“There is no doubt any more that both sides to the conflict [in South Sudan] have been involved in numerous human rights violations,” said Ivan Šimonović, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.
Mr. Šimonović visited the country last month to investigate violations resulting from the intense fighting that broke out in mid-December between rebel forces and the government. He met with survivors of a mass shooting in a police station, where hundreds of victims were shot, as well as with survivors of a massacre of women in a church compound.
“We have to address human rights violations no matter who commits them, whether it’s pro-government or opposition forces,” he said. “Our position is impartiality.”
Mr. Šimonović said the current situation in the country is “very bad and a matter of great concern.”
“What started as a political struggle [between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar] has degenerated into an ethnic conflict, and, as a result, thousands have been killed,” Mr. Šimonović said, adding that the humanitarian situation is also very dire. Over 800,000 people remain displaced.
Though a second round of peace talks began in Addis Ababa yesterday, Mr. Šimonović said that, for sustainable peace, “there is a long way to go, and it will require much more than bilateral dialogue between two forces that are in conflict now. It will require inclusion of civil society—of religious leaders, of elders, of women.”
Mr. Šimonović said its highly important to address the social and economic underpinnings of the current crisis, and have an open dialogue. He said it is particularly important that there is freedom of expression and freedom of the press which “are violated at the moment.”
Mr. Šimonović said that in human rights work, thorough investigation is crucial to reconciliation. “When I talked to displaced persons, to the victims, I noticed that they have completely different perceptions of how the conflicts started, who the victims and who the perpetrators are. And the difference is based on their ethnic affiliation—whether they are Nuer or Dinka.”
“So, for any sort of reconciliation, it is important that they know the facts: that both sides have been quite involved in human rights violations and committed crimes. However, for this to be accepted, you have to investigate individual cases of violations and report on them.”
Mr. Šimonović said a comprehensive report on the human rights violations committed in the country after December 15, 2013 will be released by the end of April 2014.
The interview was conducted by Bianca Selway, research assistant in the peacekeeping program at the International Peace Institute.
Bianca Selway: Today, I welcome Ivan Šimonović to the Global Observatory. He is the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, heading OHCHR’s (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) office in New York.
My first question for you is: Last month, you visited South Sudan to look into cases of human rights violations during the fighting that broke out in mid-December 2013. What is the situation on the ground at the moment?
Ivan Šimonović: The situation is very bad and a matter of great concern. What started as a political struggle has degenerated into an ethnic conflict, and, as a result, thousands have been killed. I myself had the opportunity to talk to victims of such crimes. For example, I met with survivors of a mass shooting in a police station, where hundreds of victims were shot, as well as survivors of a massacre of women in a church compound.
Now, I think it’s highly important to highlight that the United Nations has, I would say, [been] involved in an unprecedented protection of civilians exercise. We opened our gates to all civilians, and tens of thousands of them—currently about 80,000—have been under our protection.
Now, let me finally say that the humanitarian situation is also very dire. We have about one third of the population desperately needing humanitarian assistance to sustain themselves. However, because of lack of access, because of fighting, because of looting of our stocks, we are not able to help them all. Food security is going to deteriorate. Because of fighting, quite a large part of the population in affected areas has not been able to tend to their crops. So, the situation is very difficult.
BS: In addition to your office’s work investigating human rights violations in South Sudan, the UN peacekeeping mission UNMISS is also mandated to monitor and report on abuses. How do OCHCR and UNMISS work together on the ground?
IS: UNMISS has a human rights component. The head of the human rights component, director of that component, Mr. Ibrahim Wani, has a dual reporting line. So, while the head of component reports to the Special Representative of Secretary-General, Hilde Johnson, he also reports to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. This reporting, and especially public reporting, is highly important. It is important because it’s a deterrent for crimes not to be committed, but also it’s important that people are informed of the hard facts related to human rights violations, their victims and their perpetrators.
