JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN – Once again, South Sudan is ranked among the least democratic countries in the world, according to Freedom House’s annual report on freedom around the world. The report, released last week, attributes the dismal ranking to the collapse of a 2015 peace deal, resumption of the country’s conflict in 2016, and egregious human rights abuses committed against civilians – often by government forces.
The watchdog organization rates freedoms, political rights and civil liberties to determine each country’s rankings. On a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being the most free and 7 the least, South Sudan scored a 7 out of 7 on all three items in 2016, down from its rating of 6 in 2015.
Broad presidential powers
The report points out that South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, cannot be impeached, and that he has the authority to fire state governors and dissolve the parliament and state assemblies as he sees fit.
Although most political competition takes place within the ruling SPLM party, Kiir, who also iis chairman, is intolerant of internal dissent, according to the report.
Ambassador Mawien Makol, spokesperson for South Sudan’s Foreign Ministry, does not deny the points made in the report.
“But we are saying we are doing the best we could do as a government to minimize those problems that are happening, the violations that are being alleged and the other things that are done by our military. There is accountability and there is a process to try to minimize them as we try to seek peace,” Makol told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.
The report said the South Sudanese army exercises an overbearing influence over political affairs and public life, and that activities of armed groups and civilians tied to other political and ethnic factions are shut out of politics.
It also said South Sudan’s executive and legislative branches lack electoral legitimacy and are unable to exercise control over the national territory, adding that corruption is pervasive among the political elite, and no one is help accountable for squandering the country’s considerable oil wealth.
James David Kolok, who heads the civil rights group Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance in South Sudan, agrees with the report’s findings.
“One of our biggest challenges as a country has been the issue of our institutions. For democracy to thrive we need to have very strong institutions, and of course, apart from the executive that in most cases are supposed to foresee some few things, institutions like the parliament and the judiciary must be very strong,” Kolok told South Sudan in Focus.
Culture of impunity
The report also said the country’s legal system is broken, and runs on a culture of impunity.
Susan Sebit William, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Women Lawyers, agrees. She says since South Sudan declared its independence, the government has not set up a judicial service commission, which is supposed to oversee the work of the judiciary as required by law.
“I think the rule of law has to be established, because [for] every country or every institution the foundation stone must be based on a rule of law. So South Sudan to at least push to certain level, rule of law will guide our military, will guide the civil servants, the citizens, will guide our characters, so our moral behaviors will be guided by the rule of law,” William told VOA.
Kolok says one important thing has to happen in order to improve the country’s ranking in the international democracy index.
“The rating of South Sudan has actually worsened from the emergence of the violence terms. So that tells us that the first thing the country needs to do is to work towards establishing [a] peaceful and a stable country. All that is mentioned in the report are all a product of violence,” said David.
Freedom House’s 2017 report covers developments in 195 countries across the globe.