UN Protection of Civilians site in Wau, South Sudan. April 2017. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/unmissmultimedia/33774399210">UNMISS</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">(CC)</a>
UN Protection of Civilians site in Wau, South Sudan. April 2017. CREDIT: UNMISS (CC)

Amnesty International's Sarah Jackson on the Crisis in South Sudan

Aug 2, 2017

Since South Sudan's civil war broke out in late 2013, soldiers on both sides have been using rape and other forms of sexual violence on a massive scale as a weapon of war, says Amnesty International's Sarah Jackson. The resulting refugee crisis is putting a severe strain on neighboring Uganda, a country with one of the most generous refugee policies in the world. What is at the root of this violence? How can governments and NGOs help?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders podcast. I'm Alex Woodson. Today I'm joined by Sarah Jackson, who is calling in from Nairobi, Kenya. Sarah is Amnesty International's deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn, and the Great Lakes.

Sarah, thanks for calling in today.

SARAH JACKSON: Thanks for having me.

ALEX WOODSON: We're going to be focusing on the crisis in South Sudan. Amnesty International recently released two reports related to the conflict, one on July 24 entitled "Do Not Remain Silent: Survivors of Sexual Violence in South Sudan Call for Justice and Reparations," and one released on June 19 entitled "Help Does Not Reach Me Here: Donors Must Step Up Support for South Sudanese Refugees in Uganda."

We'll discuss both of these reports, but just to start, Sarah, could you give our listeners a rundown of the situation in South Sudan? It's one of the world's deadliest conflicts right now, but unfortunately it hasn't gotten a lot of attention in the American media, so I think we would all appreciate some more information about it.

SARAH JACKSON: South Sudan is the world's newest country. It became independent from Sudan back in July 2011, and that was after a long independence struggle. About two-and-a-half years into independence, the South Sudan Civil War broke out. That was in December 2013. At the time, there had been simmering tensions within the ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which is known as the SPLM. That elite power struggle really came to a head. Fighting broke out in the capital of Juba and then spread to certain states upcountry.

Within the course of this conflict, both government and opposition forces have committed really serious human rights violations and abuses. We're talking about things like the targeted killings of civilians, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual violence, recruitment of child soldiers, and looting. There was an attempt at a peace agreement in August 2015 brokered by a regional body here called the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), but the implementation of that agreement has been slow. That agreement is now in jeopardy.

There was a new outbreak of fighting in July 2016. That fighting continues to a certain extent to today. Overall, the situation is really bleak. We're talking about nearly 2 million people being internally displaced within South Sudan, around 1.5 million South Sudanese have fled the country and are refugees in neighboring states, 6 million people are facing severe food insecurity. So the situation is deeply worrying. It's becoming more complex, and the United Nations Committee on Human Rights has warned of ethnic cleansing. So essentially it's a situation where the conflict continues, and civilians are paying the price.

ALEX WOODSON: The report that was released earlier this week focuses on sexual violence and how that has been used in this conflict. When did Amnesty International realize that there was this epidemic of sexual violence, and how did that lead to this report?

SARAH JACKSON: Amnesty International has been gathering evidence of sexual violence ever since this current conflict broke out in December 2013. Really since the early days of that conflict we've documented cases of rape by government soldiers and by opposition soldiers too. It's impossible for us to know the true scale of sexual violence in South Sudan. There have been some studies done by other organizations that give us indications, but it's very difficult to conduct research at that level to identify the scale ourselves.

To give your listeners a sense, the United Nations Population Fund did a survey in 2015, and that survey showed that of women living in what are called "the Protection of Civilians Sites," UN bases where civilians seek protection, 72 percent of them had previously been raped during the course of the conflict. We're talking about really staggering numbers, and there has been some research since then by the United Nations that suggests these numbers may have since increased. So sexual violence is happening at a massive scale, and that's why we conducted this research.

We started working with 10 South Sudanese human rights defenders as part of an accompaniment project in late 2016, and the idea was that through this joint work we would help to build a capacity for research on their own issues, in their own context. They decided that the most important issue they wanted to focus on was sexual violence, so that's when we started doing this joint documentation work. The report that we launched this week is based on interviews with 168 survivors of and 14 witnesses to sexual violence during the conflict.

ALEX WOODSON: You talk about the staggering numbers that have been affected by this in the conflict. How does this compare to other conflicts, whether in the region or around the world? Does this stand out when you compare it to other horrible civil wars that have happened, and has it followed a similar pattern as others?

