On 23rd February 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in South Sudan announced that they have enough evidence to charge at least 41 senior officers and officials with war crimes and crimes against humanity during the four-year civil war.
Background on the conflict in South Sudan
South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, has had a very tumultuous history. Since its independence from Sudan in 2011, the Eastern African country has faced the challenge of containing the political ambitions of the warring factions who were willing to get a seat at the table by any means necessary. A civil war broke out in December 2013 after President Salva Kiir accused his then-Vice President Reik Machar and other officers of attempting a coup. Since then, individuals loyal to President Kiir, Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), have been fighting with Reich Machar’s loyalists, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), Both factions have broken the numerous ceasefires mediated by the impartial Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Additionally, efforts by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) have resulted in limited success. The four-year conflict has resulted in approximately 300,000 people to lose their lives and millions more to be displaced within the country and in neighbouring countries. One of the worst atrocities during this civil war came as a result of an attack by suspected SPLM-IO allied faction where approximately 400 civilians lost their lives. Reik Machar denied UN and government reports attributing the massacre to his loyalists. In fact, the spokesman of the opposition group blamed the attack on government forces.
Potential UN Case
The UN, as part of UNMISS, has been documenting the atrocities committed during the four-year civil war. In a report based on 58,000 documents and 230 witness statements published a week ago, UN officials spoke of the horrendous cases that took place during the conflict such as beheadings, castrations, sexual violence, and torture. The report also details the killings, attacks, and illegal arrest of journalists and foreign aid workers. The 41 officials and officers accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity include 3 governors, 33 generals, and 5 colonels. The accused individuals come from both the government and opposition forces. The UNHRC has not yet released the names of the 41 individuals.
According to Yasmin Sooka, the chairperson of UNHRC in South Sudan, “The court could be set up straight away and the prosecutor could begin working on indictments. Under the peace agreement, those indicted can no longer hold or stand for office. Ultimately this is the only way to stop the rampant devastation of millions of human lives by South Sudan’s leaders.”
In response to the report and potential indictment of people, the spokesperson of SPLM-IO, Lam Paul Gabriel, stated, “the human rights body should start putting the blame directly on the regime instead of blaming both sides.”
Potential impact of the court case for South Sudan
It is important that individuals who are committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and other crimes be held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, in many of civil wars in the African continent, accusers from the government, rebel or peacekeeping forces, despite the evidence presented in reports gathered by local and international organizations, are not tried and convicted for their crimes. The local judicial system has also made small steps to hold such individuals accountable for their actions. In May 2017, a court case tried by a military court tried 13 soldiers accused of raping foreign aid workers and murder of a local journalist in 2016.
Although any indictment of individuals is a move in the positive directions, it is still unclear what impact the potential court case on the country. Depending on who the top officials are, it can possibly lead to an escalation in the conflict. The timing of the report and accusations have not come at a good time. Both groups are currently in Ethiopia negotiating terms of another ceasefire and peace agreement.
If top officials and officers of both parties are indicted, it is likely that they might attempt to prolong the agreement and/or the conflict. There is also a chance in which the top officials might try to negotiate, as terms of the peace agreements, for amnesty for themselves as we have seen in the Central African Republic and Sierra Leone. Just based on SPLM-IO’s response to the report and probable court case, it seems that they will not accept any charges against them as they believe that they are not in the wrong and the blame rests solely on the government, its forces and allies.
Additionally, it is unclear whether the court case will be in The Hague or it will be a “hybrid court” with South Sudanese and African judges, as agreed upon in the 2015 peace agreement. In the UN report, not only called for the establishment of this court but also claimed that the AU is complicit in the bloodshed in South Sudan. Despite the creation of an inquiry by the AU to investigate the widespread human rights violations that detailed atrocities in the country, no action has been taken by the continental body.
All we can do now is wait and hope that the thousands of victims of the conflict in South Sudan will get justice.