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UN experts urge government to probe senior officials for abetting sexual violence

Experts on the UN Commission for Human Rights are urging the transitional national unity government to investigate senior officials suspected for abetting sexual violence across the country.

 “If the government of South Sudan is serious about tackling sexual violence it should immediately remove from office and investigate governors and county commissioners credibly alleged to be complicit in systematic rape,” said a statement on Monday quoting UN experts attending the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) conference in London.

Yasmin Sooka, UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, said many women in South Sudan have been repeatedly gang raped, year after year since 2013.

Sooka disclosed that the rape victims have been shunned and stigmatized leaving them to suffer in silence, while the men responsible are promoted and rewarded.

She faulted the government for only paying lip service on sexual violence through making an array of declarations, national commitments and pledges.

“It is not enough, now and again, to try a handful of junior officers without holding those in command responsible,” said Sooka.

“It’s hard to convey the level of trauma of South Sudanese women whose bodies are literally the war zone. Mothers and daughters endure assaults on an unimaginable scale and we cannot even patch them up physically afterwards, let alone deal with the long-term scars,” she added.

It noted that survivors interviewed by the Commission repeatedly express extreme fatigue with having to tell their stories again and again and nothing changing as a result.

“Victims are tired of talking,” said one man in Unity State, adding, “Arrest people who are killing other people first before you talk about healing”.

 Commissioner Andrew Clapham said that this year they have seen the most dehumanizing sexual violence in South Sudan for which the Government bears responsibility because of its failure over many years to hold individuals accountable, especially in Unity State where we are dealing with gross and systematic human rights violations amounting to international crimes.

 “South Sudanese are begging the international community to help them in pressuring their leaders to sanction these individuals and remove the people responsible from office.  Tragically victims ask us to speak out and say what they are afraid to say,” said Clapham.

The UN Commission said it has reasonable grounds to believe that earlier this year a government-appointed County Commissioner in the oil-rich Unity State was present overseeing systematic gang rapes at a cantonment site.

“This was part of a well-planned scorched earth offensive against civilians in an area considered loyal to the opposition, that involved beheadings, with rape victims being forced to carry the severed heads, victims being burnt alive, and days of brutal sexual assault by up to ten men at a time against young women and girls some as young as 9 years old,” it said.

It revealed that multiple eyewitnesses testified that the County Commissioner planned and ordered the attacks led by his Deputy, which followed strikingly similar patterns in different areas.

“In several cases the women knew their rapists who openly revealed they were ordered to commit the atrocities by the County commissioner and his Deputy,” it disclosed.

 “Conflict-related rape and sexual violence in Unity State has become so systematic and is a direct result of impunity; the Commission will engage with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Conflict Related Sexual Violence, and the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide on how to hold perpetrators accountable, building on the 2014 joint communiqué,” said UN Commissioner, Barney Afako.

Afako said that impunity for sexual violence cuts across all the political factions and actors in South Sudan with the opposition appointing as Governor of Western Equatoria, a militia leader turned military officer with command responsibility in 2018 for the abduction, rape, torture and sexual slavery of more than 400 women and girls.

“This is in spite of the opposition initiating an investigation into the incident.  Unsurprisingly the newly appointed Governor did nothing to stop a fresh onslaught against civilians that used rape as a weapon of war to forcibly displace populations,” he said.

South Sudan has made repeated commitments to tackle sexual violence. In 2014, President Salva Kiir signed a joint communiqué with the United Nations agreeing to be a champion in the fight against conflict-related sexual violence in South Sudan; in 2015 the opposition SPLM/A-IO announced its Action Plan to tackle sexual violence and a further Implementation Plan; in 2019 the army unveiled an Action Plan to tackle sexual violence; and in 2020 South Sudan started a Gender Based Violence Court in the capital Juba. Nevertheless, being gang raped is still one of the main ways in which women and girls experience the ongoing conflicts, with the vast majority of cases unreported because of fear of rejection by families and communities.

The Commission noted that this was not the first-time serious allegations have been leveled against the County Commissioner , the UN Commission earlier published details alleging that he instigated attacks against civilians while a Commissioner in 2018 and was briefly put under house arrest but then reinstated.

It said that victims in this area experienced attacks in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018, and now 2022, and complain that lack of criminal accountability has fuelled the repeated violence.

The UN Commission on Human Rights is mandated by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to collect and preserve evidence for use in a future Hybrid Court, the establishment of which has been delayed for many years. The Commission has been present on the ground in South Sudan for six years meticulously interviewing more than a thousand witnesses and victims.

A delegation from the government of South Sudan is also attending the London conference.

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