The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch is calling on the African Union to go ahead and set up the hybrid court, an international criminal court, that was part of the August 2015 South Sudan peace agreement to try alleged war crimes suspects.
Elise Keppler, Associate Director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, says setting up the court would prove that the African Union is committed to rejecting impunity in South Sudan and wants those who committed war crimes during the country's civil war to be brought to justice.
This comes as South Sudan President Salve Kiir and his First Vice President Riek Machar jointly wrote an opinion article in Tuesday’s New York Times newspaper appealing to the world to support a truth and reconciliation commission similar to South Africa and Northern Ireland as opposed to setting up a criminal court. They argued that punitive action, such as a criminal court, would destabilize South Sudan.
Keppler says the Times article is an attempt by President Salve Kiir and Machar to avoid the reach of law.
“The article drafted by Riek Machar and Salve Kiir really represents a self-serving effort to escape accountability. These leaders themselves are implicated in horrific crimes committed in South Sudan. They themselves agreed, as part of the 2015 peace agreement to have justice advance, and they took to the pages of the New York Times to attempt to sidestep the justice issue, pushing instead for a proposal for a truth and reconciliation, she said.”
In their article, President Kiir and First Vice President Machar said South Sudan needs truth, not trials.
“Disciplinary justice – even if delivered under international law – would destabilize efforts to unite our nation by keeping alive anger and hatred among the people of South Sudan,” they said.
But Keppler said her organization has found over the years that impunity and lack of justice regularly fuels more abuses.
Keppler said times today are different from when the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in the 1990's.
“The Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals had not been fully operational. You didn’t have the International Criminal Court. What’s come to pass is that justice is now possible and that it is guaranteed not only under international law, but also in terms of principles for victims,” Keppler said.
She said the African Union, having committed itself to rejecting impunity, has a responsibility to create a hybrid war crimes court for South Sudan.
“To my eyes, this announcement by Machar is very significant and one does need to question how this piece [article] really came about because it is quite a kind of audacious, bracing proposal to say let’s forget the trials that we agreed to as part of the peace process; let’s just go with evading accountability,” Keppler said.
Keppler said granting amnesties have been part of the culture of South Sudan over the years. For example, she said, in South Sudan’s conflict with Khartoum there was no accountability for crimes committed. Instead, she said those who allegedly committed crimes in the most recent conflict have been rewarded with promotions in the government.
She said truth telling is important, especially for countries emerging from conflicts. But Keppler said truth is not an alternative for criminal justice.