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South Sudan army commanders unveil blueprint to curb conflict-related sexual violence

South Sudan’s army commanders have unveiled a new Action Plan designed to eliminate acts of conflict-related sexual violence which have been committed by parties in country’s protracted conflict. 

At the launch of the Action Plan, which they have been developing in the capital over the last two days, the top commanders spelt out a zero-tolerance policy for conflict-related sexual violence within their ranks, pledging to curb the acts which have been rife since war erupted in 2013.

“SSPDF (South Sudan People’s Defence Forces) has zero tolerance [for] conflict-related sexual violence,” said Lieutenant General Gabriel Jok Riak, the Chief of Defence Forces. “The provision is clearly enshrined in international, regional and domestic legal obligations, binding South Sudan,” he added.

At the event held at the SSPDF army headquarters in the capital Juba, the Lieutenant General said, “SSPDF remains committed in conducting remote and thorough investigations into all allegations of sexual violence carried out by the armed forces and will prosecute alleged perpetrators.”

To achieve the Action Plan, commanders from across the country came together at a two-day workshop hosted by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to discuss the issue that has blighted the country’s image globally.

The commanders, who are responsible for combatting sexual violence, are aware of accusations of sexual offences committed within their ranks, and the fact that it could render them and the country’s head of state accountable for war crimes.

“The charges leveled against this institution range from killing and maiming; recruitment of child soldiers; abduction of children (which is in question), raping and occupation of hospitals schools,” Lt. General Riak had told the 60 commanders attending the two-day workshop, prior to the unveiling of the Action Plan.

“This particular institution has been labelled with accusations which the international community believes to have been perpetrated or committed by the members of the SSPDF,” said the Chief of Defence Forces.

“We should not [be seen] to be repulsive or denying the accusations,” he continued, “We will have to correct or look into the matter and try to come up with amicable solutions. The most important [thing] is to refrain from committing such crimes against women and children,” he concluded.

Speaking to the commanders who will each take a copy and use it to train their rank and file against conflict-related sexual crimes, the country’s Minister of Defence expressed disappointment at the incidences of the country internationally being listed as a perpetrator of sexual crimes against its people.

“It is a very serious situation, and this is why we are under sanctions,” said Kuol Manyang Juuk, the Minister of Defence. “We are under sanctions by the UN Security Council and by individual countries. What else could they do?” he asked the commanders as they listened attentively.  

“The most effective [measure] is to sanction us, and when the army is sanctioned, the country is sanctioned – we cannot even get a loan to build our country. We will not be given loans and if we are not given loans, we cannot implement our policies – because it [will be said] we are going to use this money for killing our own people, for carrying out violence against women, and so on.”

The minister’s concern about funding is informed by an urgent need.

South Sudan signed a peace deal six months ago and funds to roll out its implementation have been tied to several policies being in place. Since the signing of the peace deal, there have been frank conversations between UNMISS and the SSPDF and they have been engaging at various levels, including the discussions that culminated in the Action Plan.

Different voices from UNMISS, at both the workshop and the unveiling of the Action Plan, stressed the need for South Sudan to actively combat sexual violence as a priority.

“The UN is well-aware that eliminating conflict-related sexual violence involves changing attitudes and behaviours – which often require long periods of time,” said Lieutenant General Frank Mushyo Kamanzi, the UNMISS Force Commander, adding that “it is important to continue addressing it, through sustained commitments and actions.”

“Implementation starts immediately after the launch,” said Huma Khan, the UNMISS Women Protection Advisor, referring to the Action Plan.

She said the implementation will start with training and the deployment of technical experts who will help in drafting internal disciplinary measures for the army, and roll out capacity-building initiatives, while at the same time working to strengthen military and civilian justice systems.

“The Action Plan reiterates the government’s commitment to the constitutional provisions and its international obligations on human rights, including the right to liberty and security and the right not to be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of punishment,” said Alain Noudehou, the deputy head of UNMISS (humanitarian), during the unveiling of the Action Plan.

The Action Plan draws from a joint communique signed in 2014 by President Salva Kiir and the UN to address conflict-related sexual violence in the country.