Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, June 24, 2019. © 2019 Magali Girardin/Keystone via AP

Yesterday, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) renewed the mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.

Given the country’s ongoing rights crisis and widespread impunity for serious international crimes, the renewal shouldn’t have been in doubt. And yet until the votes were tallied, it wasn’t a given.

The resolution for renewal preserved the Commission’s robust investigatory mandate that lays the groundwork for future criminal accountability through the collection and preservation of evidence and determining responsibility for the crimes. It also retained the Commission’s mandate on technical assistance and capacity-building, including to law enforcement institutions, and on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

But Cameroon presented an alternative resolution on behalf of the African group proposing to completely dismantle the Commission’s evidence collection and preservation mandate and replace it with a weaker technical and capacity building role by the Office of the High Commissioner. Had it passed, the resolution would not only have been a blow to the many victims, but would have emboldened a government that has allowed violations and impunity to persist.

Ultimately, the renewal mandate was adopted in a close vote of 20 to 16, with 11 abstentions.

The Council should now ensure appropriate financial and technical support to the Commission. For its part the South Sudan government needs to facilitate the Commission’s work and implement its recommendations.

The resolution acknowledges that “demonstrable progress in key human rights issues” is critical for any future shift in the mandate of the Commission and calls for consultations between South Sudan, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to develop a clear transition plan, with benchmarks and milestones. This sends an important message that much-needed international scrutiny needs to be maintained until concrete human rights improvements are seen. 

South Sudan can turn the page if it wishes to do so. It should start by operationalizing the hybrid court for South Sudan in partnership with the African Union, and other accountability mechanisms; reining in and reforming its abusive national security service; allowing human rights defenders to work freely and guaranteeing unhindered humanitarian access to populations in need.

Only once South Sudan moves ahead with such steps, should the Council shift its approach.