“Grave harm” – blockbuster report by UN’s Human Rights Council on ‘oil-cide’ in South Sudan


Human rights violations and related economic crimes in the Republic of South Sudan

report from the United Nations‘ Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan

Gist: Since independence, and owing to the abject failure of national authorities to fulfil their human rights obligations, over 80 per cent of South Sudanese women, men, and children continue to be exposed to extreme and wholly unwarranted poverty, vulnerability, and suffering, as ordinary citizens bear the brunt of the most egregious embezzlement, plunder, and looting of their critical resources by unaccountable elites, aided by international accomplices. Illicitly diverted resources have also been used to fuel conflict and foment violence.

Ensuing from consortia in South Sudan‘s callous disregard of regulations, proprietary standards and claims and good business practices, Oil spills, leaks, fires and wastes have poisoned South Sudan’s water, land and air. These poisons – which include everything from lead, salt and cadmium to crude oil itself – have “gravely harmed the health and lives of the people of South Sudan.”

Key section on this:

Annex IV

Harm to health and the environment

1. Between 2013 and 2018, oil was spilled at both the Field Production Facility and Greater Pioneer Operating Company (GPOC) well sites in northern Unity State and Ruweng Administrative Area.1 The spillage occurred despite the fact that, due to the conflict, extractive operations had been shut down from December 2013 to July 2018.2 According to an environmental site assessment conducted by GPOC in July 2018, which was carried out prior to the resumption of its operations at the oil fields at Blocks 1, 2, and 4, unidentified individuals shot a large storage tank in Unity oil field, which led to a major release of hydrocarbon and caused nearly half of the stored oil to leak.3 Unidentified individuals also shot at the El Naar wells, causing oil to spill into retention ponds and surrounding areas.4 Though the reasons for the shootings remain unknown, most of the evaporation ponds did not have linings to prevent chemicals and crude from seeping down into the water table, while some pipes also had leakages which contaminated the soil.5 Additionally, local communities around the oil fields had been using empty chemical containers to store potable water.6

2. Oil-related pollution and environmental damage in Unity State continued following the resumption of GPOC’s operations in August 2018. In September and October 2019, for example, two major oil spills erupted from an underground pipeline which runs from Unity oil field to Heglig (Sudan).7 The two spills were located 40 kilometres and 33.5 kilometres north of Rubkona, at Block 1 and 2 oil fields operated by GPOC.8 Oil company staff reported the leakages as having been between 10,000 and 12,500 barrels, and 25,000 barrels of crude oil, respectively.9 The Government of South Sudan acknowledged the spills, though attempted to minimise the fallout by only acknowledging that 2,000 barrels had spilled.10 Satellite imagery reviewed by the Commission confirmed burning oil spills at Unity Oil Field on 21 December 2019, and at El Toor oil facility on 13 January 2020.11 Additionally, smaller spills occurred at Tomar South oil fields in December 2019.12

3. Several oil spills occurred because oil production had stopped twice, from April 2012 to April 2013, as well as from December 2013 to July 2018,13 as the stopping of oil production can lead to structural damage on the pipelines.14 As South Sudan’s Minister of Petroleum and Mining, Awow Daniel Chang, clarified in September 2019, “the production has been down for the last five years and the pipeline was empty and had probably become filled with water [which] can expedite the process of corrosion within the pipeline.” He further stated “That is why we will all suspect that ruptures will happen from time to time.”15 Moreover, the pressure used to pump the oil through the pipeline had been too high. According to GPOC, 40 to 45 kilo barrels per day are pumped through the pipeline.16 The Commission was able to confirm, however, that up to 60 kilo barrels per day were actually being pumped.17 The Commission also learned that GPOC is not planning to build a new pipeline to substitute the current, corroded one.18 Further, GPOC is not cleaning the pipeline as regularly as Dar Petroleum Operating Company (DPOC), and did not check the pipeline before resuming oil production in 2018.19 Moreover, a control system is not installed on site, which would provide a notification when oil leaks from the pipeline.20

4. Another reason for the foregoing environmental damage is that the produced water, which does not drain down as it would with more modern oil technology, remains at the surface where the oil is explored.21 At the oil fields in Tomar South and Tor (Ruweng Administrative Area), the bottom of the ponds which hold water are not sealed with high density polyethylene, though this practice is used at the oil fields in Paloch (Upper Nile State).22 Water contamination also occurs as a result of leaking oil wells,23 the local population accessing nearby boreholes,24 and the use of water for households drawn from ponds which were previously used as drilling chemical mud pits25 but are now often the only source of water available to the local community. During the rainy season, the oil fuses with the waterbodies and contaminates the environment.26 In 2018, water tested from Pariang revealed contamination of heavy metals such as lead and mercury.27 The community in Pariang consumes fish from waste water pools28 concentrated with heavy metals.29 There is a risk that contaminated fish could carry the pollution along the Nile River as far as Cairo (Egypt).30

