(Juba) - Southern Sudan should focus on improving respect for human rights and promoting the rule of law as it becomes an independent state, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 7, 2011, Sudanese authorities announced the final results of the southern independence referendum, confirming the near-unanimous vote for the South's secession from northern Sudan.
"Sudanese leaders deserve congratulations for a peaceful referendum," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But now they need to cement this progress. South Sudan should move quickly to show its commitment to democratic governance, transparency, and human rights."
With just five months to independence on July 9, Southern Sudan has enormous tasks ahead, such as reviewing its constitution and laws, reforming its institutions, and making provisions to accommodate the political opposition. Opposition parties have already complained of being excluded from the forthcoming constitutional review by the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Southern Sudan is also faced with enormous human rights challenges, Human Rights Watch said, including inter-communal fighting, abuses by its security forces, a weak rule of law, and a growing culture of impunity.
Abuses involving the southern army and reports of abuses by newly trained police officers demonstrate some of the challenges facing the new government and its donors. Some of the worst documented abuses occurred in Upper Nile State, where unrelated clashes in recent days among soldiers in the northern Sudan Armed Forces stationed there killed scores of civilians in Malakal town.
Human Rights Watch called on the new government to retain the full bill of rights in the transitional constitution, to strengthen systems for investigating and prosecuting abuses by the military, and to provide better oversight of its police forces. Donors providing assistance to improve security forces should tailor their programs to address these needs.
"Soldiers and police are the face of the government and are supposed to protect citizens, not harm them," Bekele said. "The new government of South Sudan needs to control these forces and send a strong message that abuses against the population will not be tolerated."
Human Rights Watch research in Sudan has documented numerous violations of the rights of civilians by southern security forces. These include illegal land-grabs in Juba and other towns, excessive force during military operations and while disarming civilians, and unlawful arrests and other intimidation to suppress opponents of the ruling party, particularly in the period surrounding elections in April 2010.
Abuses in Upper Nile State
In one example of an abusive military operation documented by Human Rights Watch, soldiers went to Panyikang and Fashoda counties in Upper Nile State after the elections to carry out a disarmament operation against community members and suspected local militia groups with links to an opposition political party, SPLM-Democratic Change (SPLM-DC).
The disarmament was perceived by the community as punishment for supporting the opposition party, and local leaders said the soldiers used excessive force, injuring many people. On May 22, a paramount chief and several other civilians who had supported the disarmament operation were killed by unknown gunmen.
In the following days, soldiers arrested at least five of the opposition party's members in the state parliament, accusing them of involvement in the chief's murder. It held them in military detention for more than six months, then freed them without bringing any charges.
In June, after armed men ambushed a boat, killing a soldier, the crackdown spread to another county, Fashoda. When soldiers and police investigated the incident, they clashed with local militia, which led to more soldiers' deaths. Following the armed confrontation, more soldiers were deployed to Fashoda county.
Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that more than 100 soldiers came on July 7 looking for weapons, and harassing and beating civilians. They remained in the area for several days, looting and burning the property of civilians they suspected of belonging to a local militia group. At least five civilians were killed in extrajudicial executions.
One 26-year-old man from the area told Human Rights Watch in August that the soldiers arrested him with a group of ten others and held them in military detention in extremely poor conditions for four months, without charge. He said the 11 men spent the first month of detention tied together by a rope.
One 50-year-old woman, who fled after her home was destroyed in the operation, said soldiers shot and killed her son and three other young men at close range. "My son was begging [the solders], saying he didn't know where the weapons are and he is a civilian," she said. "Then they shot him in the neck, spraying bullets with their gun."
The military replaced its commander following complaints of abuses, but based on information Human Rights Watch has been able to gather about the episode, no soldier has been held criminally accountable for any of the specific human rights violations committed by the soldiers in Fashoda.
Potential for Further Abuses
In the weeks leading up to the January referendum, post-election violence and political tensions in the area greatly subsided. However, underlying land disputes between Shilluk and Dinka communities, which factored into the political tensions between the ruling party and supporters of the opposition party, have yet to be resolved.
In addition, despite a January 5, 2011 ceasefire agreement, the government soldiers have continued to clash with rebellious renegade soldiers led by General George Athor in Jonglei and Unity states, with civilians caught in the middle. It remains to be seen if the ceasefire will hold.
The southern government has also announced it intends to resume civilian disarmament operations in coming months. Soldiers taking part in these operations have carried out human rights violations in the past, Human Rights Watch found.
The government should ensure that rank-and-file soldiers know and understand their obligations to respect and uphold human rights and will be held accountable for violations, Human Rights Watch said. Soldiers should not unlawfully arrest and detain civilians in military facilities. Civilian disarmament operations should respect human rights, in keeping with the government's own policies on disarmament.
Police Abuses in Juba
The government graduated more than 6,000 recruits from a flagship training program in mid-December. The program began in early 2010, designed to create a new multi-ethnic police force, made up of members who had never fought in the war and were untainted by guerilla warfare experience. Much-lauded by the United Nations and donors, the training program was marred by serious abuses of the police recruits, Human Rights Watch found.
In late December, the recruits were linked to a series of incidents in Juba and other southern towns in which they harassed and assaulted civilians who were wearing clothing or hair styles of which they disapproved. One Juba resident, a 29-year-old woman, told Human Rights Watch that police stopped her while she was going to work as a referendum observer, and ordered to her to go home to change out of her trousers. When she protested, they surrounded her and beat her to the ground, then used a razor blade to slit the sides of her jeans up to her hip.
Several similar incidents from December 24 to 26 were reported to UN and civil society groups and widely viewed as part of a recurring campaign against young men wearing low-slung jeans and long "rasta" style hair. The campaigns have also targeted women wearing tight skirts and trousers.
The internal affairs minister has said publicly that police have no orders to target people based on their appearance, but some police officials told Human Rights Watch that newly-graduated recruits who were responsible for the abuses had been encouraged by their commanders and may have been inspired by a speech by President Salva Kiir at their graduation in mid-December, encouraging police to combat criminal gangs.
These incidents underscore the need to improve oversight and training of police, Human Rights Watch said.
Some of the new recruits told journalists, UN-staff, and Human Rights Watch in December and January that during their training, they had endured harsh military-style drills and poor living conditions. They said they were subjected to collective punishments - such as repeated beatings and being forced to stand for long periods in the sun - after they complained about their lack of payment and inability to vote in the April elections. Several reported that one of their colleagues had died after he was beaten during the training.
Police sources said recruits died of disease and weather-related accidents, but they did not attribute any of the deaths to mistreatment. Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm exactly how many died or the causes of their deaths.
In addition, several female recruits alleged they had been sexually harassed, and some said they had been raped, by male trainers during initial phases of the training. One woman told Human Rights Watch she was dismissed from the police in retaliation for having described these allegations publicly to a foreign journalist who visited the training center in early December. Fearing further retaliation, she fled Juba.
The recruits told Human Rights Watch that as far as they knew, there were no procedures for registering formal complaints to authorities, or other oversight mechanisms.
Human Rights Watch urged the police authorities to ensure that respect for human rights and internal accountability be a core part of police training and operations. They should investigate the circumstances of all reported deaths, hold anyone responsible accountable and put mechanisms in place to ensure that any abuses do not recur, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch also called on donors to make assistance contingent on improved standards and training practices.