Consequences of impunity

Published 16th March 2017

Impunity has long lasting and severe consequences. South Sudan, Africa’s newest independent state, is a prime example of this. South Sudan has been plagued by challenges for several years and the recently released UN Commission Report on Human Rights in South Sudan depicts a devastating and grim situation. Whilst there are many explanations for the on going conflict, it is clear that decades of impunity have played a key role in the state of the nation today.

South Sudanese people fought long and hard for their independence from the North. Their efforts paid off in 2011 but since then ethnic conflict, famine, corruption and gross human rights violations have characterised the first 6 years of this nation’s independence.

The tension in newly independent South Sudan came to a head in 2013 when President Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar and ten others of attempting to overthrow him. This ignited a conflict that has fallen largely on ethnic lines. Kiir is from the Dinka group and Machar is from the Nuer group. Their forces continue to fight for control of the country. The Dinka and the Nuer constitute two of the largest ethnic groups in South Sudan and the rift between the two continues to widen with no end in sight.

The conflict has been brutal including gruesome massacres of innocent civilians. Homes have been destroyed, hospitals and schools have been razed to the ground and thousands have fled or perished. Arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence and torture are rampant.

Women and children continue to be amongst the most vulnerable. For example, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that a staggering 17 000 children have been recruited as child soldiers since December 2013.

The humanitarian crisis has intensified and as a result South Sudan is one of the biggest sources of displaced people.The UNHCR estimates that 1.5 million South Sudanese refugees live in neighbouring countries with half of them having fled in 2016 alone. Famine and spread of diseases constitute additional push factors.

To make matters worse it appears that the government is blocking humanitarian aid from reaching opposition controlled areas and shutting down non-governmental organisations. Considering that 70 per cent of all humanitarian assistance in South Sudan comes from non-governmental organisations, clamping down on their activities is dangerously pushing the country to the edge. Combined with the fragile economy, inflation and a decline in oil production – South Sudan is on the brink of implosion.

Underlying, compounding, and contributing to the crisis is the culture of impunity. Decades of violence and heinous crimes, perpetrated during the fight for independence from Sudan, remain unaddressed. Many suspected perpetrators form part of the upper echelons of the new government and lead opposition movements. It is the same individuals who continue to encourage gross human rights violations. The provision of amnesty has not assisted with the pestilence that is impunity.
Though the government has announced a variety of measures including special courts and investigation committees to address the accountability gap, none of these have yielded any tangible results.

The African Union was tasked with establishing a Hybrid Court for South Sudan but there has been very little movement. The August 2015 Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan provides for the establishment of a hybrid court “to investigate and prosecute individuals suspected of committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity…” The AU has recently stated that the Hybrid Court should be operational in 2019. In the meantime evidence, victims, witnesses and perpetrators disappear.

Other measures discussed in the Agreement include the establishment of a commission for truth, reconciliation and healing. A compensation and reparations authority is also in the pipelines but the issue of compensation and reparations is contested by the President as he prefers that funds be diverted elsewhere. Truth and reconciliation are important as are reparations and compensation but they must be used to complement not substitute

Justice serves a multitude of purposes including providing closure for the victims as well as deterring potential perpetrators. South Sudanese victims have been denied justice and this has significantly contributed to the state of affairs today. The UN Commission itself notes that, “the lack of accountability for decades of violence during the struggle for independence from the Sudan has helped to fuel the current conflict in South Sudan.”

Without justice and accountability communities cannot truly move forward and establishing respect for the rule of law becomes impossible. Good governance, democracy and free and fair societies cannot be built when the wounds of injustice remain open.

Merely sweeping guilt under the rug and hoping that the violated and the persecuted will forget is unsustainable. Whilst South Sudan grapples with its present atrocities, let us hope it will not continue to ignore its past atrocities.

** This article originally appeared in the Star Newspaper on 16 March 2017 under the title, South Sudan still plagued by impunity

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