WAU: UNMISS Human Rights Division team of experts Q&A
Local authorities in Wau receive UN support to uphold human rights
A team of human rights experts from the UN Peacekeeping Mission, UNMISS, has visited Wau to discuss how the mission can support the local authorities in upholding human rights standards in the town and surrounding region.
Christian Mikala, a senior rights officer with UNMISS recently spent a week in Wau where he met civilians, citizens, local government officials as well as members of the opposition forces.
Q: Why did you visit Wau?
Christian Mikala: One of the key parts of the UNMISS mandate is to monitor and report on human rights violations and abuses as part of the overall goal to protect civilians and build a durable peace in South Sudan.
Wau is of particular interest and concern because of the different dynamics at play in the area. There has been sporadic fighting since 2013 between the government SPLA and SPLA-IO or opposition forces, which has included attacks on civilians and the targeting of ethnic groups most recently in June 2016 and April 2017.
The seasonal migration which is usually a source of conflict between the pastoralist and farmers is also a key historical issue, but recently this has become more lethal and dangerous as cattle-herders are mostly armed with guns and machetes.
There is also inter-communal violence in the Mangyang triangle, where there are three main ethnic communities, Dinka, Fertit and Luo.
Q: How important is it to ensure accountability for abuses committed?
CM: Accountability for human rights abuses remains one of the biggest challenges in South Sudan and this is the case in Wau where civilians were killed during the fighting between the SPLA and SPLA-IO in June 2016 and April 2017.
Some were reprisal attacks by the SPLA. It’s important to ensure accountability of the perpetrators of these killings and also for the violence in the Jur River crisis when in April 2017 armed pastoralists were allegedly attacked by SPLA-IO.
The laws in South Sudan include provisions for accountability and South Sudan has signed up to and ratified major human rights treaties. However, translating the law into action is a challenge. Sometimes, those challenges can be purely practical; insufficient personnel, the inability to access some areas, people being unable to hire a lawyer or the lack of legal aid as well as the general insecurity in Wau.
In one of my meetings, I was told by an official that “where there is insecurity, law cannot work.” The ultimate concern is that civilians end up being victimized if justice is not done.
Q: How challenging is it to investigate human rights abuses?
CM: The main challenges for investigating human rights abuses are being able to visit the places as soon as possible after abuses are reported and speaking with victims and witnesses.
In South Sudan because of the size of the country, the logistics required to reach some areas, and the fact that, unlike in many other parts of the world, not everyone here has a mobile phone, means the whole process of following up can be slow. This can be frustrating as human rights officers want to provide the much-needed support to all concerned parties as quickly as possible.
In the context of Wau, one of the biggest challenges is reaching those areas to the south and west of the town, areas under opposition control. UNMISS is sometimes denied access by the authorities at times which is a violation of the State of Forces Agreement or SOFA that UNMISS signed with the Government.
During my visit, the UNMISS human rights team was prevented from accessing Agock, which is 17 kilometres away from Wau town.
Q: You also travelled to opposition-held Baggari; why is it important to reach opposition areas?
CM: All parties to the armed conflict in South Sudan should adhere to international humanitarian law. In Wau, it is difficult to reach areas under the control of the armed opposition, which was why our team was so determined to travel to Baggari. The team was able to interact with a senior military commander and explain the purpose of our work and emphasize the importance of promoting and upholding the human rights of all South Sudanese people.
Q: What challenges does the judiciary face in Western Bahr El Ghazal?
CM: The judiciary is functioning and court hearings are taking place. Recently, the number of pending trials has increased because of strike action by judges. Many judges in Wau, like elsewhere in the country, were on strike about working conditions; however they have resumed work and are addressing the cases before them.
The backlog means that Wau Central Prison is currently full and two judges are working full-time at the prison to clear the cases.
How can UNMISS support the promotion of human rights across society?
CM: The situation in Wau is relatively calm, when compared with some other regions, and this environment enables UNMISS to undertake a range of capacity building activities with the authorities, the military, the police, civil society and community groups and other stakeholders.
My colleagues in Wau will be preparing an event involving 200 students from schools around the town.
These activities further the implementation of the human rights mandate given to us by the UN Security Council. Central to all of our support though is promoting human rights for all the people of South Sudan.