It is time to end impunity for conflict-related sexual violence in South Sudan
Angela, a refugee from South Sudan, was six months pregnant when she was raped while her children sat petrified under the bed. We met Angela on a trip to refugee settlements in northern Uganda in September 2017. She is amongst many women and girls who were brutally raped and gang raped in Yei, Morobo, Lainya and elsewhere in the Equatoria region of South Sudan in 2016 and 2017.
“At the time, we could hear gun shots and everyone was running so I ran with all of my children and we hid under the bed. They [the soldiers] came with guns banging on the door saying: “get out of the house, get out of the house” and then they broke down the door. I was pregnant. Immediately, they entered and one of them started removing his clothes and raping me…They told me: “we will do bad things to you whether you are woman, or if we find your husband, we will sleep with him in front of you, you will see!””
Sexual Violence Continues
Today marks the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which signifies solidarity with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence around the world and recognizes those fighting to end impunity for such violence. But, despite the significant progress that has been made in efforts to eradicate sexual violence in wartime and provide justice for survivors of these horrific crimes, the fight is far from over. Sexual violence continues to be perpetrated by parties to conflicts around the globe, including in Nigeria and Iraq.
South Sudan is no exception. Yet, there continues to be a limited appreciation about the scale and extent of sexual violence violations there. Sexual violence has been widespread since the conflict started almost 5 years ago on 15 December 2013. Thousands upon thousands of women, men and children have been subjected to rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, sexual mutilation, torture, castration and forced nudity at the hands of both government and opposition forces with complete impunity.
Rachel, another refugee from South Sudan, told us about how she was gang raped by government soldiers before fleeing for neighbouring Uganda. Since arriving in the refugee settlement, she gave birth to a child she conceived as a result of the rape.
These shocking crimes have continued unabated. Between February and November 2017 154 cases of sexual violence were identified in the capital city, Juba and surrounding areas, some of which involved women having had their ears and fingers removed. Just this April, there were reports of gang rapes and abductions of women and girls in fighting between government and opposition forces in parts of Unity State.
They told me: “we will do bad things to you whether you are woman, or if we find your husband, we will sleep with him in front of you, you will see!”
It is not just women and girls who are subjected to sexual violence. We have found evidence of sexual violence against men and boys in South Sudan, including rape, castration and torture, with men rendered especially vulnerable when in custody and detention. Children have also been forced to watch their mothers and other family members raped in front of them, compounding the already dire mental health crisis where UNICEF estimates that 900,000 children are in need of psychological support and rehabilitation.
Demands for Justice
But South Sudanese civilians are not giving up hope. Survivors of sexual violence in South Sudan repeatedly told us during research in 2017 that they wanted justice. Many people that we spoke to saw accountability as a prerequisite to ending vicious cycles of violence where the failure to address past abuses becomes a significant driver of renewed violence.
Unfortunately, South Sudanese leaders have continuously failed to make good on their past promises to improve access to justice and to hold those responsible to account. With the shortcomings in the domestic legal system, which has been razed by nearly five years of war, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan provided for by the August 2015 Agreement for the Resolution of the Crisis in South Sudan represents the most viable option for achieving the justice that South Sudanese survivors of sexual violence want and deserve.
Yet, despite the development of a Memorandum of Understanding and Statute for the court’s establishment in 2017, the South Sudan government has been dragging its feet on providing the signature needed for its creation. This signals to those responsible for sexual violence crimes that there will be no consequences for their actions, contributing to the continuation of abuses.
The absence of sustainable peace does not excuse injustice for conflict-related sexual violence and the government of South Sudan must heed to the calls for accountability from their own citizens. Survivors like Angela and Rachel have the right to redress.
The South Sudan government should show its commitment to the thousands of women, men and children who have been subjected to gross violations of human rights and act immediately to establish the Hybrid Court. South Sudanese civilians deserve genuine accountability for the crimes and suffering they have endured for almost five years. It is high-time that the government exercise political will and join the global fight to end impunity for conflict-related sexual crimes.