A soldier walks past women carrying their belongings near Benitu, northern South Sudan, February 11, 2017. 

REUTERS/Siegfried Modola

Efforts to ensure justice for victims of widespread atrocity crimes committed during South Sudan’s civil war hit a low point this week with news that the government has hired US-based lobbyists with the express purpose of stopping the creation of a special war crimes court.   

The Hybrid Court for South Sudan, set out in the country’s 2015 and 2018 peace deals, could be an important way to hold perpetrators to account for horrific abuses committed in a conflict characterized by unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances, rape and sexual violence, and destruction of property. More than four million have been forced to flee their homes.

The court, which would bring together judges and prosecutors from South Sudan and across Africa, is urgently needed to curtail impunity for serious crimes that continue to fuel a cycle of violence in the country. As Human Rights Watch has documented, the country’s domestic court system is not prepared to handle such sensitive, complex cases.

In 2014, the African Union undertook an unprecedented Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan, detailing the serious crimes committed by all parties to the conflict. And since the 2015 peace deal was signed, the AU Commission has been trying to secure approval from the South Sudanese authorities for the initial steps required for the hybrid court’s creation.

But South Sudan’s government has consistently delayed this process, and news that it is now actively trying to block it clearly demonstrates that the authorities don’t want the court to see light of day.

It’s now up to the AU Commission to step up. It should unilaterally finalize the relevant documents needed to set up the court, and the AU Peace and Security Council should ask to be kept abreast of preparations. International actors, including the United Nations, the US, and AU members that supported the Commission of Inquiry, should do all they can to promote the AU’s stated commitment to justice.

Because this past week has exposed an ugly reality: the Hybrid Court for South Sudan – and its prospects for bringing justice to victims – will never come to pass if it depends on the South Sudan authorities.