When I talked to displaced persons, to the victims, I noticed that they have completely different perceptions of how the conflicts started, who the victims and who the perpetrators are. And the difference is based on their ethnic affiliation—whether they are Nuer or Dinka. So, for any sort of reconciliation, it is important that they know the facts: that both sides have been quite involved in human rights violations and committed crimes. However, for this to be accepted, you have to investigate individual cases of violations and report on them.
Therefore, I have discussed with UNMISS public reporting of human rights components, and we have agreed that by mid-February, we will be have an interim report mapping the violations of human rights, which require additional human rights investigation. We have also agreed that a comprehensive report on human rights violations committed after December 15, 2013 will be released by the end of April 2014.
BS: You mentioned human rights reporting, which I guess leads me to my next question, which is: the government of South Sudan has been accused of committing numerous human rights abuses against its own citizens. So how does the UN both work with the government of South Sudan while also on human rights abuses which the government itself may be responsible for?
IS: There is no doubt any more that both sides to the conflict have been involved in numerous human rights violations. Our position is impartiality. We have to address human rights violations no matter who commits them, whether it’s pro-government or opposition forces. We are impartial in this respect, but we are not neutral. We are siding with the victims, no matter their ethnicity or political orientations. Besides the divide between Dinka and Nuer, there is a far more important division, and it’s the division between victims and perpetrators. And we have victims and perpetrators on both sides.
BS: Recently the African Union’s Peace and Security Council decided to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations and other abuses committed by all sides during the armed conflict in South Sudan. What do you think of the challenges and benefits of such an approach by the African Union? And what do you envisage OHCHR’s role to be with regard to the commission?
IS: I welcome very much the decision of the African Union to establish a commission of inquiry. It is important that it’s an African initiative—it’s somehow unprecedented that there is a human rights investigation of this sort launched by the African Union. So, success of that commission is important for South Sudan, but it’s also an important precedent.
In this regard, the Human Rights Office supports the establishment of this commission. We have shared with the African Union our materials, including terms of reference of some previous commissions of inquiry that we have established, the ways on how to structure a competent secretariat of a commission of inquiry and criteria for selection of qualified and independent commissioners. Of course, there are challenges. The main challenge is to ensure that this commission of inquiry is successful in meeting international standards. In this regard, it’s on the African Union to make it a success. On our behalf, on behalf of OHCHR, we will do everything to support them. However, the final success—or lack of it—is on the African Union and its commission.
BS: That leads me to my final question, which is, given everything that you’ve seen, how do you think the recent peace talks in Addis will affect the human rights situation on the ground in South Sudan?
IS: Well, it’s certainly better to have at least a ceasefire which is occasionally broken than not to have it at all. But from ceasefire to sustainable peace there is a long way to go, and it will require much more than bilateral dialogue between two forces that are in conflict now. It will require inclusion of civil society—of religious leaders, of elders, of women. And in this respect, I think it’s highly important that in South Sudan, there is an open dialogue on the way forward and how to address root causes of this conflict. In this respect, it’s particularly important that there is freedom of expression and media freedoms—that are violated at the moment. It is highly important to address also social and economic underpinnings of the current crisis.
It is a country which has high GDP for the area, of about $1,800 dollars per person per year, but extremely low level of social development. Half of the population is malnourished and lives below the poverty line. We have very high illiteracy rates about two thirds of the population are illiterate. South Sudan also has one of the highest maternal mortality and child mortality figures in the world.
There is a long list of prerequisites for a more sustainable and more inclusive political system. We need security sector reform. It is a waste to have about over half to two thirds of the resources of the country, of its budget, to be spent on security forces. There is a need for sustainable development and to ensure that there is social development. The oil production and the resources are, at the moment, wasted on fighting, and on maintenance of very, very large number of security forces.
And the fact is, that oil will not last forever. The opportunity to use it for social development is right now.
BS: Well, Mr. Šimonović, thank you so much for meeting with the Global Observatory today. We very much appreciate your time.
IS: Nice speaking to you.