South Sudan is a republic operating under the terms of peace agreements signed in August 2015 and in September 2018 and amended in May to prolong the period prior to the planned formation of a transitional government. President Salva Kiir Mayardit, whose authority derives from his 2010 election as president of what was then the semiautonomous region of Southern Sudan within the Republic of Sudan, is chief of state and head of government. International observers considered the 2011 referendum on South Sudanese self-determination, in which 98 percent of voters chose to separate from Sudan, to be free and fair. Since then all government positions have been appointed rather than elected.
The South Sudan National Police Service (SSNPS), under the Ministry of Interior, is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The South Sudanese People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF) are responsible for providing security throughout the country and ostensibly operates under the Ministry of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs. The Internal Security Bureau of the National Security Service (NSS), under the Ministry of National Security, has arrest authority for cases connected to national security but operates far beyond its legal authority. Numerous irregular forces, including militias operated by the NSS and proxy forces, operate in the country with official knowledge. Civilian authorities routinely failed to maintain effective control over the security forces.
In 2013 a power struggle within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party erupted into armed conflict. President Salva Kiir accused then first vice president Riek Machar Teny of plotting a coup. The two leaders appealed to their respective ethnic communities, and the conflict spread primarily to the northwest of the country. The parties signed several ceasefire agreements, culminating in the 2015 peace agreement. A ceasefire generally held from August 2015 to July 2016, when fighting broke out in Juba, eventually spreading to the rest of the country. The major warring factions signed a “revitalized” peace agreement in September 2018 that continued to hold as of the end of October 2019. Fighting between government forces and other groups not party to the peace agreement, referred to as the “nonsignatories,” continued in some regions.
Significant human rights issues included: government-perpetrated extrajudicial killings, including ethnically based targeted killings of civilians; forced disappearances; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; widespread rape of civilians targeted as a weapon of war; unlawful recruitment and use of approximately 19,000 child soldiers; violence against, intimidation, and detention of journalists; closure of media houses, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization (NGO) laws; frequent restrictions on freedom of movement; the mass forced displacement of approximately 3.7 million civilians; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI) persons, and the use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults.
Security force abuses occurred throughout the country. Despite isolated examples of prosecution for these crimes, impunity was widespread and remained a major problem.
Opposition forces also perpetrated serious human rights abuses, which, according to the United Nations, included unlawful killings, abduction, rape, sexual slavery, and forced recruitment of children and adults into combat and noncombat roles.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The transitional constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press. The government and its agents frequently violated these rights in the name of national security, however, and the downward trend in respect for these freedoms since 2011 continued.
Freedom of Expression: Civil society organizations must register with the government under the 2013 NGO Act (and the subsequent 2016 Act). The government regularly attempted to impede criticism by monitoring, intimidating, harassing, arresting, or detaining members of civil society who publicly criticized the government.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government maintained strict control of media, both print and electronic. The government suppressed dissenting voices, forcing some civil society organizations and media houses to shut down or flee the country. Government officials or individuals close to the government regularly interfered in the publication of articles and broadcasting of programs, and high-level government officials stated press freedom should not extend to criticism of the government or soliciting views of opposition leaders.
Most organizations practiced self-censorship to ensure their safety, and authorities regularly censored newspapers, directly reprimanded publishers, and removed articles deemed critical of the government. Many print media outlets reported NSS officers forcing the removal of articles at the printing company (where all newspapers are printed), often leaving a blank spot where the article was originally meant to appear. For example, on January 24, the NSS removed an article about the new governor of Tonj State from the Dawn. On April 8, the NSS removed an opinion article in the Arabic daily newspaper al-Mougif written by a former government minister; there were a number of other similar cases of censorship during the year.
Since the outbreak of conflict in 2013, the government tried to dictate media coverage of the conflict and threatened those who tried to publish or broadcast views of the opposition. The Media Authority advised international journalists not to describe conflict in the country in tribal terms and described any such references as “hate speech.” The NSS regularly harassed, intimidated, and summoned journalists for questioning. The environment for media workers remained precarious throughout the year.
