Just weeks after South Sudan saw a resurgence of hope following the formation of a unity government, doubts about the country’s fragile peace process are beginning to emerge, with victims of civil war disputing the government’s view that reconciliation should come first before accountability.
South Sudan’s civil war was sparked in December 2013 when the country’s president accused his deputy of plotting a coup against him. The conflict saw hundreds of thousands of people killed and more than three million displaced. Hundreds of women and children also suffered grave sexual violence.
The two former warring sides, President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader and current first-Vice President Riek Machar, buried the hatched after months of talks, which eventually saw the formation of a unity government in April. But it remains unclear whether Kiir or Machar would now pursue those within their own ranks accused of committing war crimes.
South Sudanese Defense Minister Gen. Kuol Manyang Juuk said it was just too risky to hold someone still holding arms to account.
“How do we call for accountability for those who committed crimes without full peace implementation?” Kuol told Anadolu Agency in an interview Wednesday.
“There are people who are still in the bush with guns in their hands, and how do we hold these people accountable, unless the guns are put in the stores which need time,” he said.
He agreed that the importance of justice, accountability and protection of human rights must not be overlooked, but added that achieving concrete peace, and stabilizing the country’s security and fragile economy should be the core priority for the new government.
“It is too early for accountability,” Gen. Manyang said, adding: “If accountability is not handled well, it may hamper peace implementation and throw the country back into chaos.”
Former Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin shared the view, who underscored the benefits of emphasizing national healing and reconciliation first.
“Once society is reconciled and the people accept their mistakes, then it is possible to bring about the process of accountability. Otherwise to place accountability before reconciliation is likely to be divisive at this delicate moment,” Benjamin said.
However, for victims of civil war, the new leadership’s failure to prosecute perpetrators as promised in the peace agreement is a continuing injury.
Sarah Nyuon, a widow who was raped and her husband killed on the eve of civil war in the South Sudanese capital Juba, demanded justice in an interview with Anadolu Agency.
“We really need a verdict which will expose the government army and rebels’ role in December 2013 crisis; we want to know who killed our husbands, because that would relieve and help us with compensation claims,” Nyuon said.
On May 19, the South Sudan Law Society, Legal Action Worldwide and Amnesty International released a report on sexual violence in South Sudan, according to which at least 1,300 rapes, 1,600 abductions of women and children, and 16 verified cases of grave sexual violence against children in Unity State were reported between April 2015 and September 2015.
Gatwech Koang, a doctor whose brother was killed in South Sudan’s Unity State capital Bentiu during the scene of an alleged massacre, said: “If accountability is not established, I and other victims of war crimes will have no assurance that the armed forces will not repeat their actions, and in the absence of such an assurance, there can be no lasting reconciliation.”
Achol Zenab, whose husband has been detained for a year by the country’s National Security Service, said: “We live with tears and we don’t have any happiness or freedom, the peace agreement signed to end the war is meaningless to us without assurance to release the prisoners of war.
“With the help of UN and Human Rights Watch, we have pleaded for their release but nothing happens. There are so many wives crying for their detained husbands. They all say there’s peace, but there’s no peace.”
Meanwhile, Mabior Garang Mabior, minister of water resources and irrigation, who strongly backed Machar during the two-year civil war, said his movement, the SPLM-IO, would surrender all commanders accused of war crimes to a special “hybrid court” designed to try those responsible for committing war crimes.
But he wondered whether Kiir’s side would do the same.
“If the investigation is done and you are found to have committed atrocities on the side of Riek Machar, you will go to the court,” he said, adding: “I know my Chairman Riek Machar has gone on the record and he said that he will go and whether he will go or not, that is another story. But at least he has declared that if he is called I will go.”
According to the peace agreement, an African Union Commission will establish a “hybrid court” in South Sudan to investigate and prosecute individuals who violated international laws since Dec. 15, 2013.
The yet-to-be formed court will have the power to order the forfeiture of the property, proceeds and any assets acquired unlawfully or by criminal conduct, and their return to their rightful owners or to the state of South Sudan.
It also provides for a “Compensation and Reparations Fund” to provide material and financial support to citizens whose property was destroyed by the conflict to help them to rebuild their livelihoods, according to the criteria that will be established by the transitional government.
According to UN experts, justice for all is a tall order given that Kiir and Machar are themselves accused of being responsible for most of the violence committed during the civil war.
Eugene Nindorera, head of the human rights section in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, said there was always some resistance in many post-conflict states like South Sudan. “Those who have committed atrocities don’t want to be arrested; don’t want to be prosecuted,” Nindorera said.
“They are still powerful because of their guns and positions. We need to improve the environment – the overall environment – so that people will feel free not feel at risk if they are going to appear before the judges to say what they have witnessed. This is really one of the key issues,” he added.