Will Obasanjo’s inquiry help end impunity in South Sudan?

Saturday October 18 2014


By Elise Keppler

On the edges of Juba, a displaced people’s camp stretches far and wide, distinctive white sheeting marking the shelters of tens of thousands of people. Most of them fled attacks by government forces in December, at the beginning of South Sudan’s new war.

A woman I spoke to at the camp told me, pausing to wipe away tears, that soldiers had entered her house, and without a word of explanation shot and killed her husband, a student. She fled to the UN camp with her young child for protection. She is just one of 1.5 million people who have fled their homes in this conflict and just one of the tens of thousands who are afraid to leave UN bases in government-held areas.

For those looking to the potential for justice for crimes committed by both government and opposition forces in this new war, all eyes are now on an African Union Commission of Inquiry. The commission, headed by Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria, was to look into the causes of the conflict, document human-rights abuses and recommend accountability for the world’s newest country.

The commission’s report is to be presented to the AU’s Peace and Security Council this month. What the victims badly need is a strong report that clearly describes how both sides have used abusive tactics, including purposefully targeting civilians and massive destruction and pillage of civilian property.

They need a report that makes clear recommendations for holding those responsible for these abuses to account before a court of law. A strong report would also recommend urgent UN Security Council action for an arms embargo on South Sudan and individual sanctions against those implicated in the worst crimes.

Obasanjo’s inquiry is the first of its kind for the AU. The report is a chance for this regional body to demonstrate to the people of South Sudan and throughout Africa, its commitment under article 4 in its constitutive Act to reject impunity. A strong report could be a real lever to push accountability forward, whereas a weak one risks leaving justice unmoored.

Community leaders, victims, and members of civil society groups I talked with in Juba stressed the importance of criminal accountability. Unlike in some other countries with conflicts, the people I interviewed had largely uniform perspectives: They said that those responsible for the worst crimes in this conflict must be tried in court.

They said that civilians have been killed for no reason and that the crimes against civilians are continuing, while there is no justice for these abuses.

It won’t be easy to bring those responsible for these crimes to trial. These crimes were committed by forces under current commanders and leaders in the government and opposition.

Members of the legal community and ordinary citizens said it was impossible to imagine that the country’s most powerful men could be tried in the local system. Its capacity is limited, and the pressures likely to be exerted on judges, lawyers and witnesses would be intense.

But decades of impunity for past crimes have fuelled the brutality of the current crisis and the spiralling cycle of ethnically motivated attacks and horrific revenge killings. Justice has the chance to build respect for the rule of law, helping to pave the way to long-term peace and stability.

The commission has hinted it could recommend a hybrid court for South Sudan — local judges and lawyers working with African or other international judges and lawyers to try the crimes. Such an option would not be without intense challenges. But it has far more potential than leaving such sensitive cases exclusively in the hands of local authorities.

But of course, no one knows if the AU will recommend criminal accountability at all. Trials for mass crimes are too often seen as a contentious matter that should be left aside in favour of less provocative measures, truth telling and reconciliation processes among them.

Truth and healing are important in their own right, and can be pursued concurrently with trials, but they are neither alternatives to nor a substitute for criminal accountability. People I spoke to in Juba made that point. Hopefully, the AU has also heard their calls and will not disappoint.

Elise Keppler is associate director of international justice at Human Rights Watch. She was in Juba with Skye Wheeler, the Human Rights Watch South Sudan researcher, to explore prospects for justice for crimes committed during the country’s current conflict.