On Wednesday 14 December, in view of the deteriorating humanitarian situation and ‘grave human rights crisis’ in South Sudan, a Special Session was convened on ‘the human rights situation in South Sudan.’
The Special Session was requested, via an official letter on 9 December 2016, written by H.E. Ambassador Filloreta Kodra of Albania, H.E. Ambassador Juan Esteban Aguirre Martinez of Paraguay, H.E. Ambassador Julian Braithwaite of the United Kingdom, and H.E. Ambassador Keith M. Harper of the United States, on behalf of a group of States. The request was supported by 16 Council Member States and 24 Observer States, in light of the ‘importance and urgency of the situation’ in South Sudan.
In conformity with operative paragraph 10 of General Assembly resolution 60/251, the Council is ‘able to hold special sessions, when needed, at the request of a member of the Council with the support of one third of the membership of the Council’ (i.e. 16 Member States or more). Special sessions of the Council aim to provide a platform for the Council to consider and act on urgent human rights issues of either a country-specific or a thematic nature.
The Council’s Action on South Sudan to date
Since 2012, the Council has adopted several texts on the situation of human rights in South Sudan during its regular sessions. Prior to the Special Session on Wednesday, there had been one Presidential Statement and six resolutions adopted by the Council on South Sudan.
The first four of these resolutions focused on technical assistance and capacity-building for South Sudan in the field of human rights, under item 10 of the Council’s agenda.
The most recent, resolution 31/20, adopted at the 31st Session of the Council in March 2016, expressed ‘grave concern’ over human rights violations in the country, including those involving, ‚alleged targeted killings, ethnically targeted violence, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, the recruitment and use of children, arbitrary arrests and detention, alleged torture, arbitrary denial of humanitarian access, violence aimed at spreading terror among the civilian population, and attacks on schools, places of worship, hospitals and United Nations and associated peacekeeping personnel.’
It demanded that ‘all actors put a halt to all human rights violations and abuses and all violations of international humanitarian law,’ and established a Commission on Human Rights on Human Rights in South Sudan, for a period of one year, with a mandate to inter alia, monitor and report on the situation and make recommendations; assess previous reports; provide guidance on accountability, transitional justice, reconciliation and healing; and engage with international and regional mechanisms to support efforts to promote accountability for human rights violations. The Commission, composed of three members, is due to present a comprehensive report at the 34th Session of the Council March 2017.
Rather than awaiting the next regular session, Albania, Paraguay, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States, on behalf of a group of States, requested a Special Session to be held in light of the urgency of the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. This marks the 26th Special Session of the Human Rights Council and the first held on the situation in South Sudan. The meeting was the first time the situation of human rights in South Sudan was addressed with a Special Session.
26th Special Session
The meeting, held on Wednesday 14 December 2016, began with keynote statements by Mr Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Ms Yanghee Lee, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, and Mr Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide (via a video statement).
Opening the Session, the High Commissioner of Human Rights observed that, ‘the people of South Sudan have by now endured three full years of wanton conflict. Killings, sexual violence, ill-treatment, abductions, forcible recruitment and the looting and destruction of homes and villages are taking place on a massive scale across many parts of the country.’ He reflected on the situation of the country, stating, ‘over 2 million people had been forced to leave their homes (…) 4.8 million people, stripped of resources, face the very real spectre of severe food insecurity and famine. Infrastructure, healthcare and education systems are in advanced stages of collapse,’ and that, ‚the work of humanitarian agencies has been repeatedly impeded by both government and armed opposition forces, including violent attacks, abductions, denials of access and demands for illicit payments.’
Describing the escalation of the ongoing conflict, the High Commissioner explained how ‘many leaders from across the political spectrum have intensified calls to ethnic animosity, and repeated surges of violence have set off waves of revenge and counter-revenge across an increasingly broad swathe of territory (…) Reports from the field indicate increasingly intense arming, recruitment and training of military forces by both main parties (…) Many fear conditions are in place for the conflict to take on a stronger ethnic dimension and escalate into massive and generalised violence.‘
He noted, that when ‘the knowledge accountability structures exist and will be deployed against the perpetrators of mass atrocities they can have real preventive impact,‘ and accordingly, stressed the need for the African Union to quickly establish the hybrid court envisaged under the Peace Agreement.
