In the wake of this week’s deal to end hostilities, high expectations are trained on the African Union’s (AU’s) commission of inquiry into the South Sudan conflict. It will be chaired by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and will investigate human rights violations and other abuses during the conflict in December last year. Barely two and a half years after the world celebrated South Sudan’s long-awaited birth in July 2011, open warfare erupted between the government forces of President Salva Kiir and the opposition SPLA/M rebel forces led by former vice-president Riek Machar.
The ethnic dimensions of the conflict, long denied by Kiir, a Dinka, and Machar, a Nuer, pitted the country’s two largest ethnic groups against each other in a continuation of South Sudan’s long-running ethnic conflict.
Between 1983 and 2005, serious crimes amounting to violations of international law were committed against the Nuer and Dinka communities by fighters from both sides, including the Nuer- and Dinka-led rebel factions.
The lack of accountability for past violations and ongoing impunity laid the ground for December’s conflict. In its June 2014 interim report, the AU’s commission of inquiry confirmed that ethnic animosity arose out of long-standing historical grievances.
Meaningful intercommunal reconciliation cannot take place in the absence of a firm commitment to end the abuses and a determination to ensure justice and accountability.
The South Sudan Human Rights Commission has reported on extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, rape associated with people in uniforms and mass displacement. Reports suggest that women and children in particular continue to be subject to sexual violations.
The establishment of the commission of inquiry sends the international community a signal that Africans are taking the lead on accountability.
The broad mandate of the Obasanjo-headed commission includes healing, reconciliation, institutional reform and accountability. Undoubtedly, the commission’s success will be determined by how its report succeeds in paving the way for accountability by documenting the violations and naming those allegedly responsible.
Commissions of inquiry of this nature are usually expected to make their reports public by following the example of other commissions of inquiry, including on Syria, North Korea and Mali – all of which were established under the auspices of the United Nations.
Justice and accountability are crucial to breaking the cycle of impunity enjoyed by strongmen, including many of South Sudan’s leaders who commanded rebels in the previous war.
Three factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) recently admitted in a public statement that they hold “a collective responsibility for the crisis in South Sudan that has taken a great toll on the lives and property of our people”. This paves the way for the commission to deal with the thorny issue of justice and accountability. The statement was released at the end of a week of meetings in Arusha between a group loyal to Kiir; the SPLM-in-Opposition, led by Machar; and the Group of 11, comprising former members of the ruling party who were detained when fighting broke out in Juba in December last year.
The report by the commission should take this admission into account and also include recommendations which ensure that those alleged to have perpetrated serious crimes are investigated and prosecuted in accordance with international standards.
The naming of perpetrators may, however, prove to be highly controversial as will the issue of criminal responsibility.
It is widely anticipated that the commission will also provide recommendations on a future body that could take up the issues of accountability. While many have suggested that a hybrid tribunal or court model would be appropriate, a useful example would be the JUSTICE REQUIRED Serious crimes amounting to violations of international law were committed against the Nuer and Dinka communities by fighters from both sides. Scores of families were displaced, including this family from the Nuer ethnic group, who were seeking medication and food Extraordinary African Chamber created by Senegal and the AU to prosecute the worst crimes of the Habré regime. In July last year, the chamber charged Chadian Hissène Habré with crimes against humanity, torture and war crimes. The example set by this trial in which the victims were recognised as full parties, will hopefully illustrate the possibility for survivors to witness a brutal dictator brought to justice.
The Obasanjo Commission of Inquiry must note that accountability extends beyond criminal accountability and includes moral responsibility for those with blood on their hands. The commission’s recommendations should include reparations for the victims, including psychosocial support for survivors of sexual violence and rape. It also needs to address the issue of building national peace and reconciliation in South Sudan.