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When South Sudan’s rebel leader, Riek Machar, was sworn in as first vice president yesterday, after two years of bloody fighting, President Salva Kiir welcomed him into the new national unity government as “a brother.” Kiir then apologized to the international community for their delays in implementing the August 2015 peace deal and to the people of South Sudan for the “situation we leaders have created.”

President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, right, with the opposition leader, Riek Machar, left, as Mr. Machar was sworn in as vice president in Juba, capital of South Sudan, on April 26, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Nice words, but they won’t make up for the massive suffering experienced by South Sudan’s beleaguered civilians since clashes in Juba in December 2013 between the forces under each “leader” escalated into full-blown war. Over the course of more than two years, both sides brutally targeted civilians, often based on their ethnicity. The litany of crimes includes massacres, rape, torture, child recruitment, and the destruction of villages. Forces have looted hundreds of communities of their cattle, rendering them destitute, and forced more than two million people from their homes, putting them on the verge of famine.

Many hoped that fighting would end when South Sudan’s leaders signed the August peace deal, but clashes have continued – often silently and off the radar – in parts of Central and Western Equatoria, Greater Bahr el Ghazal, Jonglei, and Upper Nile regions. Human Rights Watch has documented unlawful killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, and disappearances of civilians in Western Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal since February 2016. Both sides have obstructed and attacked humanitarian aid workers. In mid-February, government soldiers participated in a brazen attack on the United Nations compound in Malakal, killing at least 30 residents, injuring many more.

South Sudan’s leaders may finally be ready to work toward peace, but they cannot gloss over the crimes with rhetorical niceties. They need to act. Both sides should investigate and prosecute human rights abuses and the government should order national security officials to charge or release the dozens of men arbitrarily detained in Juba. Finally, they need to show their commitment to justice and accountability by reaching out to the African Union Commission – tasked with setting up a hybrid court to try the most serious crimes – to establish the tribunal without delay. These steps, more powerfully than words, will signal their recognition that justice is necessary to redress “the situation we leaders have created.”

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