SARAH JACKSON: What we found in South Sudan was a situation where sexual violence is really rampant, and it takes place when civilians come into close contact with armed actors. We're talking about situations like attacks on villages, searches of residential areas, along roads, along checkpoints, and we also documented cases of men who have been subjected to sexual violence during arrest and detention. So that's the situation as we found it in South Sudan.

What we have documented together with our South Sudanese colleagues are extreme acts of sexual violence that are part of a strategy to terrorize, to shame, to humiliate the victims, and at times to do so because they've been targeted for their perceived ethnic or political groups. So rape is really being used as a weapon of war, and it's being used with complete impunity.

It's really difficult to compare different conflicts with each other, but as part of this research I spoke to colleagues who work within our crisis team who have worked in many war zones across the world, and they say that they've also documented widespread sexual violence in Somalia and in Syria. So though it's impossible to get accurate or comprehensive statistics that really demonstrate the scale in comparative ways, we have documented serious widespread sexual violence in other contexts too.

ALEX WOODSON: The report talks a lot about South Sudanese society and how that has affected the situation, the role of women in South Sudanese society. Could you speak a little bit about that and how that fits into the situation there?

SARAH JACKSON: The report also looks at the status of women and girls within South Sudanese society and tries to unpack some of the patriarchal structures in South Sudan and concepts of power that exist, including men as protectors of women, men being seen as protectors of women. So the attacks on women from a specific community are also designed to affect the men within that community, to essentially say, "You can no longer protect your own women."

But one of the things that was also interesting in the research is to look at historical conceptions of protection of women and to see how some of these societal structures have also broken down during the course of the current conflict, and that in many respects this heightened situation of sexual violence is also linked to the structures that may protect women under normal situations really breaking down in the current context.

ALEX WOODSON: Moving on a little bit—we'll get back to Amnesty International's role and some of the other governmental actors there in the sexual violence situation—but moving on to Uganda's role in the crisis, it is something I actually just learned about. To set us up, I'll just read a little bit from the June report: "Uganda's approach to hosting refugees has been lauded by the international community as one of the most generous and progressive in the region, if not the world. The country has a long history of welcoming refugees fleeing conflict in neighboring countries . . ."

As I said, I didn't really know that this was the case with Uganda before we started emailing in preparation for this interview. Currently there are 900,000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, and 86 percent are women and children. If we could just back up a little bit, what's the history behind Uganda's refugee policy?

SARAH JACKSON: Uganda's refugee policy is really quite extraordinary. It is one of the most progressive in the world. I think in the current context where there is enormous backlash against refugees, particularly refugees going to Europe, and this new narrative around the European refugee crisis, Uganda's policy looks all the more generous.

In Uganda refugees are hosted in settlements, and they're provided with plots of land to cultivate. The idea is that over time they would become self-sufficient and that they would be able to provide for themselves. They are also given relative freedom of movement, access to basic services on a par with nationals—notwithstanding, of course, the weaknesses of public service provision in Uganda—and they have the right to work as well. This is the situation, at least on paper, that South Sudanese refugees are coming to in Uganda.

But the system is certainly facing its challenges under the really heavy numbers of South Sudanese that have come. Since we published the report on South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, the number there has now increased. We're now looking at 950,000 South Sudanese refugees in Uganda who have arrived since the conflict began in December 2013. These numbers continue to grow. By the end of the year, Uganda is set to host more than 1 million South Sudanese refugees. Uganda hosts the largest number of refugees in Africa.

ALEX WOODSON: What were some of the conclusions of this report about the current situation in Uganda?

SARAH JACKSON: Uganda has been very generous with hosting South Sudanese refugees, but the muddle does come with its weaknesses too. Most of the South Sudanese refugees who have come to Uganda are women and children. That accounts for about 86 percent. And there is an expectation that they will be able to both care for their children and construct their own shelters. The system also assumes that refugees are able to farm, that they have a farming background, and that's not necessarily the case for all. Some might come from urban centers, and some might be pastoralists.

The plots of land in the region that most South Sudanese are going to—that's the West Nile region of Northern Uganda—are smaller and less fertile compared to land for refugees in other parts of Uganda, so this assumption that South Sudanese refugees will become self-sufficient within the next five years doesn't really hold.

They're also facing massive funding shortfalls. Refugees who arrived before July 2015 have had their food rations cut by half. Essentially what we're looking at is a refugee situation in Uganda that is chronically underfunded. Earlier this year the United Nations Appeal for Support to Uganda was just 18 percent funded, so that gives you an idea of the kind of resources that they still need.

