(Juba) – South Sudan should commit to make several important improvements to human rights ahead of elections for the UN Human Rights Council on November 12, 2013, a group of South Sudanese and international human rights groups said today. South Sudan is one of five countries in Africa running for four seats on the Human Rights Council, the UN body responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe.

A range of human rights violations have taken place in South Sudan since its independence in 2011, including killings of civilians by security forces and unlawful arrests, the groups said. In a letter to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir published on November 8, 2013, international and South Sudanese human rights groups called for justice for civilians unlawfully killed by security forces, including in Jonglei and Western Bahr el Ghazal states, and for an end to unlawful arrest and detention across the county.

“South Sudan is a new country, but that is all the more reason why it should set itself firmly on the side of respecting human rights,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “South Sudan’s leadership should make a public commitment to improve its human rights record ahead of the elections and put its promises into effect before February, when the winners will take their seats.”

The letter also calls on the President Kir to ensure journalists and human rights defenders are protected from harassment and arrest and to take steps to end child and forced marriage. South Sudan should also ensure that the national Human Rights Commission is fully funded and operational and should sign and ratify core international human rights treaties and conventions, and cooperate fully with the Human Rights Council, including by inviting UN human rights experts to visit the country, the groups said.

What is the Human Rights Council?
The Human Rights Council is an inter-governmental body within the United Nations structure, with a membership of 47 countries. The council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe.

When are the elections and will South Sudan win a seat?
South Sudan is competing in elections scheduled for November 12. There are 47 council seats designed to ensure geographical representation, with 13 country members from the African group, 13 from the Asian group, 6 from the Eastern European group, 8 from the Latin American and Caribbean group, and 7 from the Western European and Other States group.
Council members are elected by the 193 member states of the UN General Assembly.
Every year, 16 or 17 seats on the council are up for election by secret ballot. Terms are for three years.
This year, there are four vacant seats for the Africa group and five contenders: Algeria, Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, and South Sudan.

Why would South Sudan want to be on the council? What does the Human Rights Council do?
The Council is the main United Nations forum for intergovernmental cooperation and dialogue on human rights issues. It helps member countries meet their human rights obligations through dialogue, capacity building, and technical assistance.
If elected as a member, South Sudan would be expected to play an important role assessing the human rights records of other countries, and working to improve the performance of individual countries and the worldwide climate for human rights. Through what is called a Universal Periodic Review, the council assesses the situation of human rights in each UN member state once approximately every four and a half years.
Another element of its work is a complaints procedure, which allows individuals and organizations to bring complaints about human rights violations to the council’s attention. The council also looks at specific country situations or thematic issues, refugee rights for example.  

What would be expected of South Sudan if elected to the Human Rights Council?
The elections will put South Sudan’s human rights record under a spotlight. General Assembly countries will take into consideration what South Sudan has done to promote and protect human rights as they decide who will get their votes.  If elected, South Sudan will commit itself to cooperating with the council and to upholding the highest standards for the promotion and protection of human rights. South Sudan may also submit voluntary pledges and commitments to promote and protect human rights.

Can a council member’s rights and privileges be suspended?
Yes. The UN’s General Assembly has the right to suspend the rights and privileges of any council member that it decides has persistently committed gross and systematic violations of human rights during its term of membership. Suspension requires a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly.

What work might South Sudan do as a member?

If elected, South Sudan will work with other countries to monitor human rights globally. Various tools are available to the Human Rights Council. Recently the council has, for example, established a commission of inquiry on Syria and has appointed an independent expert to monitor the situation of human rights in the Central African Republic.

Earlier in 2013, the council asked the South Sudan government to take steps to further strengthen the independence of the South Sudan Human Rights Commission, enabling it to contribute more effectively to promoting and protecting the human rights of South Sudan’s people. Members have also recently recommended global principles to help ensure accountability for gross or systematic human rights violations committed by public officials while countering terrorism.