new hope for democracy and rule of law yet to be felt by activists

Association

In a development welcomed by human rights groups, on 6th September, a South Sudanese military court sentenced 10 soldiers to prison for the rape and sexual assault of foreign aid workers and the murder of a journalist in a violent attack on a hotel in Juba in 2016. The court also ordered the government to pay compensation to the victims. The attack came after a peace deal between president Kiir and rebel groups collapsed. Government forces then descended on the Terrain hotel where over 50 foreign workers were staying. Soldiers repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and tortured victims and killed journalist John Gatluak Manguet Nhial. This attack has been reported to be the worst on foreign aid workers since the conflict erupted in 2013.

This case was widely seen as a test of government will to bring accountability to its military, which has been accused of gross human rights violations and impunity.

Welcoming the court decision, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Seif Magango said:

"After much foot dragging, today's convictions and sentences represent a first step towards ending chronic impunity in South Sudan, where both government forces and the armed opposition have committed human rights violations and crimes under international law, with complete disregard for human life."

According to a report by the Aid Worker Security Database published in August 2018, South Sudan topped the list for a third year of the most dangerous countries in the world for aid workers. According to the report, a third of the 158 major violent attacks against aid operations in 2017 occurred in South Sudan, with local staff bearing the brunt of these attacks.

In other positive developments, in early August 2018, President Salva Kiir offered an amnesty to all those involved in the civil war, including rebel leader Riek Machar, as part of a new peace deal meant to end the prolonged conflict. The final deal, supported by previous agreements including a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing deal that sees Machar return as first vice president, will be signed at an upcoming Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) summit on 12th September 2018 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. On 30th August, Machar initialled the final agreement in Khartoum, Sudan, which shall be signed at the IGAD summit.

This follows a series of intensive negotiations and talks between Kiir and various rebel groups, brokered by the Sudan government. As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, Machar and Kiir have been engaged in negotiations in recent months, during which they reached several agreements.

It remains to be seen whether this deal, the latest in a long line of ill-fated negotiations and broken ceasefires, will put a permanent end to the five-year civil war that has decimated civil society and forced millions to flee.

In light of these developments, on 18th August, the government of South Sudan released 21 political detainees who were held by the national security services. It remains unclear exactly which detainees were released, or what their crimes were. The detainees were released as a sign of peace, after the peace agreement was reached between president Kiir and rebel groups. 

Despite peace deal, situation for HRD remains grave

As the country looks forward to a fresh start following recent developments, activists and human rights defenders however still have little to celebrate. Their situation remains grave and precarious.

On 28th July, human rights defender and chairman of the South Sudan Young Leaders Forum (SSYLF) Peter Biar Ajak was arrested by national security forces at Juba airport while en route to attend the Red Army Foundation commemoration day in Aweil. Peter, a vocal critique of manner in which the peace efforts have been handled by president Kiir and the rebel groups had tweeted about his appearance on Kenya’s AM Live show in July, where he criticised the peace efforts in South Sudan. Peter argued that both president Kiir and Machar need to step down and allow the next generation to take up leadership.

Biar Ajak remains in police custody and at the time of writing it remained unclear with what crime, if any, he has been charged. People close to him have alleged the arrest is related to his appearances in media outlets, and his involvement with the SSYLF.

In a similar incident, on 8th August, activist Bashir Mohamed Babiker Ahmed who works with the Civil Society Human Rights Forum was taken from his home in the city of Yambio by armed men and disappeared thereafter. He is allegedly being held by the National Security Service at a detention centre in Yambio – no charges have been brought against him, and he has yet to see a lawyer.

According to an Amnesty International briefing published on 4th September, South Sudanese authorities have arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured and ill-treated several people to the point of death, often due to little more than their political or ethnic affiliations

In a separate incident, in late July, several thousand demonstrators attacked a UN compound in Maban, Upper Nile State, alleging discrimination against local people in hiring practices, because many of the staff were allegedly from Equatoria, a southern state with a different ethnic makeup. After protests turned violent, approximately 2,000 youth forced their way into the UNHCR and at least ten other compounds, many housing NGOs and relief agencies, resulting in looting, arson, destruction of vehicles, structures and other humanitarian assets, and supplies including medicines. Several hundred aid staff were evacuated, and despite the extensive damage, none were fatally injured. Medecins Sans Frontieres announced that it would suspend activities in the north-east of the country after the attack, leaving up to 88,000 people with limited access to aid and health services.

Expression

A joint report published on 11th August 2018 by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) and The Advocates for Human Rights and Democracy (TAHURID) outlines the blocking of media outlets in South Sudan, in addition to other deliberate attempts by the government to censor online content. The report documents the most common forms of internet censorship restrictions in South Sudan. Internet censorship was found to be common on sites that are viewed by authorities to publish ‘subversive content’ and incite violence. Self-censorship was found to be one of the most common forms of censorship as journalists are reported to operate in an environment of fear.