Program: Yishak Tefferi - Human Rights In South Sudan

Rotary Scholar Yishak Tefferi is an Ethiopian human rights lawyer.  He is currently reading for a Master’s Degree in Peacebuilding at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies.  Graduates of the program  work for peace and justice in the world. Yishak was Head of the School of Law and Director of the Human Rights Center at Mekelle University School of Law in Ethiopia.  He later worked in the UK advocating for civil liberties in that country, with an organization called CAMPACC (Campaign Against Criminalizing Communities).  More recently, he was a Human Rights Officer with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan.  After graduating, Yishak will return to the UN Mission to resume his work investigating and reporting violations of human rights and humanitarian laws. Yishak and his wife have a 9 year old daughter, and are expecting their new baby in June.  Yishak is an avoid soccer fan, rooting for Manchester United.

Yishak began by recounting how he grew up as a small child in the midst of civil war and conflict in Northern Ethiopia. He became an Internally Displaced Person at the age of 12, dropping out of school.  There was also the Famine in 1984.   It was this childhood experience which motivated him to become a peace-builder, now working in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, mainly to mitigate the effect of conflict on children.. 

He joined the UN Mission in South Sudan as a Human Rights Officer in July 2012, supporting the institution building processes, but eventually being redeployed to Juba following the eruption of the civil war there in December 2013. 


South Sudan was born out of five decades of conflict with Sudan, the result of a comprehensive peace agreement reached in 2005.  Independence was granted in July 2011, but civil war erupted 2 years later.  Yishak explained that this civil war is a result of political-power-seeking, and is not the result of ethnic conflicts themselves.  He stressed that while the President belongs to the Dinka tribe, and the warring Vice-President to the Nuer, these tribal differences are not the cause of the conflict.  The two tribes had lived in harmony, and have a lot in common, including a their beliefs and history.  However the conflict has been very brutal, with civilians being targeted by both sides.  Ethnic targeting of civilians and playing the ethnic card for political ends, with a high risk of genocide, is now part of the problem. 

The UN Mission is now the Protection of Civilians Mandate – a Chapter VII mandate.  The UN Mission is also to monitor human rights, and investigate and report on violations. The UN has an estimated 12,500 troops stationed in South Sudan, but this number is not sufficient to protect civilians.  Over 250,000 people are in UN Compounds (POC sites).  But more than 3.5 million people are internally displaced or refugees, and 5.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, with over 100,000 facing famine. 

South Sudan is rich in resources, both agricultural land and oil.  It should be one of the richest countries in the region.  It is a huge paradox that, with all that potential, its people are now starving. 

Yishak expressed the opinion that Independence was premature for South Sudan, as the self-governing institutions and processes had not been built first.  The new government did not conduct the necessary reforms, especially anti-corruption reforms. 

The way forward will require different strategies.  First, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance for the famine – focus on saving lives.  Second, return to the implementation of the prior peace agreement, with international assistance.  Third, accountability of the perpetrators, for their crimes, including ethnic conflicts.  Fourth, Truth and Reconciliation at the grass-roots level.  Fifth, Institutional Reform, especially anti-corruption and robust reform measures.  Sixth, there needs to be disarmament of the population, as everyone has access to small arms and AK-47s, etc. 

Answering questions, Yishak explained that South Sudan is ethnically very diverse, with more than 45 ethnic and linguistic groups, so this diversity must be accommodated to foster inclusion of all groups in institution building.  As a Human Rights Officer he will be involved in the delivery of food and humanitarian aid, investigating and reporting on human rights abuses, and also supporting and engaging in grass-roots level peace-making efforts.