In March 2018 the media regulatory body, the Media Authority, announced its intention to shut down Miraya FM, run by UNMISS, for “persistent noncompliance.” The Media Authority stated it was not censoring the station, but rather monitoring for “hate speech and incitement.” Because Miraya FM’s transmitter is located within a UN compound, the government was unable to take it off the air, although the government continued to jam Miraya’s frequency to disrupt its broadcasts during the year. The jamming affected areas within a mile of the country’s national public service broadcaster, the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation, compound in Nyakuron. Miraya FM reporters were occasionally harassed when attempting to cover events outside of the UN compound and were not invited to government-sponsored media events.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces commonly intimidated or detained journalists whose reporting they perceived as unfavorable to the military or government. Security forces confiscated or damaged journalists’ equipment and restricted their movements. During the year journalists were interrogated, harassed, detained, and imprisoned. NSS representatives frequently harassed journalists by detaining them at NSS headquarters or local police stations without formal charges. Government harassment was so pronounced that several journalists chose to flee the country. Journalists and media agencies that reported on news of the opposition could expect questioning and possibly closure. Journalists in Juba experienced threats and intimidation and routinely practiced self-censorship. On several occasions, high-level officials publicly used intimidating language directed toward media outlets and representatives.
There were multiple reports of abuses similar to the following example: In January the Arabic language al-Watan newspaper published a series of editorials by its editor in chief Michael Rial Christopher describing the al Bashir regime in Sudan as a dictatorship and predicting its downfall. Subsequently, Christopher began to experience a pattern of anonymous harassment and government restrictions. Christopher and many other journalists were warned not to report on the situation in Sudan. A series of threatening anonymous telephone calls forced Christopher into hiding, and he left the country for Egypt. Christopher returned to South Sudan and resumed his life, although his newspaper was suspended, ostensibly for bureaucratic reasons. On July 15, as he was departing Juba for medical treatment, NSS officials at the Juba airport boarded his plane and detained Christopher, confiscated his passport, and ordered him to report to NSS headquarters (colloquially known as the “Blue House”) the next day for questioning. On July 17, he reported to the Blue House again and was detained for 39 days without charges before being released. During his detention he did not have access to a lawyer, his family, or the medical treatment that prompted his attempt to travel from Juba.
There continued to be no credible investigation into the killing of freelance journalist Christopher Allen in 2017.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Refugees sometimes suffered abuse, such as armed attacks, killings, gender-based violence, forced recruitment, including of children, and forced labor, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Access to Asylum: The South Sudan Refugee Act provides for protection of refugees as well as the granting of asylum and refugee status. The government allowed refugees from a variety of countries to settle and generally did not treat refugees differently from other foreigners.
Access to Basic Services: While refugees sometimes lacked basic services, this generally reflected a lack of capacity in the country to manage refugee problems rather than government practices that discriminated against refugees. Refugee children had access to elementary education in refugee camps through programs managed by international NGOs and the United Nations. Some schools were shared with children from the host community. In principle refugees had access to judiciary services, although a lack of infrastructure and staff meant these resources were often unavailable.
Due to continuing conflict and scarcity of resources, tension existed between refugees and host communities in some areas over access to resources.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees and returnees for reintegration, and efforts to develop a framework for their integration or reintegration into local communities were in progress. No national procedures were in place to facilitate the provision of identity documents for returnees or the naturalization of refugees beyond procedures that were in place for all citizens and other applicants.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published information on human rights cases and the armed conflict, often while facing considerable government resistance. Government officials were rarely cooperative and responsive to their views and were often actively hostile. Reports outlining atrocities furthered tensions between the government and international organizations and NGOs. Government and opposition forces often blamed each other or pointed toward militia groups or “criminal” actors.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government sometimes cooperated with representatives of the United Nations and other international organizations. A lack of security guarantees from the government and opposition on many occasions, as well as frequent government violations of the status of forces agreement, including by restricting the movement of UNMISS personnel, constrained UNMISS’s ability to carry out its mandate, which included human rights monitoring and investigations. Security forces generally regarded international organizations with suspicion.
