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South Sudan must mark its independence with human rights commitments

There were scenes of jubilation and euphoria when South Sudan gained its independence 13 years ago, but hope and optimism quickly faded as conflict, corruption and human rights violations took hold in the world’s newest country.

In a pattern that has become increasingly common, South Sudanese security forces cracked down on two peaceful protests and arrested at least two people in connection with peaceful protests in Jonglei State’s main town, Bor, last month. The protests had been organised in response to the cost of living crisis, which has been exacerbated by the depreciation of the South Sudanese pound and skyrocketing food prices.

South Sudan regularly experiences humanitarian crises, but the current situation is particularly dire. Most civil servants have not been paid since September 2023. Teachers, doctors and security officers, who earn on average only $10-$50 a month, have also experienced long delays in receiving their salaries. At independence, one dollar was worth 2 South Sudanese pounds, and now it is worth 3,250 South Sudanese pounds – a record low.

This is undermining the people’s ability to feed themselves and therefore their right to food, which the government is obliged to guarantee for all. The World Food Programme estimates that at least 9 million people in South Sudan will need humanitarian assistance this year, in a country with 13 million hectares of prime arable land, but only 4 percent of it under cultivation. An estimated 2.5 million women and children are suffering from acute malnutrition. The war in neighbouring Sudan has also had a serious impact on South Sudan by affecting its economy, which relies on Sudan’s oil pipelines to bring oil, its biggest export, to Port Sudan and international markets. Corruption, which President Salva Kiir promised to eradicate after independence, is rampant. This significantly undermines the government’s ability to guarantee human rights by hindering people’s access to justice, public services and security. South Sudan has again been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world in Transparency International’s 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index, which placed it 177th out of 180 countries.

In the face of these serious challenges, South Sudanese should be able to freely exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including the ability to criticise the authorities and demand that their government do better without fear of reprisal. However, over the past 13 years, criticism of the government has been ruthlessly suppressed. Hundreds of journalists, civil society members and government critics have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention.

South Sudanese authorities have consistently failed to adopt a human rights agenda and action plan to address economic hardship, serious allegations of corruption and impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and serious human rights violations and abuses committed by all parties to South Sudan’s long-running conflict. A hybrid court has yet to be established to bring to justice those suspected of being responsible for human rights violations and abuses since December 2013.

This lack of respect for human rights directly contravenes South Sudan’s obligations under its 2011 Constitution, as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and a number of United Nations treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which South Sudan is a party.

The Government of South Sudan must not allow another anniversary of the country’s independence to pass before it begins to effectively uphold and fulfil its national and international human rights obligations, including by respecting, protecting, promoting and fulfilling the human rights of all South Sudanese people, including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, fair trial and economic, social and cultural rights. Rather than stifling a national debate on the country’s socio-economic problems and avenues for solutions, it should actively encourage and facilitate such debate and allow the voices of the South Sudanese people to be heard. Above all, the South Sudanese authorities must end impunity for human rights violations and ensure victims’ access to justice and effective remedies.

Mr Sikula Oniala is a South Sudan Researcher at Amnesty International’s Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office.

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