By Biel Boutros Biel, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Biel Boutros Biel is co-chair of the National Human Rights Forum and executive director of the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy. He is also a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University, in New York. The views expressed are his own.
After decades of armed struggle, South Sudan became the world’s newest country on July 9, 2011. As people gathered at Freedom Square in Juba, a huge group of women surrounded the John Garang statue, tears wetting their faces. Instead of taking their pictures, I was overtaken by emotion and found myself in tears, too. “Garang my brother, thank you, though you died, finally independence has come,” one woman said.
I remembered relatives and friends who died, and how I carried a gun as a child soldier and joined in the liberation. It was a time of joy and sorrow, the independence that finally came to us through bullets, blood and ballots.
Now barely two years-old, South Sudan is one of the candidates for Africa’s open seats on the U.N. Human Rights Council. This is the first opportunity for South Sudan to become part of such an international body. And, although our governance systems are still flawed, I believe that South Sudanese can be good stewards of human rights across the globe.
During the long North-South civil war, South Sudanese fought for the most basic rights – freedom of expression and association, freedom from persecution, and freedom from being treated as second-class citizens by the government in Khartoum. Many sacrificed their lives.
But since independence, numerous human rights issues have emerged, problems the government hasn’t properly addressed them. As a South Sudanese human rights defender, I often hear from officials that South Sudan is too young and that our government structures are too new to be judged by international human rights standards.
It is true that many of South Sudan’s problems are the results of years of war and underdevelopment, and correcting these problems and creating a government strong enough to tackle them will take us all years. But many problems we are seeing are not due to a lack of trained civil servants or money or services. We are also seeing a lack of political will to end abuses and hold wrongdoers to account. Politicians who do not want to see justice done should not be allowed the excuse that South Sudan is a young country.
In the town of Wau last December, security forces gunned down peaceful protesters. That same month, Isaiah Abraham, a well-known political commentator, was assassinated in Juba. The government announced in January that they had arrested suspects, but that it hasn’t identified the suspects or sent them for trial.
Meanwhile, there is growing harassment and detention of journalists, leading to self-censorship. And in Jonglei state in recent months, soldiers fighting a rebel group have been torturing and killing civilians they accuse of being allied with the rebels, forcing thousands into hiding in the bush.
So before taking up a position at the Human Rights Council the government should put its own house in order. It needs to investigate the killings of civilians and unlawful arrests by security forces, and harassment of journalists and outspoken members of civil society and bring to justice the assassins of Isaiah Abraham.
The government also needs to make clear that it supports human rights, that it will protect them and not abuse them. It needs to strengthen its laws, but also make clear to security forces that they need to protect civilians, not attack them. The laws governing the national security service should be discussed openly in the public, not behind closed doors.
Moreover, we need an NGO law that does not curtail the freedom of civil society organizations to operate in South Sudan, and the government should fund fully the National Constitutional Review Commission, which works on the new constitution that is the heart of the nation.
Winning a seat on the Human Rights Council on November 12 would put South Sudan’s approach to human rights in the spotlight, and that could be a good thing. South Sudan should therefore take the opportunity of its candidacy to show that it is ready to help protect human rights around the world – and at home.