Uganda and the UN secretary-general hosted a Solidarity Summit for Refugees in June, but even then only $358 million of the $2 billion that was needed was pledged. So we can see that this situation is difficult and potentially unsustainable.

ALEX WOODSON: This is a huge number of refugees in Uganda. I knew this before and did some more research on it. Uganda is, by some accounts, already overpopulated. The fertility rate among women is six children per woman, according to the CIA World Factbook; the country's median age is 15. That was in 2010, so maybe it's a little different now.

I asked that because, is Ugandan society accepting of these refugees? Is there a concern that with the millions of people already in Uganda that a million more might hurt different aspects of the economy or workforce or anything like that?

SARAH JACKSON: Uganda is used to hosting refugees. But it's true, this is the largest mass influx of refugees that Uganda has seen since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

I would say so far it's really quite remarkable how welcoming communities have been. That is probably partly because these are regions in Northern Uganda that are not unused to having South Sudanese refugees. Many of those who fled to Uganda have done so before. Maybe they're doing so for the second time, perhaps even the third time.

There has been trade across that border as well. Some of the ethnic groups in South Sudan and Uganda are similar, some of the languages that they speak are similar. So there has been that kind of cross-fertilization of contact and ideas across the region.

That said, there are some signs of rising tensions. The United States Agency for International Development's (USAID) conflict assessment report from April of this year highlights a number of these fears and tensions, whether it's of unvaccinated livestock crossing the border or concerns around differential access to food. The Ugandan government has really been trying to mobilize extra resources, including allocating to some of these local communities, but the chronic underfunding of the refugee response makes that really, really difficult.

I think there are also different perceptions among different groups in Uganda as well. The Ugandan government had been a longtime supporter of the South Sudanese government, and before that the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). They supported their independence struggle against the Sudanese government, which helped to lead to their independence. During the early days of the conflict, they intervened to support the security of the South Sudanese government. So some Ugandans will note this contradiction between the Ugandan government supporting the South Sudanese government on the one hand, and then seeking funding to deal with the humanitarian fallout of that.

ALEX WOODSON: Just looking at the bigger picture here, this is a part of the world where there has been a lot of conflict, a lot of different factions fighting each other. What has been the effect of this current crisis in other countries? Somalia has al-Shabaab, as well as Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo has had conflicts for the last 20-25 years. Is this just exacerbating these situations, the refugee crisis, and also just the actual fighting in South Sudan?

SARAH JACKSON: The refugee crisis is certainly having a knock-on effect on neighboring countries. Ethiopia is hosting just under 380,000 South Sudanese refugees; Sudan around 410,000; Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo less but still significant numbers: Kenya has around 100,000 now; Democratic Republic of Congo around 80,000.

This does affect the dynamics in some of the neighboring countries. Ethiopia, for example, is concerned about how this affects dynamics within the border region, the Gambela region. Really this should give countries in the region enough of an impetus now to make a concerted effort to get to a solution.

There have been regional attempts which led to the August 2015 peace agreement brokered by IGAD, and that led to the formation of a transitional government of national unity. But there are a number of plans in that agreement, including provisions for transitional justice, for a hybrid court for South Sudan, that are yet to fully materialize. Regional countries are working through IGAD to develop a high-level revitalization forum for the peace agreement.

It's really important now that we see a concerted effort by regional actors supported by the international community to see an end to these conflict-related abuses, to tackle these issues of sexual violence, and to ensure that those victims and those survivors receive justice and accountability.

ALEX WOODSON: Going along with that—what we were talking about before, how the United Nations is completely underfunded when it comes to the refugee situation—what are some of the mechanisms that the United Nations is trying to do? What is Amnesty International trying to do? What are some ways that you can increase funding and increase awareness about what's going on and hopefully put an end to the conflict or at least give the refugees a better life?

SARAH JACKSON: I think first of all there's a need for countries to push for an end to conflict-related abuses, and that probably needs a renewed political process, which falls largely outside the mandate of an organization like Amnesty International. But there are other things, too, that can be done. It's really important that an arms embargo is placed on South Sudan. The country is awash with arms.

Preventing more arms from coming in is not going to have that immediate impact, but it will be important in reducing human rights violations over the long term. So that's something that some countries—the United Kingdom, France, the United States—have been pushing for at the United Nations Security Council, but to date that has been blocked by China and Russia. So really trying to forge consensus around that issue could be very important.