5. In 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme reported that an analysis of water samples taken from open mud pits near the Thar Jath oilfield in Unity State contained high concentrations of salts, mostly potassium chloride, which implied that the drilling fluids in these mud pits were not removed after the drilling process was completed. Community water wells have also been found to contain high levels of heavy metals such as lead, which is a well-known carcinogen. These are all attributed to the aforementioned oil extraction activities and poor waste-disposal procedures.31 The Commission also learned that, following the resumption of oil production near Manga Port (Unity State) in 2018, contaminated water blended with the waterbodies in the area during the rainy season.32 As a result, a film of oil floats on the river water at Manga Port, which is the main source of water for the local community, including where they fish.33 In another oil-polluted area of Ruweng Administrative Area, local community members told the Commission about their crops being destroyed and their cattle dying following oil spillage from the burst pipeline in September 2019.34

6. It is estimated that the total amount of contaminating fluids that were released into South Sudan’s environment between 1999 and 2020 amount to 1.36 trillion (1,362,519,667,348) litres of produced water containing a total of 8.31 million (8,310,007) tons of salt; 7.90 billion (7,896,000,000) litres of oil well drilling fluids containing a total of 1.18 tons of chromium, 12.05 tons of lead, 2.53 tons of nickel, 1.39 tons of cadmium, and 437,806.88 tons of salt; and at least six million litres of crude oil spilled.

7. The Government of South Sudan has been aware of these environmental issues for several years. In 2013, the Minister of Petroleum formed a technical committee tasked to investigate the increased incidence of unusual health problems (diseases) in the oil-producing areas of Upper Nile State, Unity State, and Ruweng Administrative Area, where DPOC (Block 3 and 7) and GPOC (Block 1, 2, and 4), and Sudd Petroleum Operating Company (SPOC) (Block 5a) operate.35 In Paloch (Upper Nile State), and in Pariang (Ruweng Administrative Area) and Rubkona Counties (Unity State), the committee found increases in abortions, pre-term births, stillbirths, babies born with congenital anomalies who subsequently perished, blindness, male sexual dysfunction, and low fertility among the community.36 Other health issues, including increased rates of diarrheal disease, febrile illness, joint disease, and skin allergies among individuals exposed to water and farming, were also documented among the communities in these locations.37 Further, animals, such as cows, goats, and dogs were dying at higher rates and cows and goats exhibited symptoms of night blindness.38 In Pariang and Rubkona Counties, the Committee documented alarming oil spillage around some oil processing facilities, 39 while in Paloch it noted limited oil spillage.40

8. In 2016, following reports of abnormal medical symptoms among soldiers deployed to Paloch oil fields, the Ministry of Petroleum, Ministry of Health, and Ministry of Environment formed a team to conduct epidemiological and environmental assessments.41 Biological and environmental samples from the sites in the vicinity of the Paloch oil fields where the soldiers were deployed were sent to the National Health Laboratory Service, National Institute of Occupational Health (South Africa) for analysis.42 Preliminary findings showed that most of the heavy metals were within accepted limits in water and soil samples. Concentrations of manganese and mercury in the water samples, however, were 10 and 7 times higher than the permissible limits, respectively.43 Concentrations of selenium, chromium, manganese, and mercury were also above the limits in the soil samples.44 Urine samples taken from some soldiers also evinced elevated levels of manganese and mercury.45 The main symptoms presented included skin rash, abdominal discomfort, fever, generalised weakness, headache, eye irritation and night blindness, constipation, and loss of libido, all of which are consistent with a person having been exposed to mercury, manganese, and selenium.46 It was therefore concluded that the results clearly indicated that the heavy metals and petrochemicals contaminated the area.47

9. The Commission received reports alleging that the water and land pollution of crude oil exposure causes birth defects in animals and also stillborn babies or babies with birth defects in the oil regions of Ruweng Administrative Area Unity State48 where GPOC and SPOC are operating in Blocks 1, 2, 4, and Block 5A.49 Crude oil pollution may first affect soil50 and water, with plants51 in the region subsequently becoming contaminated with heavy metals.52 Scientific studies have also documented the embryotoxic and teratogenic effects of hydrocarbons on animals.53 It was inevitable that human beings, particularly pregnant women and their babies, would be affected in this crude oil-polluted environment.54

10. The Commission interviewed a family from Ruweng Administrative Area who stated that, in 2019, the mother had given birth to a baby with severe birth defects after having been exposed to oil pollution and contaminated drinking water.55 Upon genetic testing, no specific cause was identified which could have explained the birth defects.56 A toxicological analysis of the family’s hair revealed traces of elements such as arsenic, lead, uranium, cadmium, mercury, barium, rubidium, and titan.57 The findings are highly consistent with the environmental pollution in the vicinity of oil fields in Unity State. Lead and barium, among other heavy metals, were previously measured to have been above the permissible limit in samples of drinking water.58 According to forensic examinations of the baby undertaken by the Commission, as well as available medical documentation and testing59 and existing scientific literature,60 there are reasonable grounds to believe that there is a direct causal link between the toxicological and teratogenic effects of heavy metals in the polluted water and soil through crude oil contamination in Pariang area and the specific disease and severe birth defects of the baby.

