Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I understand the challenges of democracy and of staying on schedules, so thank you very much.
Honourable chairman, members of the subcommittee, ladies and gentlemen, first I want to sincerely thank you for the time and effort you are devoting to the tragic situation in South Sudan, which certainly merits the world's very serious and sustained attention. Thank you all for your continuing efforts and for holding these hearings.
Second, I thank you for inviting me to appear before the subcommittee. My comments are made with great respect for the committee, and I hope they will be helpful.
To put things in context, let me start with a brief snapshot of the current situation in South Sudan.
As you know, South Sudan is the world's youngest country, only becoming fully independent from Sudan in 2011. Unfortunately, only a short time later, in December 2013, the country fell into a terrible civil war, which continues and has become increasingly ethnic over time.
Approximately 3.5 million South Sudanese, somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of the country's population, are displaced either internally or across national borders in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. South Sudan is Africa's largest refugee crisis and third only to Syria and Afghanistan in the entire world. Most of the displaced are women and children, and 70% of refugees are younger than 18. Most of the camps are struggling hard to meet needs, often with minimum or substantially reduced rations.
South Sudan suffers from extreme food insecurity, with the world's first officially declared famine since 2011 in two states in the north of the country, with 5.5 million people facing severe food shortages this year, almost half the country's population. It's actually more than half, when you consider how much of the population has already left the country. More than half of the population faces serious hunger this year, more than half of these are children, 100,000 South Sudanese face imminent starvation, and another million are on the brink.
In terms of the world's most fragile states, two different sources, the World Economic Forum and Business Insider, rank Somalia as the most fragile state in the world and South Sudan as second. Unfortunately, Transparency International ranks South Sudan as the second most corrupt country in the world. Again, only Somalia is worse.
Perhaps surprisingly, given all of what I've just said, South Sudan is not at the bottom in terms of the world's poorest countries. Two different sources, Global Finance and again Business Insider, rank South Sudan as the 16th poorest country in the world. Having said this, it's quite possible that South Sudan's economic standing has fallen even lower, given that inflation in the country in recent months has hit as high as 900%.
These conditions and circumstances, Mr. Chairman, are and would be tragic under any circumstances, but what makes the situation in South Sudan especially tragic is that virtually all of these conditions are man-made, man-caused. Weather may be a small factor in some northern parts of the country, but by and large—and I say very by and large—all of this suffering is man-made and could be avoided.
Against this dire picture, Mr. Chairman, the Government of South Sudan recently told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that it has declared 2017 a “year of peace and prosperity”. Given what I have just said and what I'm about to say, that statement can only be regarded as surreal and out of touch.
Indeed, on March 24, UN Secretary-General António Guterres accused the government of failing to acknowledge and respond to the country's multiple crises.
As you know, South Sudan is suffering one of Africa's most brutal wars. In the last 10 months there has been a massive increase in gross human rights violations and abuses and an escalation of fighting in the country. Based on reports that I've heard just in the past few days and as recently as yesterday, it is deteriorating quickly once again, with major unconfirmed but apparent killings in the southeast of the country and around Pajok and violence around the city of Wau in western Bahr el Ghazal, where as many as 16 or so civilians were killed yesterday. It is once again getting worse and not better.
Over the past three and a half years, South Sudanese civilians have been deliberately and systematically targeted on the basis of ethnicity by government and government-aligned forces for killing, abduction, unlawful detention, deprivation of liberty, etc. On the ground this translates into bound corpses left on roadsides, hunger where once there was plenty, thousands of children ripped from their mothers, some forced to carry guns and kill as child soldiers.
In terms of international law, the fundamental principle of distinction—that is, distinguishing combatants from non-combatants—is very largely ignored. Civilians are treated like combatants often based on their perceived political allegiance, again largely calculated on the basis of ethnicity. Opposition forces too have been responsible for human rights abuses, although to a lesser extent, unfortunately or otherwise, than the government.
One of the worst and most shocking characteristics of the South Sudan conflict is the extreme level of sexual violence. The word massive is sometimes overused, but the sexual and gender-based violence in South Sudan cannot be described as anything less. Recent UN inquiries report that 70% of South Sudanese women and girls in displacement camps have suffered some form of serious sexual assault or abuse. Women who go out from the camps and in other situations to collect food and firewood are constantly exposed to rape and abuse, often by uniformed soldiers.
The government's general response is one of denial, even saying that this can't be true because rape is contrary to their culture. My response to that, Mr. Chairman, is: tell that to the thousands of women and young girls who have been raped in the past three and a half years.
The question has come up whether genocide has occurred or is occurring in South Sudan. To date, no one to my knowledge has reached that conclusion, but a number of expert observers, including the UN Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, and our commission, have warned of a significant risk of genocide—a serious risk that cannot be ignored and that could ignite in a very short time.
Having said this, our commission has reported a prolonged, extensive, and increasing pattern of ethnic-based killing, mistreatment, and displacement that can only be described as ethnic cleansing and a demonstration of the government's desire for a Dinka-dominated country. When the commission visited the northern town of Malakal in November, we saw how the redrawing of boundary lines had helped depopulate the town of its Shilluk and Nuer inhabitants. We were subsequently told that after these other non-Dinka had been moved out, Dinka had been moved by the government into these areas, so it is engineering a population; it is replacing one ethnic group with another ethnic group.
