A senior UN official demanded accountability Monday for human rights violations committed by both sides in South Sudan’s year-old conflict, saying “nobody is above the law.”
Ivan Simonovic, the assistant secretary-general for human rights who just returned from South Sudan, told a press conference Monday that there is a broader acknowledgment of the need to break the cycle of impunity in the country.
But he said it won’t be easy to improve the security and justice systems because 70 percent of the police force is illiterate and there are only 100 to 200 judges and a limited number of prosecutors.
Fighting broke out in the world’s newest nation in December 2013 after President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, accused former vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, of trying to oust him in a coup. Their political dispute sparked ethnic attacks and fighting between government troops and rebels that has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced over 2.1 million, and sent 500,000 fleeing to neighboring countries.
The warring factions have broken multiple agreements pledging a peaceful end to the conflict. In the most recent agreement, signed last week in neighboring Ethiopia, Kiir and Machar agreed to conclude a comprehensive peace deal before March 5.
Simonovic said it was encouraging that Kiir and Machar made clear that there needs to be accountability, including criminal proceedings. He urged that this be included in the comprehensive peace deal.
Simonovic also called for the speedy release of a report by an African Union commission of inquiry into human rights violations during the conflict and a national investigation into the violence.
He said there will have to be support from outside South Sudan for any legal proceedings involving accountability to ensure impartiality and expertise as well as witness protection.
In the current situation, he said, “it’s very difficult to ensure necessary witness protection especially in high-profile cases.”
Simonovic said there may be a need for high profile cases to include experts from outside South Sudan.
“In the meantime, I encourage confidence-building measures between the parties,” he said. “These would include free access to detainees; cooperation in tracing missing persons and the release of conflict-related detainees by both sides, hopefully under an all-for-all formula.”