He urged the Council to ‘use all possible means within its remit to discourage violence and push for peaceful dialogue in South Sudan,‘ and called ‘on South Sudan’s leaders to refrain from incitement to violence and ethnic hatred.’ Finally, he expressed the urgent need for the ‘highest priority’ to be ‘given to protection for those most at risk from killings, sexual violence and other serious human rights violations.’
In closing, he emphasised his appreciation for the work of those monitoring the human rights situation in South Sudan and deplored the restrictions imposed on their work by ‘security considerations as well as by government authorities.’
Ms Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, opened her statement by addressing the extreme levels of sexual violence in the conflict. She made reference to a UN survey in the Protection of Civilian Camps in the South Sudanese capital Juba which had ‘found 70% of women in the camps had been raped since the conflict erupted – the vast majority of them by police or soldiers.’ She later expressed how the ‘level of ongoing sexual violence is not given due recognition in South Sudan,’ noting that conflict related sexual and gender based violence had reached ‘crisis proportions.’ She described how ‘attitudes towards sexual violence in South Sudan illustrate the wider problem of impunity, perpetuated by a culture of denial among government officials.’
She continued to explain how ‘All of the early warning signals for mass atrocities in South Sudan are there… there is an increase in polarised ethnic identities, a culture of denial, and in some areas, systematic violations that have been planned. The Commission’s recent visit to South Sudan suggests that a steady process of ethnic cleansing is already underway in some parts of the country. We don’t use that expression lightly… South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilize the entire region.’
She urged the Human Rights Council to make the ‘Special Session a turning point for the country’ and noted that the international community ‘must act now’ through carrying out the immediate deployment of the 4,000-strong regional protection force, the establishment of the hybrid court by the African Union and South Sudan, and coordinated and systematic investigations in human rights violations and abuses with a view to gathering and preserving evidence. ‘People are tiring of the UN holding inquiries and mandating reports after the event, ascertaining blame for its failures in the past once it’s already too late. With South Sudan we have a rare chance to avert further catastrophe.’
Ms Sooka concluded her statement with a quote from a victim in Wau: ‘We don’t need another report. We need the international community to do something.’
Ms Yanghee Lee, Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures, began her statement by noting that, ‘Since armed conflict broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, violence has continued unabated leading to an ever accelerating and alarming downward spiral of the situation of human rights.‘ She went on to describe how ‘the situation in the country very much resembles that of Rwanda preceding the 1994 genocide, ‘ but emphasised that ‘this time around the international community must not fail to prevent the same atrocities from happening.’
She expressed concern that ‘while the signing of a peace agreement in August 2015, promising among others the set-up of a hybrid court and transitional justice process, and leading to the establishment of the Transitional Government of National Unity, should have been a sign of hope for the youngest country in the world, instead we have witnessed a lack of implementation of the commitments made and a complete breakdown in the political process,’ and urged, ‘the Government and all parties to the conflict to abide by the peace agreement and immediately cease all hostilities, protect civilians and punish perpetrators.’
The final opening statement was made by Mr Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide (via video statement). Mr Dieng warned that what he had seen during his November visit to Juba confirmed his ‘concerns that there is a strong – even imminent – risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.’
He expressed that ‘statements by public officials and in the media, including social media, are being used to spread hatred and encourage ethnic polarization,’ and emphasised that ‘the stalling of the implementation of the peace agreement; the current, worsening, humanitarian crisis; a stagnating economy and the proliferation of arms‘ meant there was both the ‘motivation and means’ for a dangerous escalation of violence.
