Oil and Obstetrics: Using CEDAW and the CRC to Combat the Birth Crisis in South Sudan


On May 28, 2023, first time parents Nyanrat Bol Lang and Chan Dau welcomed their firstborn, a son, into the world.[1] To their horror, their baby was born with severe extremity deformities and gastroschisis, a condition where the intestines develop outside of the body.[2] The doctors advised them that these conditions were likely caused by exposure to harmful chemicals associated with the local Ruweng oil wells.[3] Their son died seven days later, only one week old.[4]

In South Sudan, the oil is rich, abundant, and a looming threat to future generations. In 2022, South Sudan ranked second in the world for public sector corruption.[5] It comes as no surprise, then, that the South Sudanese oil sector has fallen prey to such vices.[6] Egbert Wesselink of the NGO PAX stresses the extent of the problem, explaining, “South Sudan is running one of the dirtiest and poorest managed oil operations on the planet.”[7] Examples of mismanagement can be seen in oil rich areas where pools of toxic water and black sludge leftover from oil operations can be found in close proximity to civilian dwellings.[8]

This corruption and poor waste management have led to pervasive health issues in areas surrounding the oil fields. A shocking “88.5% of the women in oil producing areas had delivered babies with birth defects.”[9] There are reports of children born with external or missing organs, infants going blind after bathing in tainted water, and increased spontaneous miscarriages.[10] Despite the compelling evidence, local officials deny the links between oil and the alarming health developments and have been accused of burying research connecting the two.[11] 

For the women and children of South Sudan, relief and justice have often been promised but rarely delivered. Compounding the risk of toxic exposure to pregnant women is the South Sudanese government’s unwillingness or inability to address the problem.[12] In 2013, the Minister of Petroleum spearheaded a survey on the petroleum industry’s effect on the population that linked alarming oil spillage to an “increased incident of unusual health problems (diseases) in the oil producing areas.”[13] The survey noted increased incidents of preterm and still births as well as malformed babies who did not survive long after birth.[14] Further research on the topic similarly corroborated the pollution as heavily linked to the health crises, though such findings are seemingly falling on deaf ears.[15]

In 2018, then petroleum minister Awow Chuang vehemently dismissed any links between oil and the birth crisis, claiming that no assumption can be made without definitive scientific proof.[16] That same year, a promised land audit quashed hope when waste management surveys indicated that cleaning up the toxic waste would be too costly.[17] Two years later, in 2020, a lawsuit over poor toxic waste containment and the resultant health crisis sparked hope for change that quickly fizzled as the case was quietly withdrawn after an ADR roughly a year later.[18] Through all the empty promises, children in the oil rich areas of South Sudan are still born limbless, struggling, and fighting to live.[19]

With internal reform an unlikely solution, relief for the women and children of South Sudan may be found in international law. The UN has identified a need for the international community to intervene in South Sudan’s humanitarian crises.[20] The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“CEDAW”) and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”), both of which South Sudan has ratified, may offer a path to international accountability.[21] As party to the treaties, South Sudan is obliged to uphold convention guidelines in good faith.[22]

CEDAW has recently begun addressing matters of the environment, including pollution and fossil fuels, as disproportionately affecting women.[23] This is a somewhat recent phenomenon.[24] This puts the Committee in a position to apply outside pressure on South Sudan to implement safer petroleum policies. In their initial audit of South Sudan, the committee noted that a national environmental audit was needed, citing the negative “impact on women and girls of oil production was significant.”[25] CEDAW recently addressed similar concerns in Guyana, where the Committee explicitly identified the oil industry as disproportionately harmful to vulnerable women and called for the country to develop risk reduction strategies.[26] Though this declaration is recent and still developing in many ways, it is a source of potential change for the birth crisis in South Sudan.

