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Worry over shrinking space for Activists in S. Sudan

Edmund Yakani, Executive Director of Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO) (file photo):

By Jale Richard

‘We don’t know when they will take our lives.” The worry on Edmund Yakani, one of the most outspoken Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in South Sudan resonates with the voices of hundreds of other activists fighting to have their voices heard.

Yakani, who heads the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO) has been on the forefront of the war against corruption, rape, land grabbing and freedom of press in the conflict-torn country. So vocal is he that in 2017 he was awarded the Civil Rights Defender of the Year in Stockholm.

He has reason to worry. Other activists who preceded him have disappeared without a trace.

In January last year, two of the country’s most outspoken activists Dong Samuel Luak and Aggrey Idri disappeared mysteriously after they were abducted in the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. They have never been heard of since that time. Their disappearance raised alarms. Early last month Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) called for the immediate investigation of the kidnapping and arbitrary detention of the two.

Both Kenyan and South Sudanese governments have denied having custody of the men or any knowledge of their whereabouts.

It is a sacrifice Yakani and other civil rights activists are willing to take in order to see a better South Sudan.

“To remain in South Sudan as a civil rights activist is to sacrifice one’s life. For the sake of meeting the interest of the citizens in terms of working towards effective and full implementation of the Bill of Rights, one has to be ready to pay the cost,” he said.

His life, literally, is in the hands of people more powerful but he maintains he cannot be cowed.

“We work at the mercy of those who have the power to take our lives,” he stated. “The more God influences them not to take away our lives the more we are vocal,” Yakani sadly said.

With the shrinking space of freedom of expression since the war broke out in 2013, the environment for civil society organizations has become uncertain.

He still aspires for citizens to enjoy better standards of living; good health, access to education, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression.

TOUGH JOURNEY

It has been an uphill task.

And the biggest fear is that it will get worse, judging from the present situation.

Currently, gathering of CSOs require a written permit from the National Security Service, an all-important letter that is not always forthcoming. It’s a financial burden that has hurt them. Often they have incurred heavy losses after they were forced to cancel meetings due to lack of the permit after they were deliberately denied approval, with the venues booked refusing to reimburse them.

In terms of freedom of expression and assembly, Yakani noted that the civic space has changed drastically.

“It is becoming narrow and narrow. There are a lot of accusations against human rights defenders. If you speak something that is pro opposition, you are branded a rebel and if you speak something pro government, then you are branded as pro government. Sometimes the government and opposition ignore your role in seeking for the betterment of the citizens. In some cases you are accused of pushing the agenda of western world,” Yakani quipped.

The misunderstanding of HRDs roles has led to threats, intimidation and in the worst case scenario the murder of some of them, ranging from journalists to civil rights activists.

Since the country gained its independence in 2011, six journalists have been killed under mysterious circumstances in connection with their journalism work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ).  Many more, local and international have been deported and others denied entry to the country.

SELF-CENSORSHIP

Jame James Kolok, who heads Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance (FODAG), noted that touching on the issue of rape often sparked outrage from the government towards the HRDs.

“The authorities think that by speaking about those violations, human rights defenders are tarnishing the image of the government,” said Kolok.

Rape, which was used as a tool of war, has been a major concern among the HRDs.

Jame James Kolok, Executive Director of Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance (FODAG) (photo by Jale Richard):

Early this month, The Department of Human Rights Division at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said it  documented over one hundred rape cases on women and girls during last month’s fighting in Leer and Mayendit.

The Director of Human Rights Division at UNMISS Mr. Eugene Nindorera   said that investigation conducted by UNMISS Human Rights Division into May attacks in Leer areas indicated extensive use of sexual violence by government forces.

“Human Rights division has documented the rape and gang-rape of more than 100 women and girls of all age groups including the pregnant women and lactating mothers and girls as young as four years. In one instance a six-year-old girl was gang raped by eight soldiers even after she lost consciousness. In some case those who resisted rape were immediately shot dead,” he added.

It is an allegation that the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) Spokesperson Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang has adamantly denied. Koang maintains that SPLA headquarters is not aware of any atrocity committed by the SPLA forces in the area because nobody confirmed that it was the government soldiers who attacked the villages.

