If the African Union (AU) decides to keep its report documenting wartime abuses in South Sudan under wraps, it could hinder bringing those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity to account.
On Thursday, the AU Peace and Security Council is expected to consider the final report of the AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, its first-ever commission to document the conflict’s abuses and offer recommendations on justice and reconciliation. It should release this report to the public.
In December 2013, a dispute between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar set off a shockingly brutal armed conflict. The region’s long history of impunity for grave crimes has only fuelled the abuses in the recent war. If South Sudan is to end cycles of violence, ensuring justice this time around is one of the key ingredients.
The AU’s creation of the Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan was a crucial step in the right direction, but its unprecedented effort risks being undermined if the report is not made public.
Some regional players may be reluctant to see the information in the report published on the idea that it could upset current peace negotiations. But this assumption is misplaced. To the contrary, the parties to the peace negotiations should be fully confronted with the commission’s findings, and they should be pressed for concrete steps to bring about justice in any peace agreement. Human Rights Watch has seen many times in our work on conflict situations that countries can both pursue efforts to hold human rights abusers accountable and advance peace agreements. However, the risks of trading away justice are significant – lack of accountability can embolden perpetrators of further crimes and undermine respect for the rule of law.
Both parties to South Sudan’s conflict have repeatedly pledged to promote justice. There is strong support in South Sudan for ending impunity for grave crimes. Local, regional, and international stakeholders are waiting for the report before they take the next steps to advance accountability. There should be no further delay of publicly reporting on these findings and recommendations.
South Sudanese have endured enough pain and suffering and deserve redress for the horrific crimes committed in the past year. Justice is not only an individual right of the victims of abuses, it is also a crucial part of building sustainable peace and a brighter future for this young country. The AU, which has sought a resolution to the conflict, should not lose sight of the importance of publishing the commission’s report as an important means to promote justice for grave crimes committed.