The CRC Committee recently made a similarly historic move and issued a general comment affirming a child’s right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.[27] This stance has been by members of the international legal community as one way to influence the South Sudanese government to enact changes to the petroleum industry domestically.[28] As part of this comment, the Committee urges ratifying countries to phase out fossil fuels and address pervasive pollution.[29] This is a monumental development that has been widely lauded by non-governmental organizations.[30] What CEDAW’s new stance looks like in practice, however, is still something that is developing, and international law moves slowly.[31]

How the CRC committee for South Sudan might suggest implementing such a mandate in the country is yet to be seen, but it is not a stretch to assume the reports establishing that a “non-toxic environments” is “profoundly important for children” is in conflict with the petroleum industry in South Sudan.[32] While both treaties recognize that women are disproportionately affected by pollution,[33] it is unclear if the petroleum industry will be a focus of the conventions climate change initiatives. In the CRC’s 20-page general comment establishing what a right to a clean environment looks like, for example, oil is only mentioned once as a recommendation as to how a country might meet a mandate for a clean environment.[34] This inclusion is encouraging, but a further emphasis on oil is needed moving forward. As the convention committee develops what this stance look likes, any action recommendations for South Sudan needs to address the petroleum industry. This would be precedential for addressing humanitarian oil crises.

While CEDAW and the CRC are at their core advisory, together these two conventions serve as a potential springboard for the international community’s further involvement in combatting the South Sudanese humanitarian oil crisis. A larger inclusion on oil by CEDAW and the CRC would be crucial to change in South Sudan. Recommendations and actions taken by the committees often lead to policy changing discourse. In other countries CEDAW recommendations have been found to influence local government policy.[35] Furthermore, actions by these groups often lead to unilateral action for change and international pressure on countries in violation of treaty guidelines to comply.[36] Such pressure is key to influencing a country such as South Sudan. If the international community can help guide risk reduction strategies and clean-up efforts, future generations in oil affected areas will have a fighting chance at life.

The South Sudanese oil reserves are estimated to hold 3.5 billion barrels and petroleum makes up roughly 95% of the country’s exports.[37] This is an industry that is not going away anytime soon. The humanitarian crisis surrounding infant death and deformities similar to what Nyanrat and Chan experienced is not a one-off phenomenon.[38] With international committees like the ones formed by CEDAW and the CRC taking notice, the international community must follow suit and pressure South Sudan to begin making changes to the oil and petroleum industry. Longtime senior environmental attorney and activist Sebastien Duyck said is best, “oil and gas is fundamentally incompatible with protecting human rights.”[39]

[1] Yar Ajak, Update: Ruweng Baby Boy Born with Defects Dies Awaiting Referral to Nairobi, Eye Radio (June 5, 2023), available online: https://www.eyeradio.org/update-ruweng-baby-born-with-defects-dies-awaiting-referral-to-nairobi/.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] South Sudan Business Advisory, United States Dept. of State (Aug. 14, 2023), available online: https://www.state.gov/south-sudan-business-advisory/ (noting that in 2021 South Sudan was ranked as the world’s worst country for public sector corruption); Human Rights Violations and Related Economic Crims in the Republic of South Sudan, A/HRC/48/CRP.3 at 3 (describing oil as “a bane upon the lives of the people of South Sudan”).

[6] Id.; United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework (UNSDCF), Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in S. Sudan 20 (Jan. 1, 2023), available online: https://southsudan.un.org/sites/default/files/2023-02/UN%20Sustainable%20Development%20SOUTH%20SUDAN-%20FINAL.pdf.

[7] Salil Tripathi, Egbert Wesselink on Corporate Crime and Sudan, Inst. Hum. Rts. Bus. (June 23, 2022), available online: https://ihrb.org/other/businesss-role/egbert-wesselink-on-corporate-crime-and-sudan; see also Sam Mednick, South Sudan Ignores Reports on Oil Pollution and Birth Defects, PBS News Hour, (Feb. 14, 2020, 6:34PM), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/south-sudan-ignores-reports-on-oil-pollution-and-birth-defects;

[8] Id.

[9] Simon Kuch and Jean Pierre Bavumiragira, Impacts of Crude Oil Exploration and Production on Environment and Its Implications on Human Health: South Sudan Review, 9 Int’l J. Sci. & Rsch. Publ’n 247, 252 (2019).

