After more than two years of unnecessary war that accomplished nothing—except the destruction of the country—South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar wrote in the New York Times yesterday that what their country needs to move forward is not justice, but truth telling.
The brutal civil war which saw horrific mass atrocities committed by both sides, caused the deaths of over 50,000 people, the displacement of over two million, a dire humanitarian situation putting over five million South Sudanese at extreme levels of food insecurity, an untold number of victims of violence and sexual abuse, and excessive spending on the war effort that has bankrupted the country.
In the end, the leaders of the two warring factions who started as President and Vice President are now back together as President and First Vice President, and are tasked with leading their country out of the misery they caused in the first place.
Their op-ed is a plea to the international community, especially the United States, that what South Sudan needs is not transitional justice (despite the fact that they both agreed to transitional justice in the August 2015 peace agreement they both signed), but a “truth and reconciliation commission” that would grant “Those who tell the truth about what they saw or did would be granted amnesty from prosecution — even if they did not express remorse [emphasis added].”
Kiir and Machar are asking the international community to trust their judgement of what is best for their country, despite the fact that their leadership is what brought about more than two years of death and destruction. In reality they are looking out for themselves, trying to find a way to shield themselves and their friends from prosecution; thereby furthering the precedent that the worst offenders of human rights abuses can continue to act with impunity.
The atrocities committed during the war have been widely reported and documented. These are not acts of war or collateral damage; these are specific and targeted attacks against unarmed civilians that amount to crimes against humanity, war crimes, and in some cases perhaps even genocide.
The perpetrators of these crimes, and those who were in charge should face justice. But, even if a transitional justice mechanism is put in place and hybrid courts are erected, it is unlikely that Kiir and Machar will ever face justice for their crimes.
Jewish World Watch stands in support of a peaceful South Sudan, and believes that those responsible for mass atrocities should be held accountable for their crimes. Impunity only emboldens perpetrators like Omar al-Bashir of Sudan or Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to continue committing atrocities, knowing that they will never face any recourse for their actions.
The United States and other international donor governments, especially the European Union, should be concerned by this op-ed, and by Kiir’s and Machar’s attitude towards justice. Reneging on such a major component of the peace agreement should serve as a warning sign that other commitments made by both Kiir and Machar may be broken as well. In a few months’ time, Kiir and Machar may be pleading with the international community that the creation of a permanent constitution and national elections are also no longer in the best interest of South Sudan.
Support by the United States government to South Sudan must come with contingencies and benchmarks that ensure the government of South Sudan is protecting the rights of their people, establishing justice and reconciliation efforts, following through on the timeline for consultations and the creation of a new constitution and national elections, and responding to the humanitarian catastrophe that this war has created.