As the first two cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) in South Sudan were confirmed on 5 and 7 April respectively, members of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan urged the recently formed Transitional Government of National Unity to step up efforts to contain the spread of the virus. As of last week, Government officials had already begun implementing certain precautionary measures including a nationwide curfew, limiting social gatherings, and closing down some establishments.
“One cannot realistically talk about strict social distancing in a country where nearly one and a half million internally displaced persons are living in tents, often inches apart from one other, and subsisting on rapidly diminishing humanitarian aid,” explained Commission Chairperson Yasmin Sooka. “Internally displaced persons are at a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to their limited access to basic services such as healthcare, water, hygiene and sanitation, food, and adequate housing. Those displaced are also often made to travel for hours or days to reach healthcare facilities, and their leading cause of death has therefore most often been preventable,” she added.
Despite the many legal guarantees in both international and domestic law concerning the right to health, the availability of health services in South Sudan remains extremely constrained for all residents, with women and children among the worst affected by the shortage. Approximately 90 per cent of health facilities countrywide are being run by international organisations, the Commission noted.
“We have documented how numerous healthcare workers have been killed or displaced over the past six years of conflict,” said Commissioner Andrew Clapham. “Fighting has also resulted in staggering levels of malnutrition across South Sudan, due in part to the deliberate use of starvation as a method of warfare, which is acutely seen with respect to elderly persons most vulnerable to the spread of this virus. It is imperative that all efforts in the public health response to COVID-19 be made without adverse distinction based on ethnicity, age, sex, religion or belief, or any other arbitrary status, and any measures taken remain guided by the principles of legality, proportion, precaution, and non-discrimination,” he added.
Presently throughout Africa, at least 51 of the continent’s 54 countries have confirmed cases of COVID-19. As the rapid spread of the virus gains ground, the Commission further urged parties to the conflict to scale up their efforts to quell on-going violence, including incidents of intercommunal violence.
“Armed conflict in South Sudan remains on-going, and we echo the urgent call made by UN Secretary General António Guterres on 23 March for an immediate global ceasefire. It is now more vital than ever that warring parties demonstrate resolute leadership by disseminating timely information, involving local communities in the public health response, encouraging a shared national identity, and supporting communities to work together in order to fend off what could be a disastrous spread of COVID-19 transmission,” said Commissioner Barney Afako.
In this unprecedented period of fear and turmoil, many governments have resorted to securitizing public emergency responses to the COVID-19 crisis rather than implementing a rights-based response – one which would require a framework that places human rights and the rule of law at the forefront of the response, the Commission underscored.
The Commission also called upon the Transitional Government of National Unity to ensure that any restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms had a clear legal basis, described in specific terms so that civilians were made aware of how their rights were being curtailed, under which law(s), and precisely what they are, and are not, permitted to do. Any limitation or restriction imposed must be subject to judicial review, it mentioned.
The Commission further noted with concern how, following the first confirmed case of COVID-19, anti-United Nations sentiment began circulating on social media, including multiple instances in which individuals purporting to be South Sudanese posted comments inciting others to violence against UN staff members for allegedly bringing the virus to South Sudan. The Commission also expressed concern at the role being played by the National Security Service in the restrictions being placed on the UN and its personnel, and the impact this may have on the ability of the UN to carry out its work.
“It is most regrettable that South Sudan has joined the list of countries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Commission Chairperson Yasmin Sooka. “Even so, Government officials must deescalate such sentiments immediately and make clear that any further incitement to violence or attacks against humanitarian staff will be met with firm consequences,” she stated.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).