Then, like you said, Alex, there needs to be more investment in the United Nations in peacekeeping and humanitarian aid. That is not going to solve the human rights crisis, but it really could lessen its effects.

One thing that comes through clearly in our report on sexual violence, the report that we did jointly with South Sudanese colleagues, is the need for the United Nations to expand patrols and to increase accompaniment for people leaving the Protection of Civilians sites so they are at reduced risk of sexual violence. And then survivors of these kinds of incidents need more medical support, and they need more mental health support too. These are some of the key things that can be done in addition to pushing for accountability.

One of the things that came through so clearly in this research and comes through so clearly in this report is that resounding call for justice from women and men who have lived through the sexual violence, who bear those scars, and who are dealing with that trauma. The African Union is making some steps toward setting up a hybrid court. This would be a court that would be run jointly by the African Union with African representatives and South Sudanese representatives to try conflict-related human rights abuses. So it's really important that those efforts are moved forward and that those efforts are moved forward fast.

ALEX WOODSON: What comes next for Amnesty International and for you? You just put out this report; you're doing interviews; I've seen it picked up in a bunch of different newspapers and online publications. What's the next step for trying to help people affected by this conflict for you and Amnesty International?

SARAH JACKSON: We're trying to foster understanding of what's going on and to push for these kinds of improvements that I've outlined—for an end to violations, for accountability, for humanitarian support—and that involves advocacy at a variety of different levels, with the South Sudanese government, with neighboring countries, with the African Union, the United Nations, and also for our members to take action, to push their own governments to take a stand on these issues. We provide that kind of platform as Amnesty International for people to stand in solidarity with the South Sudanese and to press and advocate for these changes.

We also work very closely with South Sudanese civil society actors to support them, to open doors, to leverage their voices. That's one of the things that we'll be continuing as a result of this joint work together.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap things up, I wanted to ask something a little bit more about your own story. The report on sexual violence is absolutely heartbreaking and extremely disturbing. I urge everyone to read it. There are very graphic depictions of what's going on in South Sudan.

Two questions for you: What was your exact role in this report? And the second question is: How do you cope with this? Just for me reading this the last couple of days has been very disturbing. How do you cope with learning all of this stuff and trying to lead a normal life at the end of the day?

SARAH JACKSON: Thanks, Alex. I lead Amnesty International's campaigns in advocacy across 11 countries in East Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Great Lakes region. I manage a small team of campaigners in our office here in Nairobi. And then we work with other parts of our organization, so we have a team that works on advocacy with the African Union. We have a team that works on relations with the United Nations in Geneva and in New York, and we have colleagues as well who specialize on issues related to gender and other thematic considerations. So this piece of work is really a product of that collaboration.

Another part of my role involves engaging with the Amnesty International movement, to give them opportunities to stand in solidarity with people in the region to work on these issues, and where their own governments are involved to hold them to account.

You also asked how I cope with this kind of work and what my own role was within the report. I worked very closely with a South Sudan campaigner who was central to this project. I had the opportunity also to take part in some of the training of the South Sudanese colleagues that we worked together with on this. I led a session with them on advocacy and campaigning and really to get a sense of what their hopes and aspirations were for this work, what they wanted to see come out of this, and what the people that they had interviewed wanted to see come out of this too. So part of my role is then to translate those hopes and aspirations into a strategy for action, and hopefully one that sees impact.

ALEX WOODSON: For you, when you hear these stories, it must be incredibly disturbing. Do you have a way to cope with all this?

SARAH JACKSON: I've been doing this work for quite some time now, Alex. It's coming up to 11 years that I've been working on these kinds of issues, nine years being based here in the region. Of course, these are stories and experiences that you never get used to. They're always shocking, and sometimes you feel it more than others; I think perhaps more so when you're directly involved in research, in taking testimonies, and in working directly with survivors and witnesses to try to advocate for justice.

My role these days involves slightly less of that frontline work than it used to when I was a researcher, but it's really important to find ways to process this information, and also to build a strong network, a strong community of people you trust and who can support you.

Another thing that is really incredible is when you see an impact, when you see a change, whether that's a change in someone's life as an individual or a change at a policy level, that's what makes this work worthwhile.

ALEX WOODSON: Definitely, yes. As I said, I've seen pretty good pick-up from the news media, about this report, so that's really good to see.


ALEX WOODSON: That's all I have for right now. Sarah Jackson from Amnesty International, thank you so much for speaking today.

SARAH JACKSON: Thank you, Alex.

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