South Sudan To Establish War Crimes Court, Other Transitional Justice Institutions

The South Sudanese government announced on Friday 29 January that it will proceed with the process of establishing a war crimes court in partnership with the African Union (AU), along with other long-awaited transitional justice mechanisms to address violations committed during the country’s conflict. In fulfilment of outstanding obligations under the 2018 peace agreement, South Sudan’s cabinet formally authorized the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to take the necessary steps for establishing (i) the Hybrid Court for South Sudan to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for serious human rights violations and atrocity crimes; (ii) the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing to document and report human rights abuses and causes of conflict; and (iii) the Compensation and Reparation Authority to administer a reparation and assistance fund for victims.

While human rights experts have welcomed the renewed political commitment to move forward with the establishment of transitional justice institutions, many have noted that swift and concrete action is needed to operationalize the key three mechanisms. “After more than two years of delay, the government has at last taken the first steps to initiate key transitional justice measures to address the legacy of gross human rights violations in South Sudan,” Yasmin Sooka, Chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, stated at a UN press conference on Monday. “If the government of South Sudan is to retain any credibility whatsoever, the political rhetoric must translate into tangible, and genuine results,” she cautioned. “Most critically, the government must complete all the processes of reconstituting the Transitional National Legislative Assembly, which is to enact the domestic legislation for establishing the three transitional justice mechanisms under the 2018 Agreement.”

Nearly three years after gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan descended into a civil conflict that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and the displacement of more than a million. A peace deal that called for the establishment of the Hybrid Court of South Sudan, the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing, and the Compensation and Reparation Authority was signed in 2015, but collapsed just a year later, leading to renewed conflict. In September 2018, South Sudan’s warring parties re-committed to the 2015 peace deal, signing the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS). Since then, however, political leaders have repeatedly sought to block the establishment of the court and other accountability mechanisms, and they have failed to adhere to the timelines of the peace agreement. As a result, the formation of the new government and the completion of key appointments have also been severely delayed.

The South Sudanese government’s decision is a crucial step towards establishing justice and accountability for heinous crimes suffered by victims and communities since war broke out in December 2013. However, the delay has robbed the people of South Sudan of the opportunity to achieve sustainable peace and security, as the underlying causes and drivers of the conflict have been emboldened with impunity for far too long. With an urgent need for reconciliation and healing, South Sudan must now take immediate steps to advance an inclusive and holistic transitional justice process. Specifically, the UN Human Rights Council has recommended that the government swiftly sign the Memorandum of Understanding already negotiated with the African Union to establish the Hybrid Court. The government must also establish its new parliament so that relevant legislation can be enacted, and further institute the three transitional justice mechanisms. With transparent and consultative steps undertaken, the chance for justice may be realized.