Government critic pardoned, journalists assaulted, detained
On 30th September 2019, Human Rights Watch urged South Sudan and the African Union to set up a meeting to discuss war crime courts, and asked them to urgently clarify plans to set up the proposed hybrid court for wartime atrocities. As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the hybrid courts, which were included in both the 2015 and 2018 peace deals, were expected to be useful mechanisms in holding perpetrators to account, considering that the local courts are ill-equipped to handle such complex and sensitive matters. The process of establishing the courts has however faced challenges, including delays by the South Sudanese government.
In November 2019, the government of South Sudan and the opposition postponed the creation of a unity government for a further 100 days. This decision was reached after president Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar met in Entebbe, Uganda on 7th November, where they appealed to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to extend the 12th November deadline, making this the third delay in South Sudan's peace process. The UN Security Council said it was concerned that there was no substantive progress on the implementation of key elements of a peace agreement signed in December 2018 to end a civil conflict between forces loyal to the two leaders.
The US government, instrumental in achieving South Sudanese independence in 2011, took a harsher stance towards the South Sudanese government. On 25th November 2019, the US recalled its ambassador to South Sudan following the failure of President Kiir and Machar to form a unity government.
Taking further measures to increase pressure, on 12th December 2019 the US threatened visa restrictions on anyone attempting to damage the peace process, including:
- Violating a ceasefire or cessation of hostilities agreement
- Violating the UN arms embargo
- Engaging in corruption that fuels the conflict
- Suppressing freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, or other abuses or violations
- Failing to abide by signed peace agreements
Separately, South Sudanese women called on political leaders to meet their commitment to ensure 35 percent women representation in the new government, and urge each other to actively participate in the peace process to protect their collective interests.
In a separate but positive development, South Sudan launched an action plan against sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), pledging speedy action by the specialised groups of personnel formed to investigate these atrocities. A call to stand against SGBV spearheaded by UNFPA was also recently launched in the country.
In a report launched on 7th October 2019, Amnesty International raised concern over the crippled justice system, saying it fuels impunity for crimes against humanity. According to the report, only one case has been prosecuted since the civil war broke out in 2013.
Sad news from South Sudan, where three IOM volunteers were killed in clashes in Central Equatoria. Aid workers risk their lives to provide support to children and families in desperate need in South Sudan. They must be protected. Thoughts are with all those affected #NotaTarget pic.twitter.com/3R8l5N1hro— Joe English (@JoeEEnglish) October 30, 2019
In late October 2019, three workers for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) were killed during fighting between government forces and National Salvation Front (NAS) rebels. Two other volunteers were injured, while two other people - a volunteer and a son of one of the murdered aid workers - were abducted during the attack. Following the killing of the three workers, IOM suspended Ebola screening at the South Sudan and DRC border.
Speaking to VOA, the IOM communications officer in Juba, Liatile Putsoa denounced the targeting of aid workers and said:
"We are deeply saddened by the loss of our staff members. We reiterate that innocent civilians and humanitarian workers should not be targets of such a senseless act of violence"
On 10th December 2019, the US government imposed financial sanctions on five South Sudanese it believes were involved in the kidnapping or killing of a human rights lawyer and an opposition politician. Lawyer Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Idri, a member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, disappeared in Kenya in January 2017. The five named by the US government are Abud Stephen Thiongkol, Malual Dhal Muorwel, Michael Kuajien, John Top Lam and Angelo Kuot Garang. The sanctions will affect any property and interests the men may have in the US. In a further sign of mounting international frustration with South Sudan, the United States imposed financial sanctions on vice-president Taban Deng Gai for his alleged involvement in human rights abuses, including the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and opposition politician Aggrey Idry. Gai denied the allegation.
Peter Biar Ajak has been pardoned and released. A committed human rights defender, he was unfairly targeted for speaking out against the government and should have never been detained - but today, justice has finally been served. https://t.co/o9EKV7bVxc— Senator Bob Casey (@SenBobCasey) January 5, 2020
In January 2020, government critic Peter Biar Ajak was pardoned and released from custody. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Ajak was arrested in late July 2018 at Juba airport after publishing a tweet which criticised the country’s peace efforts, and where he called on President Kiir and opposition leader Machar to resign and allow a new generation to lead. 31 others were pardonedalongside Ajak.
On 30th October 2019, Associated Press journalist Sam Mednick’s accreditation was revoked by the South Sudan Media Authority and she was asked to leave the country. Officials allegedly objected to a story Mednick wrote in early October that said tensions were rising in the capital ahead of the formation of a unity government.
On 31st October 2019, two female journalists were physically assaulted by an army official while covering a presidential function. The South Sudan Peace Defence Forces (SSPDF) had invited the press to cover its annual meeting when General Malaak Ayuen asked the journalists to leave and reportedly hit the two female journalists on the back while pushing them towards the back of the conference hall. He then picked up a tripod and hit them on their legs as they picked their bags to leave.
Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Seif Magango said:
“The authorities’ suppression of the right to freedom of expression and media freedom ahead of the formation of the long-awaited transitional government of national unity is deeply troubling”.
SSPDF spokesperson, Major General Lul Ruai, confirmed the incident, calling it “regrettable.” He said:
“It’s regrettable that some of our journalists were mishandled there in a way they should not have been handled… There is need for transformation and transformation should start with the attitude. There is a need for some of us at the national level to work on our attitudes so that we handle our civilians in a lot more decent manner.”
In a separate incident, Human Rights Watch called for the release of Emmanuel Monychol Akop, the managing editor of The Dawn newspaper, who was detained by the National Security Service (NSS) on 21st October in Juba. According to Human rights Watch, Akop was detained because of a Facebook post in which he made fun of a dress worn by the Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister, Awut Deng Achuil.
Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said:
“Emmanuel Monychol’s detention is just the latest act of harassment by South Sudanese authorities in response to criticism or perceived dissent… The authorities should immediately release him unless he has been charged with a recognisable offence.”