The information below is based on the Report of the Secretary-General to the Security Council (S/2020/487) issued on 03 June 2020.

South Sudan has endured protracted conflict and instability, during which crimes of conflict-related sexual violence have reached appalling levels of brutality, often committed with marked political and ethnic undertones. Despite explicit provisions in the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities between the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (in Opposition) and the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan prohibiting sexual violence, its use as a tactic of war remained of serious concern in 2019. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented 224 cases of conflict-related sexual violence affecting 133 women, 66 girls, 19 men and 6 boys. Prior incidents, which had taken place between 2014 and 2018, affecting 55 women and 26 girls, were also verified during the period under review. Delays in reporting and persistent underreporting are linked with fear and stigma, limited humanitarian access and the occurrence of sexual violence in remote areas. The year under review saw a decrease in reported cases compared with 2018, which can be attributed to a reduction in armed clashes resulting from the implementation of the permanent ceasefire and the Revitalized Agreement. However, the proximity of cantonment sites to civilian population centres continues to create a significant risk of sexual violence.

The majority of incidents of sexual violence were recorded in Central Equatoria, where fighting between Government forces and armed opposition groups that remain non-signatories to the peace agreement intensified. Rape, sexual slavery and sexual torture were used for the purposes of intimidation and punishment, based on perceived political affiliation. Moreover, sexual violence was employed as an ethnically based strategy, aimed at transforming the demographics of the region. Other areas such as Unity (16 incidents), Upper Nile (16 incidents), Western Bahr el-Ghazal (11 incidents), and Western Equatoria (8 incidents) were affected by active hostilities, arising either from internal strife generated by opposition groups or clashes between local militias characterized by a large presence of armed youth. The South Sudan People’s Defence Forces were implicated in 37 per cent of the cases. Cases were also attributed to members of the South Sudan National Police Service and the National Security Services. Major General Ochan Puot’s forces allied to the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces were implicated in 12 per cent of cases. The pro-Riek Machar Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO/RM) was responsible for 15 per cent of incidents. Other actors such as the National Salvation Front (NAS), community-based militias and unidentified armed men accounted for the balance of reported incidents. The Panel of Experts on South Sudan of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 2206 (2015) also reported on the use of sexual violence by state security forces against alleged supporters of NAS and civilians. Patterns of attacks against women while travelling to or from urban centres, or during home invasions, persisted in 2019. The violence did not spare pregnant women, or children as young as 3 years of age. In some cases, civilians were killed after being sexually assaulted. In August, four men in Upper Nile were beheaded after suffering mutilation of their sexual organs. Sexual violence against men was also carried out as a form of torture in detention and remains underreported as a result of entrenched sociocultural norms. Although the definition of rape enshrined in the Penal Code Act (2008) is gender-neutral, male survivors fear being classified as homosexuals and liable to prosecution under section 248 of the Code, which criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”.

Humanitarian actors continue to experience attacks by armed groups. During the reporting period, the compound of a humanitarian organization was attacked in Upper Nile, and two staff members were sexually assaulted, resulting in the suspension of the organization’s projects. Perpetrators continue to exploit the prevailing climate of insecurity, limited state authority, and widespread impunity. Weak rule of law, militarization and permissive command and control structures contribute to the normalization of extreme violence, including sexual violence. Stigma and shame impede access to the limited services available for survivors, resulting in many untreated sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. In response, campaigns have been implemented to raise awareness of sexual violence and to promote HIV testing and treatment. With United Nations support, nine one-stop centres are currently operating in eight locations across the country, facilitating the delivery of holistic services. Their coverage outside of urban areas, however, remains limited. Initiatives focused on long-term resilience and income generation for women are scarce. With the aim of shifting harmful social norms that drive and perpetuate sexual and gender-based violence, the South Sudan Council of Churches issued a statement, signed by influential religious leaders, denouncing the stigma associated with sexual violence and promoting social reintegration and cohesion.

Notwithstanding the persistent challenges, progress was also observed in 2019. The implementation of the action plans adopted pursuant to both the 2014 joint communiqué, signed by President Kiir and the United Nations, and the unilateral communiqué, signed by Riek Machar, leader of SPLA-IO/RM, continued to advance. With UNMISS support, over 700 officers of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces and 150 SPLA-IO/RM officers were trained on relevant legal frameworks prohibiting the use of sexual violence, as well as on the principle of command responsibility. SPLA-IO/RM issued four command orders, one of which instructed commanders in Western and Central Equatoria to form committees to investigate alleged cases of sexual violence. The National Salvation Front, a non-signatory group to the peace agreement, issued two similar orders. In November, the South Sudan National Police Service also launched an action plan. In follow-up to the 2018 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documenting abductions of women and children in Western Equatoria, my Special Representative met with Riek Machar in Addis Ababa in July to advocate the immediate release of all women and children held against their will on military bases of SPLA-IO/RM. On 29 July and 26 December, Riek Machar issued command orders calling for the release of these women and girls. In order to facilitate the full implementation of those orders, UNMISS and the United Nations country team continued to engage with local commanders so as to encourage the release and referral of abducted women and children to medical and psychosocial support structures. Political advocacy is ongoing to secure the release of all women and children held against their will.

Criminal accountability for crimes of conflict-related sexual violence remains extremely limited. During the reporting period, a civilian court sentenced six pro Taban Deng Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition elements and one member of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces for the rape of four women, with prison terms ranging between two and six years and the obligation to make payments in compensation to victims. Two of the perpetrators subsequently escaped detention. The investigation of the national committee established by Republican Order 25/2018 into the widespread sexual violence committed in Bentiu in 2018, was finalized in February 2019, but has not been made public. The Government presented some key findings from this investigation to the Human Rights Council, acknowledging only 16 incidents of rape, which were characterized as “isolated acts of random criminality”. The weakness of the formal justice system has increased reliance on customary and traditional mechanisms to adjudicate cases of sexual violence. In two such cases, reportedly perpetrated by SPLA-IO/RM elements against minors, a customary court in Western Bahr el-Ghazal sentenced perpetrators to pay compensation to the survivors’ families, in amounts ranging from 20,000 to 30,000 South Sudanese pounds ($153 to $230) and a fine of 3,000 South Sudanese pounds ($23), in lieu of a three-month term of imprisonment. The creation of a specialized court to prosecute crimes of sexual and gender-based violence remains pending. The United Nations continues to support the authorities in convening mobile courts for prosecuting serious crimes in various parts of the country.

Recommendation

I welcome the establishment of a Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity and urge all parties to fully comply with the provisions prohibiting the use of sexual violence contained in the Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities and the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict. I encourage the Government to accelerate implementation of the action plans for the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces and the South Sudan National Police Service, to establish a specialized court to prosecute sexual and gender-based crimes, and to provide services, reparations and redress to survivors. I call for the immediate safe release of all women and children abducted during the course of hostilities.

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