The proposed law, an almost exact replica of Sudan’s security laws, would grant the already dreaded agency entirely unfettered power to spy on private communications, to search and seize property without a warrant, to arrest and detain innocent people without explanation, and to use physical force – in other words torture.
Those following South Sudan’s political developments in the news will likely have become aware in recent weeks of a controversial new bill relating to the National Security Service (NSS). The process of the new bill’s passing through parliament and its impending sign off by the President has been the subject of substantial news coverage and vocal public debate.
In a country wherein massacres, violence of a genocidal nature, widespread rape and other such atrocities are well know and well documented to have been committed by the state army and opposition forces since the civil war broke out in December 2013, to many observers, the activities of just one relatively small security organ may seem like a drop in the ocean. Moreover, for those who have spent time in South Sudan prior this recent wave of conflict, the subject of NSS’s abuse of power may well seem like old news.
Eighteen months ago when I first visited South Sudan, I came to hear about the activities of the NSS straightaway, on the drive from Juba airport to my lodgings. In a city that largely resembles a dusty, sprawling building site of one and two storey buildings, the NSS headquarters certainly stands out. A hulking box, not unlike an overgrown piece of child’s Lego, the grey and blue building looms ominously in the distance, oddly juxtaposed with its surroundings – clusters of mud and straw tukul huts and shacks of corrugated iron and UN plastic sheeting. On approach, as the building came into closer view through the car window I was told: ‘That’s the National Security building…but everyone here calls it the Ministry of Torture. Can you see that it doesn’t really have proper windows?’.
Subsequently, it became apparent through private conversations over dinner that the goings-on within the NSS were Juba’s worst kept secret. Stories of people being spied on, or hauled into the building by its agents and detained without charge or the opportunity to call for help, to tales of extreme torture, instilled immense fear in the city’s residents. For me, as somebody visiting the country with the purpose of researching issues of human rights and justice, the NSS went straight to the top of the list of things I wanted to talk about. However, when it came to carrying out my research, conducting interviews within the offices of South Sudanese NGOs, lawyers, activists and journalists, as well as international workers, my broaching of the issue was invariably met with evasive or mumbled responses, and most often the swift changing of the subject. The candidness of my behind-closed-doors discussions was not reflected in my official interviews. Nobody wanted to talk about the NSS with me.
In the context of these experiences, to me the recent wave of public hype surrounding this new NSS bill was striking.
In South Sudan’s Transitional Constitution of 2011, the NSS is set out to be ‘professional and its mandate shall focus on information gathering, analysis and advice’, and that it must ‘respect the will of the people, the rule of law, democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms’. Evidently, the service strayed early on from its initial mandate. The new NSS bill, however, is an almost exact replica of Sudan’s security laws, and would grant the service’s agents entirely unfettered power to spy on private communications, to search and seize property without a warrant, to arrest and detain innocent people without explanation, and to use physical force – in other words torture. All of these would be completely legal. One could respond that the NSS was already doing these things anyway, so what difference does it make? The significances of the NSS being able to act in such a way without judicial oversight are multiple: firstly, the prevalence and gravity of their abuses would almost certainly get a lot worse, potentially rendering South Sudan a police state. Secondly, we can anticipate that this shift will have a detrimental trickle-down effect on the conduct of the country’s other state and security services, including the police and army, as well as non-state armed groups. Thirdly, the bill ensures that the already narrow window through which a citizen could attempt to seek justice and redress for abuses committed against them by the NSS is shut completely. Fourthly, the bill violates key international law and human rights norms, as well as South Sudan’s own constitution – in other words, one could read the bill as an explicit demonstration that the rule of law, and indeed the very social contract upon which South Sudan’s nascent statehood was won and built upon, is essentially null and void. The NSS is already known to target international aid and development organisations, corporations and the media; the new bill could place even greater strain upon the country’s relationship with the international agencies and donors that it has heavily relied upon for its survival. One day, the current conflict will come to an end and the country will enter a new chapter; what will a future South Sudan look like if laws like these are in place?
It is for all of these reasons that South Sudanese and international human rights organisations, foreign diplomats and other activists are advocating for President Salva Kiir not to sign the bill into law, and for the bill to be revised considerably in order to bring it into line with the constitution and human rights norms. Within parliament, the bill has generated heated divisions, with the key rival party to the current leadership, the SPLM-DC, walking out of a parliamentary hearing in protest against the bill. In response, the ruling government has accused the SPLM-DC of ‘an act of incitement’. Reportedly a further 20 MPs also questioned the parliamentary proceedings and before leaving the House.
At the time of writing, the President had not yet signed the bill. Here we see a narrow sliver of opportunity to alter the course of South Sudan’s political future, and it is the task of all those within the government, within the country, and beyond to exert whatever influence they have in order to safeguard the people of South Sudan against further suffering and injustice.
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