December 15 marks the anniversary of South Sudan’s descent into a brutal civil war, a conflict in which all parties have committed abuses amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The conflict which started as a political dispute in December 2013, took ethnic undertones with civilians being targeted on the basis of ethnicity and perceived political allegiance. Nearly 400,000 people have died, South Sudan’s social fabric has been torn, infrastructure destroyed and survivors left with mental health scars.
While the September 2018 peace deal led to the formation of a unity government drawn from belligerent forces, there’s been continuing conflict between government and opposition as well as within rebel factions in parts of Unity, Upper Nile and Central Equatoria. Intercommunal violence in some states has also been fueled by elite power struggles. While the unity government touts the peace deal, wartime abuses are raging unabated in some states.
In southern Unity, the county commissioners of Koch and Mayendit waged a campaign of collective punishment in Sudan People’s Liberation Army in opposition (SPLA/IO) held territories in Koch and Leer County marked by killings and sexual violence. This conflict contributed to food insecurity leaving civilians in Leer, among others, facing starvation. While Ceasefire monitors and the UN peacekeeping mission have pointed fingers at particular officials, and the United Kingdom has recently sanctioned them, the unity government has yet to take any action. The perpetrators continue to enjoy power with impunity.
The unity government has done little to de-escalate conflict and tensions between various armed groups. Earlier this year attacks by government forces on SPLA/IO positions in Torkech, Maiwut and Longechuk in Upper Nile were accompanied by widespread abuses. Since August, conflict between Kitgwang factions, government forces, SPLA/IO and the White Army militia has escalated displacing over 20,000 civilians. Media and the UN report grave abuses including targeting of civilians based on ethnicity and abductions, killings and destruction of civilian property.
Impunity has been at the heart of civilian suffering in South Sudan since 2013. Yet South Sudanese leaders haven’t made civilian protection and justice for past abuses a priority. It is time the African Union established the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. If a credible, fair, and independent hybrid court does not progress, the option of the International Criminal Court should be pursued.