On February 22, hours before the deadline for rival South Sudanese political groups to form another unity government, Chief Justice Chan Reec Madut swore in five vice-presidents to deputise for President Salva Kiir, including the president’s arch-rival, Riek Machar.
This step was an important one in efforts towards ending the conflict that has, for the past six years, been characterised by mass atrocities. Yet the situation in South Sudan remains fragile. The guns may have largely fallen silent, but until reforms agreed by the parties are implemented, including of the security sector, it would be premature to celebrate a conclusive end to violence and human rights violations in South Sudan.
Efforts to reform the security sector have been riddled with problems — one of which is that they have conveniently left out the one force that is outfitted with the most advanced arms and has been a key tool in turning South Sudan into a repressive state — the National Security Service (NSS).
In 2019, the United Nations Panel of Experts on South Sudan reported that the NSS had recruited more than 10000 fighters from Kiir’s home area and tribe, who were then trained as army troops but remained under direct NSS command.
With the NSS behaving as though it is exempt from the security sector reforms, the process has left the country’s most feared and repressive armed force untouched. The NSS has arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured and ill-treated hundreds, if not thousands, of people since December 2013.
Under pressure to form a unity government, the government began training members of security forces recruited for the 83000-strong “Necessary Unified Forces” before they were all screened, which means that children, sick people, and suspects of human rights violations may have found their way into the forces.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International saw child soldiers among government and opposition troops at training sites and agreed-upon assembly points called cantonment sites, including in the ranks of the VIP Protection Force.
The deployment of the VIP Protection Force should be keeping regional leaders awake. It brings together bitter enemies — armed members of Kiir’s presidential guard and opposition fighters loyal to Machar.
Their deployment will militarise Juba, bringing back the risk of hostilities in which civilians would bear the brunt of fighting. In July 2016, fighting broke out between the two forces for four days, leaving a trail of civilian deaths, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, looting, and attacks on UN civilian protection sites. When Kiir and Machar fight their political battles, some decades-old, where will the loyalties of their soldiers lie? And what will stop them from once again targeting civilians, committing rapes and other war crimes?
Instead of being recruited into the Unified Forces or deployed to protect VIPs, suspects of crimes committed in relation to the conflict should be investigated and face justice. The lack of investigation and prosecution feeds into entrenched impunity that has fanned cycles of atrocities. Accountability is required to break this cycle.
South Sudan’s leaders continue to speak only about reconciliation and forgiveness and use every trick in the book to frustrate justice.
For justice to be accomplished, the South Sudanese authorities need to set up the long-overdue African Union-South Sudanese Hybrid Court for South Sudan agreed to in previous peace talks. The AU needs to impose a deadline on the South Sudanese authorities to set up the court. And if they fail to do so, it must proceed to unilaterally establish the court itself.
The UN Human Rights Council and South Sudan must also support a full renewal of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan and South Sudan must continue collaborating with it.
The human rights commission has a critical mandate to collect and preserve evidence for future prosecutions. It is currently the only independent body collecting and preserving evidence of, and clarifying responsibility for, allegations of gross violations and abuses of human rights, including crimes under international law.
Now is not the time to reduce pressure on South Sudan’s leaders. Regional leaders, the AU, South Africa as chair of the AU High-Level Ad hoc Committee for South Sudan, the Troika and the UN Human Rights Council need to maintain pressure on the South Sudanese authorities to ensure comprehensive reform of the security sector, the establishment of the hybrid court, and the renewal of the full mandate of the human rights commission.
If these critical mechanisms are left to lapse, the international community may find itself answering to the South Sudanese people and posterity for yet another round of violence and human rights violations and abuses in South Sudan.