After years of relative silence, South Sudan’s government has finally given approval to establish accountability mechanisms to address the country’s conflict, including a war crimes court in partnership with the African Union (AU). This could represent an important step to bring justice closer to victims and survivors who have suffered brutal crimes with impunity for far too long. However, swift and concrete action is needed to operationalize these mechanisms.
As a South Sudanese who has witnessed and investigated abuses since South Sudan’s war first broke out in December 2013, I cannot exaggerate how critical accountability is to repairing the country’s social fabric and to the healing of victims. All parties to the conflict have committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. Reckoning with South Sudan’s history through fair, credible trials, along with truth telling and reparations, will serve justice to victims and chart the way for future generations.
In September 2018, South Sudan’s warring parties re-committed to a 2015 peace deal that called for establishment of a Commission for Truth, Healing and Reconciliation, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, and the Compensation and Reparations Authority, each with a distinct function but with the joint purpose of addressing past abuses. The hybrid court should hold perpetrators to account by bringing South Sudanese and other African expertise together to try the most serious crimes.
But South Sudan’s leaders have repeatedly sought to block the establishment of this court. A draft statute for the court and a memorandum of understanding to be signed with the AU has been pending since 2017. Communications on next steps between the AU and South Sudan were lacking.
The AU Commission Chairperson has welcomed the government’s approval of establishment of the hybrid court and said it looks forward to working to conclude the memorandum of understanding. The AU Commission should work on a clear timeline with the South Sudanese minister of justice for the court to be operational.
The AU should keep the option to unilaterally establish the court on the table. The AU raised hopes among South Sudanese with its recommendation for a war crimes court in its unprecedented Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan. It should not allow the interests of victims to be held hostage to further intransigence by the government.
South Sudan should also ensure a transparent and consultative process for progress on all three accountability mechanisms and finally establish its new parliament, so that relevant legislation can be enacted. With these steps undertaken, the chance for justice for terrible abuses committed across South Sudan may be realized.