The increasing securitization of the state threatens citizens' rights as the country emerges from five years of civil war, which killed almost 400,000 people and displaced millions, said the report published Wednesday by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
"There is a climate of fear surrounding the activities of the national security services which denies any possibility of freedom of expression or activity for a critical civil society," Andrew Clapham, a commission member and law professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva told The Associated Press.
At least 47 accounts of people who had been arbitrarily arrested, detained or subjected to torture and inhuman treatment, such as being beaten or whipped, burned with plastics, electrocuted and forced to watch other detainees be executed by national security and the army's military intelligence wing, were documented by the group between December 2013 and late 2018.
South Sudan's challenges moving forward are "immense," compounded by the protracted conflict, deep ethnic divisions, an economic crisis and a "dysfunctional and predatory elite system of government," said the report, based on 135 witness statements and over 3,000 documents including confidential records.
Despite a fragile peace agreement signed more than five months ago, violations including rape and sexual violence continue across the country, many of which could amount to war crimes, said the report.
"South Sudan's human rights record is appalling," said Jehanne Henry, senior associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. The report underlines how the national security service has become especially abusive in the last five years, arbitrarily detaining people without any legal charges, often for long periods and collaborating with neighboring countries to forcibly disappear activists, she said.
The report focused on three states, Unity, Western Bahr el Ghazal and Central Equatoria, where it found "reasonable grounds" to believe that the government, opposition and affiliated armed groups violated international humanitarian law, by targeting civilians on the basis of their perceived political and ethnic affiliations and perpetrating killings, abductions, rape and looting and destroying property.
In May 10 men and boys were shot and killed, four of whom were lined up and shot at point-blank range by soldiers from the Presidential Guard Tiger Division, which launched an attack on the Emmanuel Christian College in Goli in Central Equatoria state, while searching for weapons and "rebels," said the report. One 12-year-old boy was shot dead in his bed and a stick was forced up his anus, said the report.
Government soldiers including forces loyal to First Vice President Taban Deng Gai, attacked at least 40 towns and villages between April and June in Unity state, targeting civilians with "astonishing brutality," said the report. Old men were hanged from trees, people were burned to death in their houses and children were run down by tanks as they fled.
While the report doesn't give names, the commission identified several commanders from the government and opposition as well as the governors of both Northern and Southern Liech states who were said to be involved in the planning, coordinating and the delivery of weapons. There have been few government-led investigations to hold perpetrators accountable in a culture where "pervasive impunity" remains the norm, said the report. The names have been confidentially given to the U.N. commission in Geneva.
South Sudan's minister of information Michael Makuei dismissed the findings and said they were "clearly orchestrated to tarnish the image of the government." He said the finding that South Sudan was like a police state was "unfortunate" and something said by organizations who want to disrupt the implementation of the peace agreement.
South Sudan's peace deal has been marked by delays and a lack of funding. Last week a $285 million budget was passed for the accord's initial implementation, which according to the agreement should conclude by May. So far, the international community remains skeptical of the agreement and few countries have committed funds.
At least one South Sudan expert said that "genuine peace" hinges on much needed government reforms, Jacob Chol senior political analyst and professor at the University of Juba, told AP. "There is a great need for real change in the human rights and rule of law sectors," he said. "Freedom of speech must be upheld."
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