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World’s newest nation has unprecedented opportunity to end sexual violence in conflict

By Zainab Hawa Bangura

As United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, I completed my first trip to South Sudan last week to assess the situation of sexual violence in conflict in the country. Three years ago the world celebrated the extraordinary birth of this new nation and the bright future that lay ahead. People of different ethnic groups and economic classes came together to make the dream of a sovereign nation a reality, and a new flag raised in the capital of Juba was proof that their combined efforts had changed the course of a nation and a people. I cheered along with the rest of the world because as a native of Sierra Leone I know what it means to endure a brutal civil war and experience the joy that comes when peace is restored.

Now that the work of creating a new nation is done, the difficult work of building a united country begins. Since December 2013 South Sudan has been wracked by a new wave of violence as warring parties commit human rights abuses and horrific atrocities, attacks that are often ethnically motivated.

Rather than giving their people a better future, the leaders of South Sudan have declared war on the very people they fought to liberate, subjecting them to chronic insecurity, unbearable living conditions and unimaginable savagery. These assaults have taken a terrible toll on civilians, particularly women and children, who have borne the brunt of the brutality.

Sexual violence has become a key feature of the current conflict, including rape, gang rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery. These crimes have been committed by all parties to the conflict, by soldiers and civilians. As one woman activist said to me: “Sexual violence has become something normal here. It is not just about rape, it is to inflict unimaginable pain and destruction.”

South Sudan is now at a crossroads: it can turn back from sexual violence and reject its use as a political tool and weapon of war, or it can continue on a road whose only destination is revenge, and the decimation of a whole country’s hopes for a better future. Sexual violence in conflict sows a seed whose tree continues to bear bitter fruit long after the conflict has ended.

We have learned from long and difficult experience the damage that conflict-related sexual violence inflicts on a person, on a community, and on a country. It degrades and dehumanizes the victim, and it hinders efforts at reconciliation and building an enduring peace when war is over. Once community trust is broken by the horrible cruelty and brutality of sexual violence, it is very hard to rebuild. South Sudan must ask itself if it wants a future with enmity between neighbours and ethnic tensions among citizens, or a future of peace and security with neighbours of all ethnicities working side by side to help the country reach its full potential.

South Sudan can benefit from the difficult lessons other countries have learned from enduring widespread sexual violence in conflict. This is terrible, hard won knowledge that has been paid for in blood shed and lives lost, and provides forewarnings which the world’s youngest nation would do well to heed. But the time to make that choice is now, not after thousands have suffered from these atrocities.

I still have high hopes for the future of South Sudan. The goal of my visit was to engage with stakeholders from every part of South Sudanese society and emphasize greater national ownership of this issue. What I found was a unanimous demand for the leaders of South Sudan to put an end to these atrocities once and for all - from women’s organizations, community leaders, media associations and the internally displaced population taking refuge at UN protection sites to the highest levels of government.

On the last day of my visit President Salva Kiir and I signed an agreement outlining clear steps the government will take to prevent and address these crimes and expressing the UN’s readiness to support the government to fulfil its commitments. They include issuing and enforcing clear orders through the army chain of command prohibiting sexual violence; provisions to ensure medical, psychosocial and legal assistance to victims; security and justice sector reform; and ensuring that sexual violence crimes are addressed explicitly in the peace process.

I also met with Dr. Riek Machar, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (in Opposition), to insist that he too issue a communique expressing their zero tolerance for sexual violence and outlining the concrete measures they will take to prevent such crimes that are being perpetrated by their soldiers. I reminded Dr. Machar of the command responsibility he bears, and urged him to issue the communique without delay.

My Office and the entire UN system will do everything in our power to help the parties to conflict and people of South Sudan implement the concrete measures that are required. But solutions cannot be imposed from the outside; rather every citizen in South Sudan, and especially its leaders, must invest in putting an end to this scourge. This is the only way South Sudan can build a brighter future from the ashes of conflict.

 

Zainab Hawa Bangura is the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

 


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