South Sudan marked its third year of independence on July 9, but this year there seemed little for the people of South Sudan to celebrate. I was just in South Sudan, from June 30 to July 2, and saw firsthand the destruction, dislocation and death wrought by several months of pointless conflict between forces aligned with President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. I remember a particularly vivid moment in the trip -- at a UN displaced persons camp on the outskirts of Juba -- where I sat face to face with ten camp leaders, all representatives of a burgeoning South Sudanese population seeking refuge from war, violence, hunger, and insecurity. They witnessed horrific events and remained too terrified to leave the premises of the camp. Most of the camp leaders self-identified as members of the Nuer ethnic group in South Sudan, and as we slowly baked in the scorching noon day sun, they began to speak, one person at a time. They recounted ghastly atrocities, committed by both sides that came very suddenly at the outset of the conflict in December and January. They described a violence that inverted the optimism that accompanied the 2011 birth and independence of Africa’s newest nation after so many decades of struggle.
When things fell apart on December 15, 2013, the fall was swift and relentless. Today, more than 1.5 million citizens are displaced from their homes and villages internally and as refugees in neighboring countries, living day-to-day in makeshift shelters and other temporary conditions. And the worst may be yet to come. The ensuing weeks are likely to bring famine-like conditions, acute malnutrition affecting especially children, and the onset of disease like cholera. While South Sudan’s two warring leaders fail to make progress in on-again, off-again peace talks in Ethiopia, innocent men, women, and children of South Sudan continue to suffer and die. The leadership of South Sudan has an obligation to do better.
What is needed to make South Sudan whole again and bring a lasting peace to the country? I asked this question repeatedly during my visit to Juba. I posed this question to religious leaders, NGO representatives, journalists, civil society, and human rights advocates, community organizers, UN officials, and local government officials -- several common principles emerged.
Almost everyone strongly voiced the need for accountability. Too much blood has been spilt and too many violent crimes have been committed for South Sudan to move forward without undertaking a thorough examination of all alleged atrocities committed by both government and opposition forces. While some people would be satisfied with reconciliation and truth telling, others long to see at least some offenders held responsible through formal criminal proceedings. Most expressed significant concern that even if Kiir and Machar were to come to terms and agree to a negotiated settlement, such a peace would be short-lived and fail to break retaliatory cycles of violence and impunity. A recent report by the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative points out that cycles of past impunity are serving as “root causes of the current situation.” But despite near unanimous calls for accountability, South Sudan’s legal system lacks the capacity to undertake credible investigations and prosecute the kinds of serious crimes that have occurred during the conflict. One important area where the international community can have an immediate impact is to support efforts to systematically collect and preserve evidence of atrocity crimes, so that these investigative efforts can ultimately support accountability in the future (for example, through an international hybrid court, as recently suggested by both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the African Union Commission of Inquiry).
A second important principle that I heard throughout my time in South Sudan is the importance of de-personalizing the conflict away from Kiir and Machar, by incorporating and amplifying other voices in South Sudan. This is why we continue to support, along with IGAD, the inclusion of civil society, religious, tribal, women, and youth leaders in the process. South Sudanese from all walks of life told me that too many people have suffered and died for either Kiir or Machar to lay exclusive or legitimate claim to lead South Sudan. The only way for a genuine peace to take root is for a broader array of voices to actively participate at the negotiating table, and for these voices, in concert with regional and international partners, to press Kiir and Machar to end the violence and set South Sudan back on track for elections and a new, democratically elected government. Civil society stakeholders, religious representatives, and community leaders must sit at the negotiating table, and should be empowered to help shape the terms of an eventual transitional government. The international community must continue pushing both sides to negotiation in good faith within a truly inclusive political process that will shift power away from the hands of those that have exploited the patience and forbearance of the South Sudanese people in pursuit of their own self-interest and personal gain. We cannot forget that when the dust settles and the soldiers finally lay down their guns, the hard work of rebuilding a durable peace in South Sudan will fall, once again, not to those who caused the war, but to the communities I met with that will determine the future of their country.