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Amidst Violence, A Human Rights Agenda for South Sudan

Emily Winter and Susannah Sirkin, on July 7, 2011

In January 2011, the world observed with apprehension South Sudan’s relatively peaceful vote to secede from the north. This referendum followed a precarious 2005 peace agreement that aimed to end Africa’s longest-running conflict, an appallingly destructive war that killed and displaced millions of civilians. As the South Sudanese enjoyed ubiquitous elation at the news – nearly 99 percent voted for secession – tensions rose between the Sudanese military and the SPLA, South Sudan’s secessionist force, along border areas. Sporadic reports of violence, pillaging and burning surfaced. Now, six months later and mere days before South Sudan officially gains independence on July 9, the border disputes threaten to spiral into yet another civil war.


Map of Sudan and Southern Sudan
On July 9, South Sudan will celebrate its official independence. Credit: Commons/

In the contested regions of Abyei, South Kordofan State, and the Nuba Mountains, the Sudanese military perpetrates flagrant violations of civilians’ most basic rights, including murder, rape, torture, pillaging and arson of homes, and alleged ethnic cleansing. Already wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir and South Kordofan Governor Ahmed Haroun continue to wield the power of the north's military against civilians with marked brutality, provoking similarly deadly responses from the SPLA.

Compounding the border attacks is internal tribal conflict in the South, as SPLA combatants clash with numerous armed groups in several of the South’s ten states; between January and April, the states of Jonglei, Lakes, and Unity witnessed the most violence. According to the United Nations, more than 260,000 people are displaced in South Sudan as a result of the conflicts, and more than 1,800 have been killed since the January referendum. Civilians’ rights to life, health, livelihood, property, and protection have been egregiously assaulted.

Amidst the violence, the outlook for July 9 might be seen with a cautious hope. Last week, the UN authorized deployment of 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeeping forces to Abyei, a region straddling the border between the two countries that has seen intense violence but that warring factions now plan to demilitarize ahead of the South’s independence.

Additionally, in an effort to avoid escalating clashes on South Sudan’s day of celebration, the African Union mediated a tense agreement between SPLA and Sudanese forces to withdraw from border regions prior to July 9. A 12-mile buffer zone will remain between the nations. Despite this potential progress, monitoring and supporting the security situation and basic rights of civilians in the South must remain a priority of the international community throughout the inauguration of the world’s youngest country.

On June 30, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch co-released a list of recommendations for South Sudan, to ensure the rights of its people are recognized and granted as the new nation determines its policies and affirms its stance on humanitarian considerations.

Physicians for Human Rights supports this rights agenda, and encourages the new government of South Sudan to enforce the recommendations in full.

The list prioritizes six actions for South Sudan:

  1. Ensure accountability for human rights violations carried out by security forces, and put an end to impunity.
  2. Promote freedom of expression, association and assembly.
  3. Release detainees whose imprisonment is unfounded or unjustified, particularly children.
  4. Immediately place a moratorium on the death penalty.
  5. Promote and protect the rights of women and girls, including condemning all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, and increasing women’s access to justice.
  6. Ratify international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

By elevating these issues in its constitution, legal code, and early initiatives, South Sudan will send a powerful message to its people – and to the world – that the enforcement of essential human rights is central to the young nation’s politics. National development that builds upon a foundation of human rights will gain the South Sudanese people’s trust in their new government, a welcome reprieve for a population that has endured a legacy of violence and rights violations at the hands of their leaders.

Emily Winter is a Programs Intern at Physicians for Human Rights.

Places: Sudan