11. The Commission further received information about a similar case of deformation in northern Mayendit county (Unity State). In early 2020, a young mother gave birth to a baby with visibly severe birth defects due to which it is unable to walk.61 Although no medical testing was conducted in this case, due to the surface water and chemicals mixing with underground water and the fact that the waste is spreading from the Thar Jath oil fields to the entire region,62 there are reasonable grounds to believe that the birth defects were similarly caused by contaminated water and agriculture.63

12. In January 2020, a South Sudanese citizen from Ruweng Administrative Area and a national human rights organisation submitted a petition to the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Petroleum, Nile Petroleum Cooperation (NilePet), and GPOC. The petitioners claimed that GPOC’s continued exploration and careless production of oil without compliance with and fulfilment of the precautions upon which the license was granted, have threatened and caused the loss of lives, animals, children being born prematurely or deformed due to the radiation of chemicals used by GPOC, environmental pollution, spread of contagious diseases, and displacement of the local population within then Ruweng State.64 According to the petition, all three respondents “have failed to carry out their duties as provided for under the Petroleum Act, 2012, which enjoins them to observe protection of lives, safety of inhabitant and environmental protection”.65 The petitioners seek that GPOC be ordered, inter alia, to avoid, reduce, prevent, or manage environmental hazards and risks associated with the exploration and production of oil in the area, and pay $500,000,000 USD as compensation for the lives lost, the properties destroyed, displaced communities, and environmental pollution, and that the court immediately suspend GPOC’s license.66 While the petition was submitted in January 2020, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has not yet formed a panel to consider it.67

13. In April 2020, and on behalf of the Government of South Sudan, another human rights organisation68 filed suit against the Minister of Justice of South Sudan before the East African Court of Justice.69 The applicant based the reference on at least six oil spills due to leakages of pipelines, weak raptures on the pipelines, exploration, and pollution of the environment which occurred in Unity State and Ruweng Administrative Area between September 2019 and March 2020.70 According to the applicant, crude oil waste in Upper Nile State is poorly disposed of in different ponds and floods during rainy seasons into the environment.71 The explorations are being conducted by the two consortia (DPOC and GPOC), in which the respondent as the Republic of South Sudan is a shareholder.72 The oil spills occurred in Blocks 1, 2, and 4 located in Unity State and Ruweng Administrative Area under GPOC, and in Blocks 3 and 7 located in Upper Nile State under DPOC.73 The applicant further alleged that the recent leakage in the swampy area of Unity State and Ruweng Administrative Area exceeds 2,000 barrels of crude oil and that the water bodies pour through the Nile River into the world oceans, and that the River provides the civilian population with water and seafood.74

14. According to the applicant, the acts of both consortia (DPOC and GPOC) were unconstitutional and a breach of the Treaty Establishing the East African Community in Articles 6(d) and 7(2) as they “infringe the fundamental rights”.75

15. The applicant seeks to demonstrate that the negative impact of the spillages and burned crude oil on the environment and the health of residents in the affected areas is caused by the oil industry,76 and that inhabitants display symptoms suspected to have been caused by the fumes of burning oil, including coughing, skin problems, eye pain, and alarming birth defects.77 The applicant contends “that the oil spill does not only amount to environmental pollution, but an ‘environmental genocide’”.78

16. Finally, it is the applicant’s claim that due to the illegal or unlawful actions and omissions of the officers of the respondent (the Government of South Sudan), it is responsible for the damage, environmental pollution, and “environmental genocide” caused by GPOC and DPOC in which the respondent is a shareholder. The applicant claims damages amounting to a total of $720 million USD.79

17. In May 2020, the applicant filed an injunction against DPOC and GPOC to restrain them from pumping oil with immediate effect, as well as to restrain from exporting crude oil through the pipelines, pending determination of the case.80 The following month, in June 2020, the East African Court of Justice allowed the Government of South Sudan and the applicant to attempt to settle the case through mediation.81 After hearing the parties’ submissions and agreeing on alternative dispute resolution, the Court also allowed the suit filed by the applicant which sought the court’s injunction to be withdrawn.82

1 ERN D121484 – D121650, p. 10; ERN D121652 – D121685, p. 10.

2 ERN D121484 – D121650, p. 10; ERND121652 – D121685, p. 10.

3 ERN D121484 – D121650, p. 10.

4 ERN D121484 – D121650, p. 10.

5 ERN D121484 – D121650, p. 13.

6 ERN D121484 – D12165, p. 13.

7 ERN 103092 – 103096, para. 13; ERN 103962 -103965, para. 10; ERN D121707 – D121735.

8 Human Rights Council, Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, A/HRC/40/CRP.1, 20 February 2019, para. 643.

