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As South Sudan approaches elections, equitable access to justice and upholding human rights remain a priority

In Western Bahr El Ghazal, an UNMISS workshop on international human rights standards and the rights of detainees seeks to enhance capacities of rule of law actors. Photo by Roseline Nzelle Nkwelle/UNMISS.

WESTERN BAHR EL GHAZAL – Upholding rule of law and human rights is key to building an enduring peace.As South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, races to complete its democratic transition by conducting its first-ever national elections at the end of 2024, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is redoubling efforts to help enhance the capacities of rule of law actors. In Mboro, a payam [administrative division] in Western Bahr El Ghazal’s capital, Wau, the absence of justice infrastructure as well as fully trained personnel has led to a massive gap in both formal and traditional courts. Here, the delivery of justice is entirely in the hands of the military and traditional courts.

"Often, it is the Sultan and his council of advisors who adjudicate all cases of offenses committed in the community," reveals women's representative, Anna Kadanna Kponzi. To help alleviate this situation while respecting the vital work of customary courts, the UN Peacekeeping mission’s Rule of Law Division recently organized a two-day workshop with key stakeholders on international human rights standards as well as upholding the rights of detainees, especially women and youth.“This training is structured to provide an in-depth understanding of various legal instruments and provisions endorsed by the Republic of South Sudan which contain provisions related to human rights, pretrial detention and the rights of detained persons, and also to make a clear distinction between the jurisdiction of formal rule of law institutions and traditional courts,” explained John Bhuda, Justice Adviser, UNMISS.“We also want to encourage military commanders to refer cases to the national police and relevant courts for trial at the state headquarters,” he added.For her part, Anna also highlighted the lack of female representation in traditional courts.“It is difficult for women to raise concerns and get proper attention with the current status quo,” she stated.  Anna’s concern is merely one of many hindering access to justice for people in the country’s legal firmament. Other issues include a lack of capacity to properly settle criminal offenses like sexual and gender-based violence; delays in bringing suspects to competent courts; and prolonged detentions under inhumane conditions. “Through this workshop, we have received important legal references like the South Sudan Code of Criminal Procedures. We shall implement what we have learned about human rights and procedures as well as inform our colleagues who missed the chance to participate in these sessions,” affirmed Siro Mathieu, a traditional chief from Khor Ghana. Major General Charles Juma Ousman, a Police Commissioner from Bessilia, appreciated the initiative.“This programme is a necessity for police and beneficiaries. Now, we know how to better report and process cases,” he said. According to Andrea George, a youth representative from Khor Ghana, issues such as distance, high legal fees and problems in collecting compensations leave community members with only the option of referring their complaints to traditional courts.

“When we report cases to the courts in Wau, we are asked for legal fees which we cannot afford,” Andrea George said. “Another challenge is getting compensated by perpetrators. But in the traditional courts, things move fast,” he added. Strengthening available recourses to both formal and customary legal support is much-needed, therefore, a point stressed by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), a key supporting partner through its Global Programme on Rule of Law and Human Rights, which supports governments, civil society organizations and communities in their efforts to provide meaningful access to justice for all, especially for the most vulnerable groups. “Our objective is to reinforce the relationships between the Special Protection Unit of the South Sudan National Police Services (SSNPS) and community members in reporting and responding to cases such as child abuse or sexual and gender-based violence,” revealed Gregoire Sibomana, a Rule of Law Specialist with UNDP.The informative event was held in the Mboro town square with more than 45 participants, including customary court officials, military commanders, police, women and youth representatives joined from neighbouring payams.