Mr. President, Members of the Council,
I appreciate this opportunity to brief the Council on the situation in South Sudan.
The harrowing reports in November of brutal mass rapes of women and girls in Bentiu while on their way to a food distribution site has sent shock waves around the world. The facts and details of the perpetrators and those who bear command responsibility for this latest incident are still being investigated by the United Nations team on the ground. Local authorities have also opened an investigation headed by the Minister of Gender Affairs, deployed to Bentiu since 15 December. In the course of these investigations it is crucial for the Government to ensure that victims and witnesses are fully protected and do not face any reprisal for coming forward.
Although the investigations are still on-going, what is clear is that this latest attack in Bentiu is part of a systematic trend and pattern of sexual violence that has escalated dramatically in 2018 despite recent re-commitments by South Sudan’s leaders to a cessation of hostilities and a revitalized peace agreement.
Patterns and Trends of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
Since 2013 in particular, we have witnessed systematic patterns of sexual violence primarily against women and girls as well as reported incidents against men and boys. Sexual violence remains rampant in the country and it is used as part of a strategy to degrade, shame and humiliate both the victims and communities often along ethnic and/or political lines. Sexual violence has also been used as a driver of forced displacement, and as a tactic and weapon of war by all the parties to the conflict.
In 2018, there has been a clear and alarming increase in the number of cases and victims of conflict-related sexual violence documented. The number of victims in 2018 has already reached 1157, making it the highest number recorded in the last three years. By comparison, in 2017 United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented 196 cases of CRSV, affecting 128 women and 68 girls.
In July 2018, I heard first-hand testimony of survivors and witnesses during my mission to South Sudan. I visited Protection of Civilians sites in Juba and Malakal and spoke with women who had survived sexual violence and continue to live in situations of acute vulnerability, both inside and outside the camps. Their accounts indicate clearly that rape was used by the attackers to exercise power over their victims, impose extreme humiliation, destroy their dignity and fracture families and the community.
In a POC site in Juba, I met with a group of deeply traumatized women and men who had recently arrived from Unity State, displaced as a result of the military offensives of April and May. The survivors recounted brutal and shocking patterns of conflict-related sexual violence occurring alongside other atrocity crimes. Their horrific testimonies were fully consistent with the report released on 10 July 2018 by UNMISS and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on the indiscriminate attacks against civilians in Southern Unity State, which found that at least 120 women and girls, including pregnant and lactating mothers, and girls as young as four-years-old, were raped and gang-raped. For example, a six-year-old girl was gang-raped by 8 soldiers who continued to violate her even as she became unconscious. Some victims were raped to death, not surviving the sexual violence to which they were subjected. Additionally, the report documented the abduction of 132 women and girls for purposes of sexual slavery.
In October, in Western Equatoria region 43 cases of rape/gang rape and the abduction of 505 women and 63 girls for the purpose of sexual slavery were documented. Survivors were reportedly tied to trees and gang raped until they passed out. In SPLA-IO (pro-Machar faction) transit points or bases, women and girls as young as 12 were lined up for the commanders to choose as “wives”. Those who were not picked were left for other fighters and subjected to repeated rapes. Sexual abuse would reportedly cease only once abducted women became fighters, which is consistent with information that part of the objective of SPLA-IO (pro-Machar faction) was to forcibly recruit fighters to bolster their ranks.
Lasting Consequences of Sexual Violence and Needs of Survivors
Sexual violence leaves deep physical, psychological, and social scars. All the survivors I met desperately asked for greater support to restore their physical and psychological well-being. They face enormous challenges to receiving appropriate medical treatment. The humanitarian facilities that provide treatment are often inaccessible. Those living in rural areas often have nowhere to go, given the collapse of the healthcare systems due to the conflict. The total breakdown of State public and service provision infrastructure, means that women and girls are at a greater risk of unplanned pregnancy, severe sexual and reproductive injuries and prone to contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS.
In addition to the physical effects, feelings of shame, stigma, and rejection by spouses and family members add to their distress. I met several women with their babies born of rape and saw how they are set on a trajectory of poverty, discrimination and violence.
All the survivors demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice and punished. They all felt that this was the only way to break the cycle of violence and secure a peaceful future for South Sudan.
Combating Impunity for Sexual Violence
During my visit I met with the Minister of Defence, Minister in the Office of the President and other senior government officials all of whom acknowledged the high prevalence of sexual violence and reiterated that these violations are unacceptable and shameful. However, this sense of outrage must be translated into concrete action. A policy of ‘Zero-Tolerance’ cannot be underpinned by the reality of ‘Zero-Consequence’. The fact is that it is still largely ‘cost-free’ to rape in South Sudan. Until we raise the cost and consequences for committing, commanding or condoning these crimes we will not end the prevailing impunity that is a driver of sexual violence. Therefore, consistent prosecution and accountability of perpetrators is central to prevention.
Use of Security Council Sanctions and Targeted Measures as a Deterrent
At the same time, the international community must be prepared to use all the compliance tools at its disposal to send the signal of our ‘Zero Tolerance’ of these crimes. We cannot underestimate the importance of sanctions and other targeted measures as a potential deterrent for perpetrators and would-be perpetrators.
On 24 October 2018, I briefed the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 2206 (2015) concerning South Sudan. In terms of those who are believed to bear Command Responsibility for sexual violence in the Southern Unity offensives of July 2018, UN verified reports mainly attributes responsibility for violations to the national army SPLA; and SPLA-IO pro-Taban Deng faction and youth militia. It is believed that 3 senior officials are amongst those who bear command responsibility. Regarding the Western Equatoria offensives of October 2018, three commanders of SPLA-IO pro-Machar faction identified by victims and witnesses are believed to bear command responsibility.
In follow up to my briefing to the Sanctions Committee, yesterday my Office together with the Office of the High Commissioner on Human rights submitted a confidential joint letter to the Chair of the South Sudan Sanctions Committee which includes the names of the three alleged perpetrators from Southern Unity, for the Committee’s consideration.
I wish to conclude with the following recommendations:
- I urge the Government of South Sudan to rigorously and expeditiously investigate all incidents of sexual violence, share the results with the United Nations, and hold all perpetrators accountable regardless of rank or seniority. Furthermore, I urge the Government to establish the hybrid court without delay, and to ensure that it prosecutes all cases of sexual violence. My Office stands ready to provide support to the Government of South Sudan in this regard, pursuant to the Joint Communique signed with President Salva Kiir in 2104.
- I urge the Security Council to consistently apply sanctions for sexual violence crimes as a critical aspect of deterrence and prevention, utilizing the standalone designation criteria on sexual violence as articulated in Resolution 2428 (2018).
- Comprehensive services must be provided to survivors, especially medical and psychosocial care. I urge all parties to the conflict to grant unhindered access to humanitarian organizations and UNMISS to reach victims and displaced civilians. I also call on the international community to maintain resources for life-saving services.
- Finally, given the scale and consequences of these violations, conflict-related sexual violence should be addressed as a central aspect of the Revitalized Peace Agreement of 2108. This includes ensuring that crimes of sexual violence are not amnestied, and that victims receive the reparations and livelihood support that they need to rebuild their lives. Sexual violence considerations should be part of any peacebuilding, reconstruction, transitional justice and truth and reconciliation arrangements.
Thank you for your attention.