The rape debate has turned into a battle that has seen some of HRDs flee the country after serious threats to their lives. Many have sought refuge in the region while others have sought asylum in the Western World. Those forced to remain within the borders have resorted into self-censorship to avoid trouble with the authorities.

HOPE KEEPS THEM GOING

Kolok said the one thing which motivates the HRDs to continue their work from within the country is the belief that running away would not change the situation.

“We choose to remain here to have direct and meaningful engagement with the system so that they see sense in what we are doing,” he said.

He feels that some of the threats they face may not necessarily be the position of some individuals in the government but people who do not understand the roles of HRDs.

“They look at us as government antagonists or people that are promoting the agenda of the western world. Others have even called us agents of regime change,” Kolok noted.

He said he believes that the negative perceptions against HRDs can be changed because they “Do not deliberately intend to tarnish the image of the government but we are partners to improving the situation of human rights in the country.”

However, Kolok noted that recently, there have been a lot of direct engagements with the government over the shrinking space for HRDs. He attributed the few reported cases of incidences against HRDs to the “start by some people in the system to understand the roles of HRDs”.

CONFIDENT OF A BETTER FUTURE

Kolok expressed hope that the threats and intimidation would come to an end when the country attains sustainable peace.

“I am hopeful that this situation will come to an end. I still hold to the hope that in the next round of peace talks, especially with the recent momentum of the two principle leaders willing to meet, we are going to sign a revitalized peace deal,” he said.

The activist was however not sure that the country will have full freedom of expression in the next five years.

“When we have peace and stability as a country, and with functional institutions, some of these agenda can be achieved. This could be through a system that is workable whether through parliament, opening space for civil society or advocating for civic and political rights,” Kolok said.

Riya William Yuyada, a Women’s Rights and Peace Activist, clings onto the hope that things would change soon.

In October last year, Riya rallied more than one hundred women into a silent March demanding for an end to the country’s devastating war.

The women, drawn from all over the country, carried placards written “Bring back our peace now!”, “Save my future, stop the war” and “Enough of the bloodshed”, took to the main streets in Juba, expressing their rage at the recurring conflict that is now in its fifth year.

The women, who were from different age and backgrounds, marched up to a local church where they were addressed by women Members of Parliaments.

However, the placards were later taken away from the venue by security forces, who claimed the permit issued did not allow the women to carry placards.

“What keeps me going even amidst the challenges of freedom of expression is hope,” Riya said.

“I believe war cannot be stopped overnight, it would take time. It is a process of us accepting that we have, as a country and its people, all gone wrong. We are all responsible for this war because even if I did not take up guns to fight, I am not doing anything to stop it,” Riya added.

IMPORTANT ROLE IN THE PEACE PROCESS

HRDs are playing a vital role by trying to push the warring parties in the peace mediation to take in to account the expectations of citizens from the perspective of Bill of Rights.

The CSOs are represented in the High Level Revitalization Forum where they make direct contributions in the discussions. Their participation, however, has not been without scorn. Both the government and opposition groups have in past accused them of being impartial.

“We have made direct contribution to issues of governance structure. We have given proposition in terms of percentages of responsibilities that to some extend shaped the recent bridging proposal on governance and security arrangement,” Kolok said.

IMPARTIALITY

Rajab Mohandis, a civil society delegate to the HLRF denied claims that HRDs were siding with either government or opposition during the talks.

He maintains that they remain neutral in the whole process, citing that they did not take sides with the warring parties.

“We continue to have an impartial role by making sure that we don’t just go there to support one side. We have engaged both the government and opposition in good faith because we feel that the country is bigger than any political or individual differences that we have,” Mohandis said.

He added that the civil society also proposed to IGAD that the two principle leaders, Dr. Riek Machar and President Salva Kiir, should meet face-to-face, which IGAD acted upon by recommending the meeting.

AMPLIFYING THE VOICE OF HRDS

Yakani believes that the situation can be changed by incorporating the values of human rights into the peace process. He added that civil society can measure the agreement on whether it meets the standards of Bills of Rights.

He suggested legislations should be improved and made friendly, to allow human rights defenders pursue the public interests so as To change the situation in the country.

However Yakani warned that if the current “actions and behaviors of state agents” were not changed, it would be a great challenge to the country and that the situation would get worse.

“We hope that when peace is attained, we may have a democratic space to make sure that values of human rights are respected,” Yakani added.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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