Documenting Human Rights in South Sudan

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Victoria Akur (left) and Grace John (right), members of South Sudanese CSOs, with Milena Sterio (middle).

On behalf of the Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization (NGO), I participated in a four-day workshop in Nairobi, Kenya.  The workshop was entitled “South Sudan Human Rights Documentation Initiative” and it built on existing PILPG Work in South Sudan.  This particular workshop brought together approximately forty participants: several PILPG members, including yours truly as a consultant, members of various South Sudanese civil society organizations (CSOs), a United Nations representative, as well as members of a partner organization, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), a South African NGO.

The workshop was structured over four long days of presentations, interactive dialogs, exercises and guided simulations.  The specific topics covered during the workshop included specifics of documentation in general, such as purposes of documentation, preserving documents, various investigation options and tools, and involving women in human rights documentation efforts.  One day of the programming was organized by the CSVR, with a specific focus on the psycho-social effects of trauma, and the effects of violence and trauma on documentation efforts.  The outcome of the workshop will be the drafting of a joint agreement on a human rights documentation roadmap, as well as the beginning of ongoing discussions with representatives of South Sudanese CSOs regarding how international groups and NGOs can assist in future documentation efforts.

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Kenyan coffee (it helped during long days of workshops).

This post will explore the purposes and importance of documentation efforts in South Sudan.  South Sudan is a war-torn country.  It gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, through a public referendum where the majority of South Sudanese voted in favor of separating from Sudan.  The referendum came at the heels of a decades-long independence war during which South Sudanese rebels fought against the Khartoum regime.  South Sudanese independence, although initially celebrated, did little to quell the ongoing conflict.  The independence in many ways exacerbated already existing tribal and ethnic rivalries, resulting in new violence and civil conflict pitting two major South Sudanese groups against each other: the Dinka and the Nuer.  The Dinka-Nuer conflict, deeply rooted in South Sudanese colonial history and reflected in the independence rebellion itself, has by now involved other minority groups who have been forced to align each other with either the Dinka or the Nuer and to thereby take a more active role in the fighting.  The current South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, is Dinka, and the government regime is composed of mostly ethnic Dinkas.  The Nuer feel particularly vulnerable under this regime, and have reported that police and security forces working on behalf of the government have targeted not just Nuer fighters, but civilians as well.

Documenting human rights violations in this type of climate appears as the first step toward peace-building and reconciliation; ultimately, documented human rights violations can lead toward accountability and can serve a particular role in potential prosecutions of perpetrators of human rights abuses.

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Urban safari at the Nairobi National Forest.

Other countries have already implemented various human rights documentation efforts.  Various groups have worked on documenting human rights abuses in places such as Brazil, Guatemala, Argentina, Cambodia, etc. These efforts, which were briefly discussed during the Nairobi workshop, can serve as models for South Sudan and can provide successful examples of documenting and archiving human rights abuses, and using them toward both reconciliation and accountability.  In addition to serving as a first step toward accountability, documenting human rights violations can serve other purposes, such as building a fair and neutral historical narrative about the South Sudanese conflict, memorializing various types of violence, building long-lasting peace and promoting reconciliation. All of these different purposes of human rights documentation were discussed at the workshop. The ultimate conclusion of the workshop was that documenting human rights violations for all its possible purposes was of particular importance in South Sudan, and that the country’s CSOs would take the lead in this project.

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