9 ERN D121707 – D121735; Confidential document; ERN 103092 -103096, para. 12.

10 Confidential file.

11 Confidential file.

12 ERN 103991 – 103995, para. 18.

13 ERN D121402 – 121420

14 ERND121484 – D121650, p. 15; ERN D121707 – D121735.

15 ERN D121707 – D121735.

16 ERN 103092 – 103096, para. 16.

17 ERN 103996 – 104000, para, 8; ERN103977 – 103980, para. 10.

18 ERN 103092 – 103096, para. 12.

19 ERN 103966 – 103976, para 69; ERN 103092 – 103096, para. 12.

20 ERN 103092 – 103096, para. 12; Confidential meeting on 21 October 2019.

21 ERN 103996 – 104000, para. 8.

22 ERN D121652 – D121685, p. 11.

23 ERN103981 – 103985, para. 6.

24 ERN 103087 – 103091, para. 11; ERN 104001- 104021, para. 5; ERND121652 – D121685, para. 14; Confidential meeting on 17 February 2020.

25 ERN D121652 – D121685, p. 12.

26 ERN D121652 – D121685, p. 26.

27 Confidential meeting on 17 February 2020.

28 ERN 104001 – 104021, para. 6.

29 Confidential meeting on 17 February 2020.

30 Confidential meeting on 21 October 2019.

31 ERN 103092 – 103096, para. 13; Confidential documents.

32 ERN D121480 – D121482, para. 7.

33 ERN D121480 – D121482, para. 7 and 14.

34 ERN D121705 – D121706, para 5; ERN 103087 – 103091, para. 7; Confidential documents.

35 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 4.

36 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 6 and p. 12; Confidential document.

37 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 7 and p. 13.

38 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 7 and p. 13.

39 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 14.

40 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 8.

41 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 19.

42 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 19.

43 As per the United States Environmental Protection Agency Maximum Contaminant Levels.

44 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 19.

45 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 19.

46 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 19.

47 ERN D121686 – D121704, p. 19.

48 ERN103981 – 103985, para 11; ERN103991 – 103995, paras. 14-18; ERN104001 – 104021, para. 5, ERN 103996 – 104000, para. 9; 104001 – 104021, para. 5.; ERN 103087 – 103091, para. 7.

49 Confidential document.

50 Confidential documents.

51 Confidential document.

52 Confidential documents.

53 Confidential documents.

54 Confidential documents.

55 ERN 104001-104021, paras. 4-5.

56 ERN 104001-104021.

57 ERN 104001-104021.

58 Confidential documents.

59 ERN 104001- 104021.

60 Confidential documents.

61 Confidential document.

62 ERN TW245 – L0015, para. 5.

63 Confidential document.

64 Confidential document.

65 Confidential document.

66 Confidential document.

67 ERN 103996 – 104000, para. 20.

68 End of May 2020, the South Sudan Union of Farmers in the Ruweng Administrative Area has joined the reference against the Minister of Justice of the Republic of South Sudan representing the Government of the Republic of South Sudan.

69 ERN D121736 – D121769, paras. 1-2, and 5-7.

70 ERN D121736 – D121769, paras. 51-58.

71 ERN D121736 – D121769, para. 58.

72 ERN D121736 – D121769, para. 46.

73 ERN D121736 – D121769, para. 49.

74 ERN D121736 – D121769, paras. 62 and 64.

75 ERN D121736 – D121769, para. 70.

76 ERN D121736 – D121769, para. 77.

77 ERN D121736 – D121769, para. 77.

78 ERN D121736 – D121769, para. 81.

79 ERN D121736 – D121769, paras. 86 and 89.

80 ERN D121483 – D121483.

81 https://www.eac.int/press-releases/2112-government-of-south-sudan-allowed-to-settle-case-with-litigant-thorugh-mediation-as-alternative-dispute-resolution-mechanism

82 https://www.eac.int/press-releases/2112-government-of-south-sudan-allowed-to-settle-case-with-litigant-thorugh-mediation-as-alternative-dispute-resolution-mechanism