On July 9th, South Sudan will declare its independence, becoming Africa's newest nation. The challenges it faces are many. 50 years of war and conflict have seriously undermined the capacity of institutions at all levels to provide justice. Scores of cases of human rights violations and abuses, including sexual violence have remained uninvestigated, unprosecuted or unpunished.
Conflict-related sexual violence is one of history's greatest silences. In South Sudan as elsewhere, it brings stigmatization and rejection, diseases and reproductive health issues, psychological trauma and unwanted pregnancies, and damages the entire social fabric. It has held communities hostage by preventing women from participating in public and economic life, and undertaking many chores common to rural life, from gathering water and wood, to working in the fields to sustain their families. It has kept girls away from school, and reinforced gender discrimination.
At this formative moment, survivors of sexual violence regard the birth of the nation of South Sudan with hope, anxiously awaiting proof that the new institutions will help address such injustices and prevent future violations.
Last March, my office received a request from the Government of South Sudan to assist in the drafting of the country's transitional constitution with a special focus on prevention and response to sexual violence. UN Security Council resolution 1888 of 2009 gives me the mandate to dispatch a Team of Experts on the Rule of Law to do exactly this.
During its just concluded visit to South Sudan, the Team had one major focus: Securing the rights of victims of conflict-related sexual violence - including recommending what South Sudan authorities must do to prevent the recurrence of such crimes in the future. The Team focused on the Bill of Rights, women's participation in public and political life, and the rule of law and accountability - issues central to the rule of law as it relates to sexual violence in conflict. Those they met with underscored that rape by armed individuals is a prevalent facet of life, closely followed by limited awareness of the rights of individuals, and lack of access to justice for survivors.
I welcome the Government of South Sudan's commitment to address the issue of sexual violence in its draft constitution. The Team of Experts made a number of recommendations in this regard, including the elaboration of a separate article obligating the Government to enact laws to combat sexual violence, and ensuring that customs and traditions as sources of legislation should only apply if they are in conformity with the Bill of Rights. In addition I would encourage the inclusion of a provision on extradition, as well as a general provision on international cooperation in criminal matters. The government has taken commendable measures to ensure women's participation in public and political life. To reinforce this important commitment, the government may wish to specifically stipulate the participation of women at 25-30 percent, across all institutions, agencies and commissions, and at all levels. It is also important that women not be held to a higher qualification standard than men.
In the spirit of universal accountability, crimes under international law should be excluded from amnesty under all circumstances, including where senior government officials or military high command are implicated. Formulating Codes of Conduct for the police, the armed forces and the national security service, etc, that reflect zero tolerance for sexual violence is critical.
South Sudan has a unique opportunity to establish a constitutional foundation that places women and the family centrally in the birth of a new nation. By heralding women's rights, and particularly their protection from sexual violence, the Government of South Sudan will send an unequivocal message. The world is looking towards South Sudan on this historic occasion. It's an opportunity not to be missed.
*Written by Margot Wallstrom: Margot Wallstrom is UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict