South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (bottom L) and South Sudan's rebel commander Riek Machar (bottom R), together with African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui (top L), Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (top C) and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, attend the signing a ceasefire agreement during the Inter Governmental Authority on Development Summit on the case of South Sudan in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, Feburary 1, 2015.

(Johannesburg) – The African Union (AU) has compromised its commitment to justice for serious crimes by deferring consideration of the report of its commission of inquiry on South Sudan. It should revisit this decision, take the report under consideration, and publish it promptly.

The commission’s chair, the former Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo, was scheduled to brief the AU’s Peace and Security Council at a meeting in Addis Ababa on January 29, 2015. But the council decided to defer the report indefinitely, casting doubt on the AU’s commitment to its own – and its first – commission of inquiry.

“The people and partners of South Sudan have been waiting for the AU report to help bring justice for the grave crimes of the past year,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “By shelving the report, the AU has left the people of South Sudan in the lurch.”

The AU Peace and Security Council authorized the commission of inquiry in December 2013, and it was established in March 2014. It is mandated to document the conflict’s abuses and offer recommendations on justice and reconciliation. The commission interviewed many South Sudanese victims and witnesses for its report.

In December 2013, a dispute between South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, and its former vice president, Riek Machar, set off the shockingly brutal armed conflict. It has been marked by gruesome massacres, revenge killings often based on ethnicity, and mass destruction and looting of civilian property. Despite numerous peace deals, more than a year on, the fighting and abuses continue.

In the margins of the latest AU summit in Addis Ababa, the parties reached an agreement to end the fighting by March 5, 2015, and to form a transitional government, but many contentious issues remain. The signed agreement includes a hybrid judicial body to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the most serious crimes since December 2013. This development makes the release of the AU commission of inquiry report all the more pressing, Human Rights Watch said.

UN and international diplomats have delayed acting on concrete proposals for justice pending the release of the AU commission’s findings and recommendations.

“People in South Sudan have suffered brutal crimes this past year and expressed strong support for justice as a way to help end cycles of violence,” Bekele said. “The AU has taken precious time and resources to document the crimes and make recommendations on accountability. But this effort can do little good if it does not see the light of day.”

Some AU officials appear reluctant to consider the report because they believe it could upset the peace negotiations. However, experience shows that parties to a conflict can pursue efforts to hold human rights abusers accountable and advance peace agreements at the same time, Human Rights Watch said. The risks of trading away justice are significant – lack of accountability can embolden people to commit further crimes and undermine respect for the rule of law.

“The AU should immediately release the report, instead of putting justice on the back burner in the hopes of promoting progress in the peace negotiations,” Bekele said. “Peace agreements and justice are by no means mutually exclusive, and a lack of action on justice fuels further crimes.”