[10] Id. (explaining there is documentation of increased rates of infertility and birth defects in oil affected areas); Mednick, supra note 7 (detailing a local doctor recalling the birth of a baby girl born with external intestines and an infant boy who was born without a head); Mamer Abraham, Oil Companies Risk Lawsuit, The City Review, (June 10, 2023), https://cityreviewss.com/oil-companies-risk-lawsuit/ (quoting Tor Tungwar, the deputy governor of the oil-producing Unity State in South Sudan, recalling an incident where a child lost their sight after getting polluted bathwater in his eyes).

[11] Mednick, supra note 7;

[12] Id. (explaining that the South Sudanese government buried or ignored evidence linking petroleum pollution and health crises that were compounded by South Sudan’s civil war).

[13] See generally Stephen Dhieu Dau, Chour Mareng’s Committee, Minister of Petroleum, Mining, & Industry (Sep. 10, 2013) available online: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/6774902-SS-Committee-Report.html.

[14] Id.

[15] Liam James, South Sudan Government Buried Reports Which Suggest Oil Pollution is Causing Miscarriages and ‘Alarming’ Birth Defects in Children, Independent (Feb. 14, 2020), accessible online:   https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/south-sudan-government-oil-pollution-reports-health-birth-defects-children-a9335046.html (explaining the South Sudanese governments dismissal of the evidence); Mednick, supra note 7.

[16] Mednick, supra note 7.

[17] South Sudan Buries Reports on Oil Pollution, Birth Defects, LA Times (Feb. 13, 2020), available online: https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-02-13/south-sudan-buries-reports-on-oil-pollution-birth-defects#:~:text=Birth%20deformities%20around%20the%20oil,by%20the%20local%20advocacy%20group.

[18] Yufnalis Okubo, Government of South Sudan Allowed to Settle Case with Litigant Through medication as Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanism, E. Afr. Comm. (June 20, 2021) available online,  https://www.eac.int/press-releases/2112-government-of-south-sudan-allowed-to-settle-case-with-litigant-thorugh-mediation-as-alternative-dispute-resolution-mechanism.

[19] Kuch & Bavumiragira, supra note 9; Mednick, supra note 7; LA Times, supra note 17; Feature: Birth Defects Soar in Ruweng Amid Indifference, Radio Tamazuj (June 14, 2023), available online: https://radiotamazuj.org/en/news/article/feature-birth-defects-soar-in-polluted-ruweng-amid-indifference.

[20] Maoqi Li, ‘Mistake’ to ignore South Sudan as regional crises mount, warns UNMISS chief, UN News, (June 26, 2023), https://news.un.org/en/audio/2023/06/1138112.

[21] Ratification Status for CEDAW, UN Treaty Body Database, (accessed Mar. 10, 2024), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?Treaty=CEDAW&Lang=en  (showing South Sudan as having ratified the Convention); Ratification Status for CRC, UN Treaty Body Database, (accessed Mar. 10, 2023), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?Treaty=CRC&Lang=en (showing South Sudan as a party to the Convention).

[22] Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1155 U.N.T.S. Art. 26.

[23] Rec. on the Gender-Related Dimensions of Disaster Risk Reduction in the Context of Climate Change, at 43, CEDAW/C/GC/37 (2018).

[24] Mapping Human Rights Obligations Relating to the Enjoyment of a Safe, Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment: Individual Report on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, OHCHR (Dec. 2013), available online: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Environment/Mappingreport/4.CEDAW-25-Feb.doc (beginning the dialogue by explaining that even though “CEDAW neither explicitly describes a ‘human right to a healthy environment’ nor expressly connects environmental harms and adverse impacts to human rights” . . .  it has begun to recognize the relationship between environmental harms and human rights protections).

[25] Experts of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women Commend South Sudan’s Progressive Legislation for Women, and Ask about Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, UN News (Nov. 04, 2021), available online: https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/meeting-summary/2021/11/le-comite-pour-lelimination-de-la-discrimination-legard-des.

[26] Rep. Concluding Observations on the Ninth Periodic Report of Guyana at 42-43(c), U.N. Doc. CEDAW/C/Guy/CO/9 (2019).

