U.N. officials say human rights conditions in South Sudan are deteriorating as a February 22 deadline for creating a transitional unity government draws near.
Three U.N. human rights commissioners who wrapped up their eighth mission to South Sudan on Friday said the country's rival parties have made little progress in implementing a 2018 peace deal that calls for the unity government.
U.N. commissioners Yasmin Sooka, Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako visited camps and settlements for internally displaced persons across South Sudan. They also met with government officials, civil society activists, and diplomats to gauge what is happening on the ground.
Clapham said the government has been slow to disperse funds for carrying out key security procedures, such as gathering rebel soldiers for training prior to integration into the national army.
"Although the government of South Sudan has pledged $100 million to support the cantonment program, less than half of this fund seems to have been released. Some countries, which have donated money to remedy cantonment-related issues, do not know how the funds have been used," Clapham told reporters in Juba.
Clapham said children continue to be recruited by both the government and the opposition, adding the commission is extremely concerned about increased localized violence in Yei River and Lakes states.
"We have noted an upsurge in incidents of armed conflict particularly in Yei, where fighting between the holdout groups NAS (National Salvation Front) and government forces is once again creating instability, leading to the displacement of civilians," he said.
He said that in the town of Maiwut, recent fighting between pro-government and opposition forces has displaced at least 8,000 people, forcing them to flee to Ethiopia.
Threats to free speech
Commissioner Afako said arbitrary arrests, detentions and the torture of journalists continues unabated in South Sudan.
"We learned in Juba here how women from civil society are being followed by national security officers to their homes and approached for no apparent reason other than to threaten and intimidate or harass them. Some people have expressed concerns that NSS (National Security Service) officers sometimes sit in their vehicles outside their civil society offices and disperse intimidation," said Afako.
And attempts to limit freedom of speech have moved from the South Sudanese capital to Lakes, Torit and Tombura states according to Afako.
"Numerous civil society representatives also expressed to us that in order to hold events, they continue to require clearance from NSS and are required to pay fees," Afako told VOA.
Clapham, Sooka and Afako are on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, an independent body mandated by the U.N. Human Rights Council to report the facts, preserve evidence and clarify responsibility for alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights in the country.
The commission is expected to present its report to the Human Rights Council in March.
The Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict was also in Juba, where she called on all parties to end immediately all violations against children, including the recruitment, maiming and killing of children.
As she wrapped up a four-day visit Friday to South Sudan, U.N. special representative Virginia Gamba said the country's children are still waiting for a commitment from the government and other parties to end serious abuses against them. She said they also need help from the international community.
"We need to take the children that have been used and abused by war for years. We need to bring them back to our communities, we need to liberate them from any stigma but more importantly, we need to provide reintegration, rehabilitation reinsertion services," said Gamba.
She pointed out that some South Sudanese don't even know they are violating children's rights when they're doing it.
"Sometimes it is ignorance in families, communities and sometimes in local authorities and leaders who cannot recognize that engaging in such actions is an abuse of children," said Gamba.
Gamba said she watched Friday as South Sudan government officials signed an agreement to end and prevent all grave violations against children, but quickly added that the parties must do more than sign a piece of paper.
"Just signing won't do anything. It has to be implemented and it has to be implemented practically. We hope it can be speedy and we know that this is in itself a confidence-building measure," said the special U.N. Representative.
Gamba urged the international community to support long-term reintegration programs including the Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers. She said similar efforts in the past have led to the release of at least 280 children from South Sudanese armed groups last year.