South Sudan: Will Justice Be Served Any Time Soon?

Six long and arduous years have passed since violence exploded across South Sudan. The perpetrators – which include both government and rebels – of crimes like mass killings, rape, torture, and other human rights violations have still not been held accountable.

In December 2013, when the government and opposition forces clashed in Juba, civilians bore the brunt of the ensuing carnage and since then, both security and human rights situation have remained precarious in the African country.

Tens of thousands have been slaughtered – often due to their ethnicity or perceived affiliations. Almost 2 million people – 85% of whom are women and children – were forced out of their homes and displaced within South Sudan. Thousands of others have been evacuated to UN compounds; these growing camps – known as UNMISS Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites – currently hold over 180,000 people. Furthermore, the ferocity of the conflict single-handedly generated the largest movement of refugees in Africa and the third biggest in the world, with over 2.2 million people seeking refuge abroad.

The bloody clash saw both government and rebel forces violating international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The war crimes and crimes against humanity include the deliberate killing of civilians; acts of sexual violence including gang rape and rape of children, elderly and pregnant women, forced recruitment of children; looting and destruction of civilian property; and enforced disappearances. Additionally, South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS) and Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) have arbitrarily detained hundreds of people – mostly men – who have been subjected to torture, other forms of ill-treatment, and extra-judicial executions in detention facilities across the country.

A damning report, Do you think we will prosecute ourselves: No prospects for accountability in South Sudan, released by Amnesty International just a few days ago, details how the South Sudanese government not only lacks political will to hold perpetrators of serious crimes accountable, but also has permitted such impunities to prosper.

Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said, “Our research found that the government of South Sudan has consistently failed to address violations and abuses.

“Moreover, the presidential interference with justice processes is rampant. This ranges from failing to make public reports of government-led investigation committees, to confirming or denying judgments of court martials, to ousting judges of ordinary courts, and to actively obstructing the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS). The report emphasizes the role of the HCSS as the most viable avenue for justice for victims – at least in the short term.”

Since the outbreak of the conflict in 2013, Amnesty International has campaigned for independent investigations and prosecutions of suspects of crimes committed in relation to the conflict. One of the main issues has been that the government has blocked the establishment of the HCSS that was enshrined in the peace agreements. Amnesty International has now put pressure on the African Union (AU) to issue a new roadmap for the establishment of the HCSS, giving South Sudan a deadline of 6 months to facilitate the prosecution of those accused of war crimes and human rights abuses.

“We were hopeful when the conflicting parties agreed to the Hybrid Court for South Sudan when they signed the peace agreement in August 2015. Yet, four years later, they have left a trail of broken promises. It is time for the AU to step up and issue a timeline for the establishment for the HCSS and give the Government of South Sudan a deadline to sign the legislation,” insisted Nyanyuki.

If it is not established soon, there is a great risk of losing valuable evidence, which will be lost as more time passes. In a region like South Sudan, which is so ravaged by conflict, there is the danger that documents could be destroyed, witnesses displaced or killed, crime scenes transformed or contaminated, and people’s memories fading.

“South Sudanese authorities should implement judicial reforms to enable effective investigations and prosecutions before independent, impartial and competent courts in South Sudan, in a manner that respects international standards of fairness and without recourse to the death penalty. They must also sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and adopt the Statute establishing the Hybrid Court of South Sudan (HCSS),” Nyanyuki added.

“Secondly, considering the evident lack of will from the government’s side, there is a need for extensive pressure from the AU, the UN, and international donors. The AU should convene a meeting on South Sudan in which they adopt a clear timeline for the establishment of the HCSS. If after all this, the Government of South Sudan does not sign the MoU and adopt the statute, the AU must take measures to address victims’ right to justice through the unilateral establishment of an ad hoc tribunal for South Sudan.

“Lastly, failure or delay of the establishment of either the HCSS or an ad hoc tribunal merit, the intervention of the UN Security Council is needed to take appropriate measures by establishing an ad hoc tribunal or referring the South Sudanese situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).”