[27] Comm. on Children’s Rights and the Environment with a Special Focus on Climate Change, U.N. Doc. CRC/C/GC/26 (2023).

[28] Id. at 58.

[29] Id. at 11; New UN Guidance Affirms Children’s Right to a Clean, Healthy Environment, UN News, (Aug. 28, 2023), available online: https://news.un.org/en/story/2023/08/1140122#:~:text=Countries%20that%20have%20ratified%20the,clean%20water%2C%20and%20protecting%20biodiversity.

[30] States Must Safeguard Children’s Rights for Climate Change and Environmental Damage – UN Committee, Amnesty International (Aug. 29, 2023), available online: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/08/global-states-must-safeguard-childrens-rights-from-climate-change-and-environmental-damage-un-committee/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CThe%20UN%20Committee’s%20new%20guidance,standard%20of%20living%2C%20and%20education; Stephan Pohlmann, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Calls on States to Take Action in First Guidance on Children’s Rights and the Environment, with a Focus on Climate Change, UNICEF (Aug. 28, 2023), available online: https://www.unicef.org/eca/press-releases/un-committee-rights-child-calls-states-take-action-first-guidance-childrens-rights; Children’s Right to a Healthy Environment, Hum. Rts. Watch (Oct. 8, 2019), available online: https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/08/childrens-right-healthy-environment (calling for the CRC to take action like that described in the general comment affirming a child’s right to a clean environment).

[31] CRC/C/GC/26: General comment No. 26 (2023) on children’s rights and the environment with a special focus on climate change, UN Hum. Rts. Office of the High Commissioner (Aug. 22, 2023), available online: https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/general-comments-and-recommendations/crccgc26-general-comment-no-26-2023-childrens-rights (explaining the CRC committee’s stance on the environment was based on collection of narratives from 2016, 7 years prior to the comment being released).

[32] CRC/C/GC/26, supra note 26 (citing A/74/161, A/75/161, A/76/179, A/HRC/40/55, A/HRC/46/28, and A/HRC/49/53).

[33] Human Rights, the Environment and Gender Equality, UN Women (2022) at 2, available online: https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/Final_HumanRightsEnvironmentGenderEqualityKM.pdf.

[34] CRC/C/GC/26, supra note 26.

[35] See generally Johanna E. Bond, CEDAW in Sub-Saharan Africa: Lessons in Implementation, 2014 Mich. St. L. Rev. 247 (2013); Rosa Celorio, The Kaleidescope of Climate Change and Human Rights, 13 Az. J. of Environ. L. PoL. 155, 166 (2023); Neil Englehart & Melissa Miller, The CEDAW Effect: Internatinoal Law’s Impact on Women’s Rights, 13 J. Hum. Rts. 22, 22-23(2014).

[36] Tijjani Muhammad Bande, CEDAW @ 40: Past Achievements, Ongoing Challenges, and Future Action, UNGA (Dec. 18, 2019), available online: https://www.un.org/pga/74/2019/12/18/cedaw-40-past-achievements-ongoing-challenges-and-future-action/ (detailing positive changes that can be attributed to CEDAW’s efforts over the years); see generally Ton Liefaard & Julia Sloth-Nielson, 25 Years CRC: Reflecting on Successes, Failures and the Future 938 (2017) (discussing positive protections for children attributed to efforts by the CRC).  

[37] UNSDCF, supra note 6 at 16.

[38] Id. at 18; Kuch & Bavumiragira, supra note 9; Mednick, supra note 7; LA Times, supra note 17; Feature: Birth Defects Soar in Ruweng Amid Indifference, Radio Tamazuj (June 14, 2023), available online: https://radiotamazuj.org/en/news/article/feature-birth-defects-soar-in-polluted-ruweng-amid-indifference.

[39] Sebastien Duyck, UN Institution Warns Guyana’s Oil and Gas Development Threatens Rights of Women and Girls, Center for Int’l Environ. L(July 23, 2019), available online: https://www.ciel.org/news/un-institution-warns-guyanas-oil-and-gas-development-threatens-rights-of-women-and-girls/.