Civil society activists in South Sudan are angry over an opinion piece apparently penned by President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar in Tuesday's edition of The New York Times. In the piece, Kiir and Machar call for a truth and reconciliation commission instead of a hybrid court, as stipulated in the August peace agreement.
Activists said the two leaders are trying to eliminate the formation of a fair court and allow those who committed atrocities during South Sudan's two-year conflict off the hook.
Beny Gideon Mabor of the South Sudan Law Society said the president and Machar have no regard for the victims of the bloody conflict.
"The president and the first vice president calling for truth, not trial, is to me a surprise because a person of a right mind could not negotiate himself or herself into jail or stand trial for that matter," he told VOA. "I say this because the principal parties to the peace agreement, majorly the government of the Republic of South Sudan and the SPLM-In Opposition, are the primary accused of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law."
In the opening to their piece, the two leaders said, "Building a nation is not an easy task, we know this because it is our life's work."
The article emphasized the need to implement a national healing, truth, peace and reconciliation program, as opposed to forming a hybrid court to try people accused of committing crimes during the war.
Undoing the peace deal
But lawyers and activists say the two leaders' plan condones impunity and would not improve the culture of distrust in South Sudan.
"The South Sudanese people have seen this game played out and over again. Amnesty has been offered to people who had [committed] violence, they have been welcomed back into the system with political and military appointments and that has generated the circle of violence," said David Deng, research Director at the South Sudan Law Society. "The only way to relieve that is to begin to address the cause of violence, and the hybrid court for South Sudan will be one important means for doing that."
Chapter five of the peace agreement calls for establishment of an independent hybrid court from the national judiciary, to be supervised by the African Union Commission. It says the court shall investigate and prosecute those individuals bearing responsibility for violations of international and South Sudanese laws since the beginning of the conflict in December 2013.
Deng said there has never been a legal process in South Sudan to hold accountable people who have committed grave human rights abuses. And he fears that if the court is allowed to lapse, the rest of the peace agreement will go, too. "There is nothing to stop them from dismantling the peace agreement bit by bit," he said.
Edmond Yakani is executive director of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, a South Sudanese civil society organization.
Yakani said while peace, healing and reconciliation should take place before justice, abandoning principles of justice and holding people accountable will undermine trust and confidence in the government.
"You are sending a signal that people [can] start using violence as a way of buying political leadership," he said. "So any politician that is discontented with the system will use violence as a way of buying political power."
Yakani says the 2013 conflict resulted when leaders who were discontented during the 2010 elections took up arms against the government.
Mabor of the South Sudan Law Society says that try as they might, Kiir and Machar cannot undo a hybrid court.
"The two leaders have signed the agreement which constitutionally obliges them to subscribe to this international or regional legal instrument; the hybrid court which is going to be established soon by the African Union Commission and subsequently ratified by the transitional government."
The Executive Director of Voice for Change, a human rights lobby group in Juba, called the op-ed piece "painful.”
"Of course this is why sometimes there is that continuous recurrence of this conflict taking place in the country, because they know they will not be held accountable. We were hoping that this agreement has to be implemented as it is."
Mabor had one piece of advice for the two leaders:
"If they could locally conduct opinion polls ... as what do they prefer between truth and reconciliation and legal accountability, and the answers could be published by the same New York Times. If the answer is in their favor, they of course we can welcome their idea."