He nevertheless explained that, ‘Genocide is a process; it does not happen overnight. And because it is a process, and one that takes time to prepare, it can be prevented,’ and stated, ‘There are steps that should be taken now, without delay.’ Such steps included calling for an arms embargo and expansion of the sanctions regime to all those involved in serious violations.
He stressed that the findings of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan on ‘the use of ethnic cleansing cannot be ignored,’ and concluded by urging Member States to take robust action.
Draft Resolution S26 L1
H.E. Mr Kuol Alor Kuol Arop, Ambassador and Special Representative of South Sudan, opened his statement by reiterating that the Republic of South Sudan ‘is ready and keen to cooperate with the United Nations and its various institutions concerned with the promotion and protection of human rights.’ Nonetheless, he went on to state that the position of the Transitional Government of National Unity is that ‘there is no justification for the holding of this Special Session.’ He expressed that in the ‘spirit of dialogue, cooperation and constructive engagement,‘ the delegation of South Sudan was ‘ready to work with other delegations with an open mind.’ However, given that the Government had not been given the chance to study and reply to the ‘glaring allegations contained in the statements of panelists,‘ the Ambassador stated that South Sudan ‘as an independent and sovereign state’ reserved ‘the right to take appropriate action, it deems fit, at an appropriate time.’
Several Council Member States, followed by a number of Observer States, took the floor to debate the resolution. Speakers expressed concern over human rights violations occurring in the country, in particular over UN reports on gender-based and sexual violence, ethnically targeted killings, recruitment of child soldiers, and attacks on civilians. A number of States including, Albania, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Uruguay made reference to the need for the Council to take preventative action, and as such, fulfil its mandate under 5(f) of General Assembly Resolution 60/251 to‚ ‘contribute towards the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies.’
Slovakia (on behalf of the European Union) condemned, ‘in the strongest possible terms all the atrocious acts of violence committed, often with an ethnic motivation.’ They further called upon all parties to ‘take decisive steps to end violence, repudiate any speech inciting ethnic hatred, and find a just and inclusive political settlement,‘ and stressed the need for the African Union ‘to move as quickly as possible towards the establishment of a Hybrid Court,’ in order to ensure accountability. On the basis of the peace agreement, they called on the Government to cooperate constructively with the UN and its international partners, protect civilians, and comply strictly with their human rights and humanitarian obligations under international law.
The Netherlands (on behalf of the co-Chairs of the Group of Friends of the Responsibility to Protect) reiterated the UN Special Representative for the Prevention of Genocide’s statement that ‘the warning signals of impending genocide are already there,‘ and stressed that, ‘the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms have a critical preventative role to play.’ In particular they called upon the Human Rights Council to: ‘strongly condemn ethnically fuelled violence and unprecedented levels of sexual violence and ensure prompt investigation and accountability for those responsible; call upon South Sudan to immediately condemn and take steps to prevent any acts of discrimination, hostility or hatred; stress the need to engage in the Peace Agreement; and call for the immediate establishment of a hybrid court.‘
The main reservations towards paragraphs contained in the initial draft of the resolution were expressed by Sudan (on behalf of the Arab Group) who opposed the extension of the mandate of the Human Rights Commission on South Sudan, as this was deemed ’premature’ and stated that the scope of the mandate did not need to be expanded.’ They noted that ’security and peace cannot be achieved through a series of resolutions and increasing burdens,’ but instead lay in national dialogue between the different political actors in South Sudan.
Draft resolution L1, as initially tabled, sought to ‘extend the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, composed of three members, for a period of one year beyond its original mandate,’ and to amend the mandate, inter alia to: monitor and report, including publicly, on the situation of human rights in South Sudan, and to make recommendations to prevent further deterioration of the situation with a view to its improvement; investigate alleged violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes, including those involving sexual and gender-based violence and ethnic violence; make recommendations on technical assistance and capacity-building; and requests the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, in response to the present special session, to make concrete recommendations on how to end sexual and gender-based violence, and urged relevant UN actors to assist in such implementation.
