By: Dr. Remember Miamingi, South Sudanese, Univ. of Pretoria, South Africa, JUN/17/2016, SSN;
IN SUMMARY: What has most destabilised South Sudan is not fear of justice, but perpetual impunity and the rewarding of war crimes with power and wealth.
In December 2013, South Sudanese soldiers of Dinka ethnicity, under the command of President Salva Kiir, went on a house-to-house rampage shooting, hacking and decapitating defenceless men, women and children of Nuer ethnicity. Many who tried to escape were herded together into grass-thatched-houses, which were doused with kerosene and set alight. Others were handcuffed and thrown into the River Nile.
A rebel movement under the leadership of former vice president Riek Machar reacted by mowing down several others, decapitating the bodies of those killed, amputating the limbs and raping children and women. These chilling eye witness accounts were documented by the UN, AU and other human rights organisations and media outlets.
A peace deal was finally signed in August last year, which called a Truth and Reconciliation process as well as an international tribunal, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan, which would punish those found guilty of war crimes. On June 7, Mr Kiir who remains South Sudan’s president, and Dr Machar, who is once again First Vice President, co-authored a New York Times Op- Ed piece arguing that the Hybrid Court should be scrapped in order for the country to move on and rebuild. The Truth and Reconciliation process would provide healing, they wrote, but disciplinary justice would only open old wounds.
I beg to differ. What Kiir and Machar are suggesting is amnesty for the killers, and denial of justice for the victims in the name of stability. This is blackmail. Certainly, South Sudan’s people and the rest of the world need to know the truth, but Truth and Reconciliation Commissions should not serve as veils to protect truth-telling-criminals. In any case, many of the details of the worst abuses are already in the public domain. For Kiir and Machar, reconciliation and justice is a zero-sum game.
In their Op-Ed, Kiir and Machar cite the examples of Northern Ireland and South Africa, both of which help Truth and Commissions, but not trials. The assumption that these models worked and on the basis of a blanket amnesty provision is misleading. In both cases, the quest for accountability remains the unfinished business of these societies threatening to further destabilise these countries, especially in the South African case.
In 2009, Eames-Bradley Report recommended justice through accountability for Northern Ireland. In South Africa, the TRC recommended prosecution as a complementary mechanism to its mandate. In addition, the context and the nature of the conflicts in these two countries are also different.
It is not true that the quest of accountability through trial is unavoidably destabilising. Sierra Leone and Rwanda provide examples where trials did not lead to return to war. In Sierra Leone, the Hybrid Court tried individuals bearing the greatest responsibility for international crimes. In Rwanda, in addition to a UN Criminal Tribunal, the Rwandese government conducted mass trials using traditional mechanisms. These two countries are still stable today.
What has most destabilised South Sudan is not fear of justice, but perpetual impunity and the rewarding of war crimes with power and wealth. Can we really trust these two men to preside over a process that provides healing and justice to their victims?
It was the failure of Kiir and Machar to talk in the first place that led to the brutal war and to its prolongation. How can the two now say the world should leave them to talk their way out of criminal culpability and expect the world to trust them? And will powerful nations fail to respond firmly to those who sent thousands of children and women to their untimely graves?
Dr Miamingi is a South Sudanese and a human rights practitioner. He is affiliated with the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.