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Top UN official urges South Sudan to reverse expulsion of human rights officer

November 9, 2012 (JUBA) - The United Nations human rights chief today urged South Sudan to reverse the expulsion of a human rights officer in the country, noting that the action is in breach of international agreements and that the authorities have not yet provided any satisfactory evidence for it.

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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay (UN)

“I urge the Government of South Sudan to reverse its expulsion order and find a solution to this unfortunate episode, which contradicts the Government’s publicly stated commitment to human rights,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said in a press release.

The staff member, named as Sandra Beidas, who works with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), was last transferred two weeks ago to the UN Regional Service Centre in Entebbe, Uganda, pending a decision on her future status. She was given 48 hours to leave the country by South Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“In the two weeks since she was expelled, the authorities have so far not provided the UN with any satisfactory evidence of serious misconduct by the staff member,” said Ms. Pillay. “The Government therefore appears to be in breach of its legal obligations under the UN Charter and under the 2011 Status of Forces Agreement between the Government of South Sudan and the UN concerning UNMISS.”

Beidas’ expulsion, may have been linked to a UN report published in August, which accused the South Sudan army (SPLA) of incidents of torture, rape, killings and abducting civilians during the civilian disarmament campaign in South Sudan’s Jonglei State, sources have told Sudan Tribune.

Ms. Pillay noted that the authorities, when they ordered the staff member to leave the country, accused her of misinforming the international community about human rights abuses. This was “utterly unsatisfactory and unacceptable,” she stated.

“If the Government has issues with the contents of a report, or with the manner in which the information is collected, they should be raised with UNMISS and with my office,” said the High Commissioner.

“The regular activities of a UN human rights officer cannot and should not be considered as serious misconduct or a criminal activity,” she added. “The promotion and protection of human rights is an essential element in a country’s development and the establishment of rule of law.”

South Sudan became independent from Sudan in July last year, six years after the signing of the peace agreement that ended decades of warfare between the north and the south. During the same month, the Security Council established the peacekeeping operation UNMISS with the purpose of consolidating peace and security and to help establish conditions for development.

Ms. Pillay called on the new state “to take urgent steps to ensure that the authorities at all levels respect their international obligations, both in terms of their treatment of UN staff and in their application of international laws and standards.”

She also voiced support for the efforts of the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of UNMISS, Hilde Johnson, to resolve the situation, including her repeated requests to the Government to explain its actions.

Johnson has condemned the move, which she said violates South Sudan’s legal obligation to provisions of the UN Charter.

“The order is in breach of the legal obligations of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan under the Charter of the United Nations,” said Johnson on 4 November.

“Human rights monitoring, investigation and reporting, and building capacity, is a core element of the mandate of UNMISS which must be protected,” she added.

Although South Sudanese officials have not publicly reacted to the expulsion, the UN says, efforts to have the decision rescinded have hardly been successful, despite numerous interventions.

The United States has condemned the expulsion. Mark Toner, the Acting Spokesman at the US State Department, said the government fully supports UNMISS and its efforts to strengthen government, institutions, provide humanitarian relief, and to monitor, mitigate and prevent conflict throughout South Sudan.

“Human rights monitoring, investigation and reporting are core elements of the UNMISS mandate. It is important that the Mission’s Human Rights Officers are allowed to carry out this work without fear of reprisal or expulsion,” Toner said in 6 November statement.

This is the second time a UN human rights investigator has been forced to leave South Sudan. In August 2011, Benedict Sannoh, the former head of the United Nations human rights division in South Sudan, was badly beaten and taken from his hotel room by 10 South Sudanese police officers. The police left the UN official at a hospital after he was beaten, kicked and punched him "in a sustained fashion while he was in a fetal position on the floor” the UN said at the time.

The August 20 attack occurred after Sannoh refused to allow police to search his bags and enter his room at his hotel in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. His injuries were so serious that he spent five days in hospital before being sent abroad for further treatment.

A statement from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in August 2011 described the incident as "totally unacceptable”, warning that, “Unless those responsible are held to account, this will send a chilling message to all those working in the defense of human rights in South Sudan.”

Attacks on civil society

In the last five months two members of the South Sudan Civil Society Alliance (SSCSA) have been kidnapped by unidentified armed men, suspected by activists to be elements of the security services, and badly beaten and questioned about their work.

The chairperson of the alliance, Deng Athuai Mawiir Rehan, said in October that his organisations treatment was “unbearable" and has called on the government to launch an "immediate investigation into harassment and targeted kidnapping of human and civil rights defenders”.

“The intention is very clear. They just want to muzzle the alliance which will not work. Our government must investigate and take actions", Athuai told reporters on Sunday.

Ring Bulabuk, a defense lawyer who works with the alliance was kidnapped on 22 October in Juba by unknown armed personnel in civilian clothes. Relatives and friends say the men were members of South Sudan’s security services.

Bulabek was later found abandoned at Juba graveyard in “a terrible shape”, Athuai said, after being kept in an “undisclosed location” with no access to legal assistance and medical care until when he was found on Friday 26 October.

“There are people who do not understand what roles we play in the society. They see members of the alliance as threat. They do not see civil society as mirror through which people sees themselves”, he said.

Despite, serious human rights issues, Athuai said that he believed South Sudan’s leaders were striving to promote the supremacy of rule law, good governance, as well as improving transparency and accountability.

The the two abductions and beatings highlight the challenges facing South Sudan, which became the world’s youngest nation when it seceded from neigbouring Sudan in July 2011 after two decades of civil war.

(ST)