South Sudan – the world’s youngest nation – is still going through a transition after achieving independence from Sudan in 2011. The country has been affected by instability and conflict since the civil war broke out in 2013. Nearly nine years after gaining independence, a transitional government was formed in February 2020.
The transitional Constitution of 2011 states that South Sudan is a secular country that treats all religions equally, and prohibits the use of religion for “divisive purposes.” Religious rights are enshrined in the Constitution, however, they fall short of those set out in international human rights instruments, which is the ‘Freedom of thought, conscience or belief’, including the right to non-belief.
The right to freedom of expression is also enshrined in the transitional Constitution. However, there are reports of journalists, opposition activists, civil society representatives, and members of faith-based organizations being intimidated and detained. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, there are no cases where the ‘blasphemy’ provisions have been enforced. Nonetheless, the laws are still in violation of international human rights standards.
There are five sections in the Penal Code regarding “Offences relating to religion”:
Section 201 on “Insulting or Inciting Contempt of Religious Creed” states:
“Whoever by any means publicly insults or seeks to incite contempt of any religion in such a manner as to be likely to lead to a breach of the peace, commits an offence, and upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or with a fine or with both.”
Section 203 on “Abuse of Religious and Noble Beliefs” states:
“Whoever abuses religious or noble spiritual beliefs for political exploitation or with the intention to incite or promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord among religious communities or commits an act intended or is likely to cause the same, commits an offence, and upon conviction, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or with a fine or with both.”
Other sections related to offenses against religion are:
All provisions carry the same penalty; that is, “imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or with a fine or with both.”
Sections 201 and 204 do not specify the intent required for the crimes, making them vague. The former simply penalizes anyone who “by any means publicly insults or seeks to incite contempt of any religion”. While Section 204 states that whoever voluntarily causes disturbance to religious assemblies will be criminalized. Section 205 is also problematic as the law opens up for the judge to determine what it means to hurt someone’s religious feelings possibly leading to sprawling jurisprudence.