UNMISS and its staff faced increased harassment and intimidation by the government, threats against UNMISS premises and PoC sites, unlawful arrest and detention, and abduction. The SSPDF regularly prevented UNMISS from accessing areas of suspected human rights abuses, such as the area around Kuajena in Western Bahr el Ghazal, in violation of the status of forces agreement that allows UNMISS access to the entire country. Team members of the UNSC’s panel of experts reported generally good access to conduct their work, as did the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The president appoints members of the South Sudan Human Rights Commission (SSHRC), whose mandate includes education, research, monitoring, and investigation of human rights abuses, either on its own initiative or upon request by victims. International organizations and civil society organizations considered the SSHRC’s operations to be generally independent of government influence. The commission cooperated with international human rights advocates and submitted reports and recommendations to the government.
While observers generally regarded the SSHRC to have committed and competent leadership, severe resource constraints prevented it from effectively fulfilling its human rights protection mandate. Salaries and office management accounted for the bulk of its funding, leaving little for monitoring or investigation. In 2015 the commission released a three-year strategy and reported on 700 previously undocumented prisoners. It has produced little since, however, including during the year.
The National Committee for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide remained largely inactive throughout the year.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The country passed a national labor law in 2017. The new labor act was not well disseminated or enforced. Under the law every employee has the right, with restrictions, to form and join unions, bargain collectively, and strike. The law does not explicitly prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activities. While labor courts adjudicate labor disputes, the minister of labor may refer them to compulsory arbitration.
The 2013 Workers’ Trade Union Act provided a regulatory framework to govern worker trade unions. The largest union, the South Sudan Workers’ Trade Union Federation, had approximately 65,000 members, working mainly in the public sector. The federation’s president, Simeone Deng, was reportedly killed while on a mission in March. Unions were nominally independent of the governing political party, but there were reports of government interference in labor union activities. In 2017 President Salva Kiir dismissed several judges who had gone on strike.
Hyperinflation and devaluation of the South Sudanese pound (SSP) led to a series of strikes, as workers reported they can no longer live off their salaries. Employees of the Cooperative Bank of South Sudan went on strike in February, citing complaints over salaries, health insurance, and pension payments. South Sudanese employees at foreign companies have also gone on strike, demanding better pay or demanding to be paid in U.S. dollars rather than SSPs.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, with exceptions for compulsory military or community service or because of a criminal conviction. The law prohibits abduction or transfer of control over a person for the purpose of unlawful compulsory labor. Selling a minor for the purpose of prostitution is a crime. Although penalties existed, lack of enforcement rendered them ineffective at deterring violations. The government did not investigate or prosecute any trafficking or forced labor offenses. Forced labor occurred in domestic servitude, in agricultural labor on family farms and at cattle camps, and in prisons. Most of those in situations of forced labor in cattle camps and agricultural activities were victimized by their own family members. Employers subjected women, migrants, and children (see section 7.c.) to forced labor in mines, restaurants, street begging, criminal activities, and sexual exploitation.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The minimum age for paid employment is 12 years for “light work” and 18 years for “hazardous work.” The law defines light work as work that does not harm the health or development of a child and does not affect the child’s school attendance or capacity to benefit from such. The law provides that the government may issue regulations prescribing limitations on working hours and occupational safety and health restrictions for children, but these regulations were not available. The law uses international standards International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182) to specify the “worst forms of child labor” and prohibits any person from engaging or permitting the engagement of a child younger than age of 18 in these practices.
The government did not enforce child labor laws, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations. The National Steering Committee on Child Labor, led by the Ministry of Labor, was charged with coordinating efforts across government ministries to combat child labor; it did not convene during the year. In addition to the Ministry of Labor, the committee included representatives from the Ministries of Agriculture and Forestry; Health; Gender; General Education; Culture; Youth and Sports; Animal Resources and Fisheries; and Wildlife Conservation and Tourism as well as the ILO and union representatives. In 2018 the Department of Labor added firewood gathering and slaughterhouse work to the list of prohibited activities involving child labor.
Only one of the Ministry of Labor’s five labor investigators was specifically trained to address child labor. Although charged with removing children engaged in work, the investigators did not have the necessary resources and did not conduct proper investigations. Of children between the ages of 10 and 14, 46 percent were engaged in some form of child labor, largely in cattle herding, firewood gathering, or subsistence farming with family members. Child labor was also prevalent in construction, domestic work, street work and commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children). Girls rescued from brothels in Juba reported police provided security for the brothels, and SSPDF soldiers and government officials were frequent clients of child victims of sexual exploitation.