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ENOUGH project

South Sudan’s independence is ‘a dream come true’ for the country’s people, but ‘to avoid turning that dream into a nightmare, the new nation’s leadership will need to adopt a line of governance that reflects greater commitment to human rights, public freedoms and justice for all,’ cautions Aloys Habimana.

For many South Sudanese, the 9 July independence day is supposed to mark the end of an era of hopelessness. The road leading to this important milestone has been strewn with lots of hardships, including a protracted and costly war with its attendant denial of basic rights and freedoms.

Expectations are obviously high. If there is anything the ruling elite needs to keep in mind, it is that repressive tactics should only be a thing of the past.

Concerns about the possible continuation of repression in Africa’s newest state surfaced in April 2010, as the then semi-autonomous region was conducting its first general elections.

Passing through Juba, South Sudan’s capital, I met Sylvia Abuk (name changed to protect her identity), an opposition activist, and asked her what she thought about reports of harassment and intimidation of a number of her party members at the hands of government security forces.

‘We have fought hard for freedom; we cannot allow anyone to undermine our aspirations for democracy and justice,’ Ms Abuk told me. She was clearly disillusioned that Southern Sudanese security forces were harassing, arresting and detaining not only members of opposition parties but also journalists affiliated with independent media groups, who were often targeted just for making comments critical of the government.

Many people share Ms Abuk’s concerns. They certainly include the people now being arbitrarily arrested on suspicion that they might have links with armed opposition groups. They also include members of opposition parties who were barred from participating in drafting the new constitution. The new government needs to address this political intolerance as a top priority.

Beyond putting an end to political marginalisation and abuses against actual or supposed political opponents, there are a number of other steps that South Sudan may want to take to streamline its human rights agenda. In a recent joint paper reflecting on the human rights challenges ahead of South Sudan’s independence, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International urged the new state to adopt steps that include strengthening accountability for abuses by soldiers and other security forces; placing a moratorium on the death penalty; and releasing detainees, especially children, whose continued imprisonment in crowded prisons is found to be unjustified.

The new era should prompt the South Sudanese leadership to halt human rights violations. Since January, fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and armed opposition groups has led to the killing of hundreds of civilians, including women and children, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people, particularly in Upper Nile, Unity, and Jonglei states. SPLA soldiers have been responsible for many of these violations.

In other instances, the government has failed to protect civilians from brutal inter-communal fighting that has also led to killings, destruction and displacement. Leaders should, as a matter of urgency, ensure that rank-and-file soldiers and their officers, as well as the police service, know and understand their obligations, and are held accountable. Tolerating continuous abuse of civilians by security forces will only add to people’s feelings that the demons of the past are still haunting the new nation.

Security forces are not the sole culprit if one considers a wider range of human rights problems reported in South Sudan. In addition, fingers are often pointed at the weaknesses in the justice system as contributing to arbitrary detention and long periods of pretrial detention. Apart from that, traditions based on discriminatory policies combine with high rates of illiteracy among women and girls – 80 per cent across the South – to exacerbate issues related to forced and early marriage and gender-based violence. The new nation will need to take a hard look at those other bottlenecks and adopt zero-tolerance for discredited practices that target women and girls.

The independence of South Sudan is nothing short of a dream come true for Ms Abuk and many of her compatriots. To avoid turning that dream into a nightmare, the new nation’s leadership will need to adopt a line of governance that reflects greater commitment to human rights, public freedoms and justice for all. Regional and international partners of South Sudan may support that line of governance only through an honest partnership that does not shy away from asking questions whenever human rights are at risk. Africa cannot afford to have another failed state.


* Aloys Habimana is Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch; he is based in Nairobi.
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