At the start of the second meeting of the Special Session, the United States of America presented an orally revised version of the draft resolution to the Council.
H.E. Ambassador Keith M. Harper, on behalf of the core group, stated that several last minute changes to the resolution, were ‘the result of extensive consultations with many delegations — in particular we note the cooperation and constructive engagement of the distinguished Ambassador and Permanent Representative of South Sudan, the African Group and its coordinator, the distinguished Ambassador and Permanent Representative of South Africa.’
Albania further explained, that ‘it is the hope of the core group and the other co-sponsors of this resolution, that this Special Session will shine a spotlight on the situation, and condemn the abuses of human rights that are taking place there and work to prevent further violations and mass atrocities.’
South Sudan, as the country concerned, thanked the core group for its efforts and expressed appreciation for their ‘spirit of cooperation to reach a consensual resolution on the situation of Human Rights in South Sudan, that the Human Rights Council is about to adopt.’
In an explanation of vote before the vote, the Russian Federation expressed satisfaction with the orally revised draft resolution and that the core group had ‘listened to the comments made, including by our delegation, during consultations on the draft and concerns about procedural aspects of convening the session and about the draft. We are convinced that the UN Human Rights Council in its work should be guided by the rules of procedure and its own decisions. In this case, the provisions of resolution 31/20 which established the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan and defined its mandate and its timeline for work. It is with this understanding that our delegation joins consensus on this document today.’
Finally, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) and China disassociated from the consensus on resolution L1, as orally revised.
Draft resolution L1, as orally revised, was adopted without a vote.
With the adoption of resolution S26/L.1 (as orally revised), the Council acknowledged that ‘the Government of the Republic of South Sudan has cooperated with the Office of the High Commissioner, United Nations special procedures, and the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan in the fulfillment of its mandate,’ and recalled that ‘the Government of South Sudan authorities have the primary responsibility to protect all populations in the country from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.’
Nevertheless, the resolution condemned ‘in the strongest possible terms the widespread sexual and gender based violence, including rape and gang rape, which can be used as a weapon of war, in complete impunity, by all armed groups‘ and demanded ‘that all actors put a halt to all violations and abuses of human rights and all violations of international humanitarian law, and strongly calls upon the Government of the Republic of South Sudan to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms.’
Finally, rather than extending the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, the Council decided to ‘reaffirm the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, with renewed emphasis on the need to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged violations and abuses of human rights with a view to ensure that those responsible are held to account, in order to present additional recommendations to the Council at the 34th session on ending impunity and ensuring accountability.’
 U.S. Statement at the Special Session of the Human Rights Council on South Sudan, https://geneva.usmission.gov/2016/12/14/u-s-statement-at-the-special-session-of-the-human-rights-council-on-south-sudan/
 Albania, Belgium, France, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, Paraguay, Portugal, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Switzerland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the United Kingdom.
 Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and the United States of America.
 Only two out of the twenty-six Special sessions of the Human Rights Council have been of a thematic nature, however, namely, on: ‘the negative impact on the realization of the right to food of the worsening of the world food crisis, caused inter alia by the soaring food prices’ (7th Special Session); and ‘The Impact of the Global Economic and Financial Crises on the Universal Realization and Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights’ (10th Special Session).
Feature photo: Peacekeepers with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), on patrol close to the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine. Photo Date: 21 January 2016 Photo # 661571, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Photo 2: United Nations Special Advisor on Prevention of Genocide Visits Yei, South Sudan Adama Dieng (centre) (taken 09/11/2016). United Nations Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, visits Yei River State in South Sudan, to assess the current situation there, as recent unrest has resulted in the fleeing of residents. UN Photo/Isaac BillyYei, South Sudan licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Photo 3: UN human rights experts concluded South Sudan 7 days’ visit. Two Commissioners of a three-member team from the UN Commission on Human Rights speak to Journalists at a press conference, on September 15th. Photo:UNMISS/Isaac Billy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.