treaties/legislations, South Sudanese find little correlations between existing laws on protection of fundamental human rights and actions of government agents as principle custodians of the existing laws.

5. In your opinion, what are three major things that need to change for democracy to be established in South Sudan?

Democracy can best be achieved in a peaceful and stable country. South Sudan in its current state does not provide an environment to support this assertion. The primary responsibility is to stop the war and hopefully open a new political dispensation led by leaders whose vision is derived by desire to serve the people of South Sudan other than that of a few tribally inclined and egocentric individuals.

South Sudan needs to build a sound political process that is distinct from the current military one. A lack of separation between the two systems has provided an upper hand for military generals to dictate to politicians. The lack of political will to prosecute those who perpetuate violence and commit atrocities against civilians demonstrates how difficult it is for the rule of law to be exercised by politicians whose power is derived from those who are leading the crusade of impunity.

Without a vibrant civil society and media in South Sudan the plight of citizens risk being swept under the carpet of militarism. We need to continue supporting and demanding an open space for civil society and freedom of speech for all citizens. Regional bodies such as the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the international community have the leverage to negotiate and pressure the government of South Sudan to stop intimidating civil society activists and threatening media houses and journalists in the country.