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(Juba) – South Sudan should mark its first anniversary on July 9, 2012, by freeing all unlawfully detained prisoners, guaranteeing freedom of speech, and accelerating ratification of key international human rights treaties.

“South Sudan clearly faces serious political, economic, and security challenges, but there are many human rights reforms that require only political will, not resources,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “South Sudan should sign on to human rights treaties and take other low-cost steps to respect and protect human rights.”

South Sudan became independent following a referendum vote under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Ahead of independence, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on the new government to take steps to ensure that security forces are held accountable for human rights abuses and to carry out other reforms to bring South Sudan in line with international human rights standards.

Lack of accountability for serious crimes is a longstanding problem in South Sudan, a country with limited law enforcement capacity and a vast territory. It became an even more pressing concern in the wake of mass inter-communal violence in Jonglei state in December 2011 and January 2012, which killed more than 800 people, destroyed hundreds of homes, and displaced thousands, according to a June United Nations report documenting the killings and devastation.

“The government has yet to demonstrate that it will respond to the violence appropriately by actually identifying and prosecuting those responsible,” Bekele said. “South Sudan needs justice, in addition to peace efforts, to stem the violence. The absence of justice contributes to the cycles of attacks and counterattacks across the country.”

In early March, President Salva Kiir established a committee to investigate the violence and identify those responsible. But the committee members have not yet been sworn in, and the government has not provided them with a budget so they can begin their work.

Other high-profile cases in Juba underscore concern that the government is unwilling to hold people who commit serious crimes accountable, Human Rights Watch said.  Gen. Marial Nuor Jok, the former Director of Public Security (PS) and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in the South Sudan Police Service, was arrested in July 2011 for allegedly forcibly disappearing a civilian, accepting bribes, allowing arbitrary detentions, and extorting money. More than a year later, he has yet to be brought to trial, and the prosecutor’s office claims that it is still investigating.

No one has been disciplined for abuses by police trainers in late 2010 and early 2011 at the John Garang Police Training Academy outside of Juba. The abuses came to light following a UN-led investigation. In March 2011, the government formed a committee to investigate allegations by the trainees of degrading treatment, rape, beatings, deaths, and violations of the right to food and healthcare. The committee submitted its report and recommendations to the president in January, but the report has never been made public and the government has taken no further action to pursue accountability.

Officials have also sought to clamp down on speech critical of the government, in violation of the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in South Sudan’s constitution and international law. In a number of cases Human Rights Watch has documented since South Sudan’s independence, security forces arrested, harassed, and detained journalists because of what they wrote or said.

In November, for example, officials from the National Security Service (NSS), a government agency that reports directly to the president, detained the editor and a journalist from the newspaper Destiny in Juba for approximately two weeks after the newspaper published an article criticizing the president’s daughter’s marriage to a non-South Sudanese man.

In May, police detained a radio journalist in Rumbek for two days following a radio talk show about the relationship between police and civilians. During the show, callers criticized the police, saying they were slow to respond when needed and alleging that the police demanded money to allow citizens to file complaints.

In June, military officers detained and questioned a Sudan Tribune journalist three times in Bentiu, after he had published an article in which women, widowed as a result of South Sudan’s recent border clashes with Sudan, accused the military of not providing them with adequate compensation for the death of their husbands. Also in June, NSS officials summoned editors and journalists from five newspapers in Juba and instructed them not to report on corruption or mention a letter the president sent to 75 government officials in May asking them to return stolen funds.

“Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right,” Bekele said. “South Sudan’s leaders need to make sure that all government organs, including the police, the NSS, and the military, know that they must respect and protect freedom of expression.”

Arbitrary detentions are also commonplace across South Sudan, and point to the serious gaps and weaknesses in the nation’s emerging justice system, Human Rights Watch said. In a report published in June based on visits to 12 of the country’s 79 prisons, Human Rights Watch found that many inmates are detained following flawed arrests and prosecutions, or without any solid legal justification, and that children are still tried and detained with adults while dozens of people with mental disabilities languish in prison across the country without proper treatment.

South Sudanese authorities should review the cases of everyone in detention and immediately release those whose continued detention lacks a legal basis, Human Rights Watch said. The Ministry of Health should lead efforts to end the incarceration of people with actual or perceived mental disabilities. With support from international donors, the government should develop mental health care services.

Human Rights Watch also urged South Sudan to declare an official moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty and commuting death sentences. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all countries and in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. In particular in South Sudan, in view of the lack of well-trained police, prosecutors, and judges, and in the absence of a functioning system of legal aid, application of the death penalty is likely to be arbitrary and result in irreversible miscarriages of justice.

“Execution is an irreversible punishment,” Bekele said. “In a justice system that cannot guarantee the rights to due process and a fair trial, the likelihood of errors simply is too high.”

The government has made some progress in putting in place laws and policies to protect human rights. It joined the Mine Ban treaty in November. In June, the president signed into force a Refugee Provisional Order that incorporates international standards on refugee rights and a Provisional Order implementing the Geneva Conventions. But South Sudan has yet to ratify international and regional human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

“Signing these international instruments is an important way to signal commitment to basic rights,” Bekele said. “The legislature should also pass domestic laws needed to ensure human rights are protected.”

With respect to domestic legislation, a number of areas require prompt attention, Human Rights Watch said. South Sudan has no law regulating the NSS or defining or limiting its powers of arrest and detention, which should be promptly remedied. This is a major gap in the legal system and calls into question the lawfulness of any interference by the NSS with citizens’ rights. One person Human Rights Watch interviewed said he was detained by NSS officials in Juba with approximately 14 other people for six weeks without being charged or brought before a judge. Such arbitrary detentions reflect a lack of respect for rule of law by the NSS, and underscore the need for a regulating law that complies with international human rights standards.

The government should also pass legislation regulating family law that guarantees women equal rights in marriage and divorce and can be used as an alternative to customary laws, which often discriminate against women, Human Rights Watch said.

The legislature has two bills pending on regulation of the media and freedom of information that require timely consideration, Human Rights Watch said. Members should scrutinize the bills carefully to make sure they comply with international standards.

A constitutional review process, which began this year, also presents an important opportunity to strengthen South Sudan’s human rights framework. The constitutional review commission, responsible for drafting the permanent constitution, should consult widely on the constitution’s content, as the commission’s mandate requires, and ensure that the draft text includes a robust bill of rights, prohibits the death penalty, and sets a minimum age for marriage.

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