The people of South Sudan have been waiting for decades to see the perpetrators of atrocities held to account. Since the First Sudanese Civil War of 1955, civilians have borne the brunt of multiple waves of conflict, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The latest conflict, which broke out in 2013, has seen tens of thousands of people killed, widespread sexual violence, and led to Africa’s largest refugee crisis.
Those in power — first the governments of Sudan and then the South Sudanese governments formed after independence in 2011 — have failed to bring the architects of this suffering to justice.
Each year these human rights violations were unaddressed and unaccounted for, impunity planted the seeds for more violence. Now, more than six years on into South Sudan’s latest conflict, history will keep repeating itself unless action and responsibility are urgently taken.
What needs to be done is clear. Whether South Sudanese leaders choose or are willing to do so is another question. Will South Sudan’s leaders break the cycles of violence by offering justice, truth, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence for the victims of the war they started, or will they continue to promote and shield war criminals?
Although the suffering of the people is constant, there is something different about the latest conflict. The 2015 and 2018 peace agreements include a “transitional justice programme” composed of a hybrid court, a truth commission, a compensation and reparations process and guarantees of non-recurrence through institutional reform. It offers South Sudanese leaders a chance to decisively break the cycle of violence.
Impunity for war crimes has been the status quo in South Sudan. The stories of the victims of these crimes are countless and horrific. In one incident in 1989, Ahmed,* a doctor in Khartoum, described the wounds of three Southern Sudanese men, Manut, Madut and Deng, who had been detained by the Sudanese army on suspicion of involvement with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.
Ahmed told Amnesty International: “Their forearms were mummified. The skin was peeling off and they had lost most of their fingers. The upper arms were putrid and completely gangrenous.” The Sudanese authorities did not investigate this torture, and nobody was prosecuted.
South Sudan gained independence in 2011, but without dealing with the past, it was inevitable that violations would continue. The atrocities committed during the latest war are almost beyond comprehension.
Nyawal, a survivor of an attack by pro-government soldiers and civilians at the end of December 2013 in Panyang, Unity state, recounted her experience to Amnesty International in 2014. “I was three months pregnant, but because I was raped by so many men, the baby came out. If I had refused those people, they would have killed me. Nine men raped me.”
Nyawal said soldiers forced large wooden sticks inside the vaginas of seven women who refused to be raped. All seven women later died. In 2016, 30-month-old Nyamuch died after a shell or a rocket hit the camp where internally displaced people sought safety and is protected by the United Nations. “All of my children were unconscious,” Peter*, her father, told Amnesty International. “I didn’t know who was dead and who was alive.”
The South Sudanese government’s response to these crimes has largely been to grant blanket amnesties, and to promote individuals sanctioned by the UN Security Council. “Do you think we will prosecute ourselves?” a high-ranking South Sudanese government official asked the moderator at a public screening of a film about prosecuting suspects of war crimes. South Sudan has not had a political transition, and individuals responsible for violations and crimes remain in positions of power.
While the intensity of the conflict has decreased since the signing of the 2018 peace agreement, violations of international humanitarian law have continued in the south of the country, as documented by Amnesty International in 2020. Impunity has created a situation where violence and war crimes have become normal and pay off.
The price paid by most South Sudanese is heavy. The 2013 conflict created a humanitarian crisis, a man-made famine in 2017, and left a population traumatised. A 2015 study by the South Sudan Law Society and the UN Development Programme found that 41% of 1b525 respondents exhibited symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide rates are shockingly high in refugee camps in Uganda. Despite the dire need, psychological care is sorely lacking, both in the camps and in South Sudan. South Sudan authorities need to prioritise the much needed socioeconomic rights investments. For example, South Sudan only has three national psychiatrists who work on a roving basis and provide training and supervision to health staff.
After years of dragging its feet and failing to establish the transitional justice mechanisms, in January 2021 the Council of Ministers approved a plan by the ministry of justice and constitutional affairs for the establishment of the hybrid court, truth commission and compensation and reparation authority. This marked a significant step forward, but three months later, no significant progress has been made other than the establishment of a task force.
Although South Sudan’s leaders bear the primary responsibility for addressing the atrocities of the 2013 conflict the African Union has an important role to play too. The transitional justice mechanisms were recommended by the African Union Commission of Inquiry in South Sudan, itself established by the African Union Peace and Security Council in 2014 and found their way into the 2015 and 2018 peace agreements. In line with the AU’s transitional justice policy and international best practice, the recommendations were made with careful consideration of the South Sudanese context and informed by South Sudanese. It is important that the AU succeeds in dealing with major challenges such as South Sudan’s to enhance the confidence of the continent’s ability to solve challenges facing the continent.
Although dealing with the history of conflict and decades of state inaction in South Sudan is complex, what needs to be done is clear. It is a political choice. Until then, Manut, Madut, Deng, Nyawal, Nyamuch, Peter, Gatkuoth and millions of others wait for justice, to know the truth, for their harm to be repaired, for compensation and for guarantees from their leaders that they, and their children and grandchildren, will never have to experience such violence again. It will take a politically committed and courageous leadership to silence the guns and put an end to the suffering of the people of South Sudan.
* Names have been changed to protect their identities.