As deadly fighting returns, peacekeeping and civilian protection must be the first priority, but justice must also be on the agenda.
The savagery of the resurgent civil war in South Sudan exposes the hollow promises of the 2015 peace deal, which restored the same men, with the same armies, to positions of power without addressing the fundamental need for a democratic and just peace.
The international community must urgently find new ways to enable the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) to protect the tens of thousands of children, women and men in South Sudan who are now seeking safety wherever they can find it. This issue should be the first item on the agenda of the African Union summit as it meets this week in Kigali, and its leaders should expeditiously authorise the dispatch of a peace enforcement mission to ensure the demilitarisation of South Sudanese towns and cities.
Robust peacekeeping and civilian protection are the first priorities. But justice for the unconscionable war crimes and crimes against humanity by South Sudan’s political and military leaders must also be on the agenda.
Among the citizens now fleeing to churches and UN compounds, or hiding in their homes, are many people who have struggled long and hard for justice and human rights. The future of South Sudan as a peaceful and democratic country rests on the efforts of people of commitment and integrity such as these.
As part of the Justice and Security Research Programme at the London School of Economics (LSE), we have been privileged to work with a group of lawyers, human rights activists, paralegals, teachers and chiefs. They came together based on their commitment to improve access to justice and human rights at local levels.
These efforts are all affected by the latest violence and some, along with tens of thousands of other civilians, are in immediate danger. Our team coordinator, Angelina Daniel Seeka, a prominent women’s rights activist has taken shelter in a church compound in Juba, which has already been attacked by armed men. An observer from Yambio, Western Equatoria, previously fled from death threats in his home town and is now facing new risks amid the fighting in Juba. Other observers have fled from Wau, riven by fighting for more than a week. Several live in the ‘protection of civilians’ site within the UN base in Juba, which has been shelled by the SPLA. And partners in other civil society organisations are also shattered: staff at our partner organisation Justice Africa report that their neighbours have been killed in crossfire or shelling. Every town from which we have received reports, is affected by fighting.
The political-military leaders whose greed, ambition and chauvinism have led South Sudan down this road to disaster are not representative of their society and its values. For every corrupt general, there are thousands of citizens who wish only for peace and stability, and for whom the lessons of decades of war and suffering are tolerance and goodwill.
Our emerging research on courts in South Sudan confirms other evidence that South Sudanese citizens have vigorous local practices of justice and mediation and they strive to make them work. A South Sudanese vision of peace includes accountability.
The African Union Commission of Inquiry into South Sudan, which reported in October 2014, found clear evidence for crimes against humanity and war crimes, and recommended a court to “bring those with the greatest responsibility at the highest level to account”. The AU should, jointly with other international partners, enact this recommendation without delay.
Despite these and other important human rights investigations we still do not know the full human costs of South Sudan’s wars. But there is enough evidence about who is responsible and it is time they were brought to account.
Rachel Ibreck is a fellow at the Programme for African Leadership at LSE.
Naomi Pendle is a PhD candidate at LSE focusing on South Sudan.
Alex de Waal is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation.