“One rape is too many,” says Andrea Cullinan from the United Nations Population Fund.
Cullinan is also the National Coordinator representing various United Nations agencies, and national and international non-governmental organisations working in the prevention and response to gender-based violence, in South Sudan.
She is travelling on a flight, as part of an investigations team to South Sudan’s northern town of Bentiu, where approximately 150 women and girls have reportedly sought medical treatment after having been raped or sexually assaulted over a ten-day period at the end of November, as they walked along roads near Nhialdu and Guit on their way to Bentiu.
“Whether it’s one, ten or a hundred, we treat every woman with the dignity she deserves”, she adds.
“This is a case of the break-down of rule of law,” she says.
On the same flight is a UN Human Rights team which is travelling to reinforce other human rights investigators, who have already started working on “this situation that is worrisome” according to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Human Rights Director, Eugene Nindorera.
“Because of the scale of the allegations and the number of women and girls that were raped, we thought we should have more people … to conduct investigations,” said Nindorera.
UNMISS is charged with monitoring, investigating, verifying and reporting human rights violations and abuses, as well as violations of international humanitarian law, including conflict-related sexual violence.
“If you are looking at the number of rape cases that we have already registered, it is more than 150, and basically – especially in this specific context where we had seen some decrease in terms of violations and abuses and rape cases somehow because of the signing of the revitalized peace agreement – it is really a pity to see that this [is] happening right now,” says Nindorera, who thinks the situation requires quick intervention.
“The figures are very high, and this is not acceptable, of course, and we need to do something about it,” he adds.
A local government official contested the rape allegations in the local media, denying the occurrence of the incidents.
“The reality of using rape as a weapon of war is there, and there is no need to contest it,” says Nindorera. “What is more important is, really, to look at what we can do to address this issue,” adds the human rights expert. adds.
Parties to a bitter, near five-year conflict are currently engaged in pre-transitional arrangements as they seek to implement a peace agreement penned in Addis Ababa in September 2018. If adhered to, the revitalized peace agreement would stifle the environment that allows such criminality as has been reported in Bentiu to flourish.
“I think it is good now various parties to the conflict are sitting together so that they can see how, together, they can find a solution to that situation,” says Nindorera.
Reports of the attacks came to light after medical charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) announced on Friday, November 30, that they had received the women and young girls at their clinic in Bentiu.
“The situation is, to say the least, horrendous; it is very, very depressing and, ironically, it is happening during the 16 days of activism,” said the UNMISS Civil Affairs official Paul Ebikwo, who works at the Mission’s base in Bentiu.
It is alleged that the attacks against the women and girls were carried out by young men in civilian clothing or military uniforms. In addition to being sexually violated, they were brutally beaten and robbed.
The United Nations Mission in South Sudan which has a ‘Protection of Civilians’ mandate has since the reports deployed daily patrols in the areas where the attacks were reported to have taken place.
The Mission is also urging armed forces in the area to guarantee command and control over their troops to ensure rogue elements within their ranks are not involved in these criminal acts.
“Rape is not acceptable, and the issue of accountability has to be taken seriously,” says Nindorera. “Accountability is something that we have to emphasise,” he notes, adding, “What happened in Bentiu – we need to come up with a number of people to be identified as the alleged perpetrators and make sure that they are going to be held accountable,” he added.
South Sudan spiraled into armed conflict at the end of 2013, and after the signing of a short-lived peace agreement in August 2015, it slid back into conflict in mid-2016. A new peace-deal in place has been dogged by continued clashes, despite reports of displaced people voluntarily returning home to areas where conflict was rife.