I must say, as a former prosecutor concerning the Bosnia situation, that this is exactly the situation we saw in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, when the Serbs and Croats would move out the Muslim populations and move the Serb and Croat populations in. That is classic ethnic engineering.
If some observers or members of the public question whether ethnic cleansing has taken place and is taking place, I respectfully point the subcommittee to the words and protest of senior government officials and military officers who have resigned their positions—at least seven in recent months—many of whom have protested in their resignation letters the government's ethnic bias and cleansing and have questioned the government's genuine desire for peace.
Mr. Chairman, you and other members of the subcommittee may remember the displaced and often orphaned so-called lost boys of Sudan from the late 1980s into the 1990s, many of whom came to North America. Sadly, we are seeing now a very real threat of another lost generation of South Sudanese youth.
As I mentioned earlier, South Sudan is suffering an extreme humanitarian crisis bordering on catastrophe and only made worse and exploited by the government. Despite claims to the contrary, the government repeatedly obstructs and manipulates humanitarian assistance and prevents human rights reporting. Humanitarian workers are increasingly at risk, with six aid workers having been murdered just a couple of weeks ago.
As I indicated a moment ago, in just the past several weeks the UN has reported an alarming increase in attacks on civilians and aid workers by both government and opposition forces. There are unconfirmed reports that government forces have massacred civilians in and around Pajok in Eastern Equatoria in the past week. There are unconfirmed reports that as many as 135 persons have been killed, with bodies burned in their houses or buried in shallow graves. As many as 6,000 civilians have crossed into northern Uganda to escape the violence, with a number of them reporting having seen with their own eyes their civilian relatives being executed by soldiers at close range. The UN has made efforts to enter the area, but the government has twice refused them access.
Let me turn to some of the steps that need to be taken and other issues and characteristics of this terrible conflict. A root cause of this conflict is a deep culture of impunity whereby no political or military leaders have been held accountable following wave after wave, year after year, of mass violence in South Sudan, dating back more than 40 years.
In short, the attitude is that in the past 40 years no political or military leader has been held accountable, so why should anyone think they will be held accountable now? That is the mindset. The conflict in South Sudan—the violence—will not stop and there will be no sustained peace in South Sudan ever until there is genuine rule of law and real accountability.
To date, neither South Sudan's national system nor any regional body nor the international community has held anyone beyond a handful of foot soldiers accountable or taken any serious, robust steps to hold anyone accountable. Mass violence continues to be committed every day with impunity.
The peace agreement that was signed by the government and others in August 2015 provides on its face for three important elements of transitional justice to assist South Sudan in seriously coming to grips with national grievances, reconciliation, and accountability. Those elements are a truth and reconciliation commission, a hybrid criminal court composed of both South Sudanese and international components, and a reparations authority. Sadly, very little if any progress has been made on these institutions in the past year and a half.
Some technical work sponsored by the international community has laid some early groundwork for a truth commission, but this appears now to be inactive and at increasing risk of being displaced and avoided by the government's so-called “national dialogue”, announced in December but not implemented to date—which I'll come back to in a moment—and the reparations authority is nowhere to be seen. There's not even a whimper on that one.
After a year, the African Union has begun some work on the hybrid court. While there are rumours of a draft statute and related documents, the African Union to date has declined to share the documents with the commission, although we have requested them, and there are indications that the South Sudan government, while of course stating repeatedly its alleged desire to co-operate with the African Union, appears to find ways to avoid virtually all meetings or communications with the AU’s representatives.
Moreover, and in truth, drafting a statute is the easy part. The real question is whether there is the political will and commitment to actually standing up a court.
I am mindful of the time, Mr. Chairman, and I am concluding.
As I mentioned a moment ago, the South Sudan government has announced going outside the peace agreement process to establish something called a “national dialogue”, even though its purposes were and are intended to be addressed by the truth commission.
While it is difficult in concept to be opposed to “dialogue,” which all of us can generally agree is probably a good thing, in this instance it appears to be a government-dominated, non-inclusive process which, after a few meetings and after a couple of months, will be used to announce that there is no longer any need for a truth commission or a hybrid court or for a reparations authority.
In the meantime, essential evidence is literally being lost every day. As a long-time prosecutor, I realize that you cannot go into court, international, hybrid, domestic, or otherwise, unless you have evidence. Evidence is being lost and destroyed every day; witnesses die or disappear; they are moved around in displacement and as refugees, never to be found again; documents disappear or are destroyed; mass graves are concealed; etc.
All of this will make it impossible to hold some people accountable, which surely is what some people want. You cannot say that you are in favour of accountability and not in favour of collecting and preserving evidence. If you are not in favour of collecting and preserving evidence, then despite what else you may say, you do not in fact support accountability.
My concluding remark is that, as I said earlier, every current crisis in South Sudan is primarily caused by political elites engaged in a contest for political power, wherein ethnicity has been instrumentalized—that is, weaponized to carry out the conflict—to tragic human, property, and economic loss. A small coterie of political leaders has shown total disregard not just for international norms but for the welfare of their own people. They have squandered the international good will and assistance that was poured out to South Sudan from 2005 to 2013 and have looted and destroyed the country’s oil wealth.
If the current conflict ends—if it does end—without real accountability, then the South Sudan government, the African Union, and the international community will have seriously and tragically failed, and I say with great sadness that all we can really expect, perhaps sooner rather than later, is a next round of mass violence.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.