Which way for accountability and reconciliation: A hybrid court or a truth and reconciliation commission? Or both?
The clarity on which way both President Salva Kiir and his first deputy Dr Riek Machar wanted for the country laid in ruins last week, after spin-doctors of Dr Machar dismissed a proposal published in New York Times newspaper with the byline of the two leaders.
The article, titled “South Sudan needs truth, not trials”, sparked a nose-bleeding debate in both diplomatic and activist cycles.
The US called it a disappointment, while activists implied that it was a backward step on the commitments to accountability and reconciliation enshrined in the peace agreement.
The op-ed argues that bringing South Sudan together after years of the brutal conflict “can be truly guaranteed only through one route: an organized peace and reconciliation process with international backing”.
“In such a process, everyone in South Sudan might engage in the act of remembering through dialogue, and by so doing affirm the truth of what happened during our bloody civil war,” both leaders said in the article.
It laid it bare that the two leaders, who turned bitter rivals after a deep political dispute turned violent in December 2013, had forged a common front and would want a truth and reconciliation process that does not end up with suspects going to court.
According to the peace agreement, the court will be established by the African Union with a global support to try suspected brutes who unleashed violence on innocent civilians, including castration, forced cannibalism, rape and killings.
But the two leaders, according to the opinion, “intend to create a national truth and reconciliation commission modeled on those of South Africa and Northern Ireland.”
“This commission would have wide-ranging powers to investigate and interview the people of South Sudan — from the poorest farmer to the most powerful politician — to compile a true account of events during the war,” it said, adding: “Those who tell the truth about what they saw or did would be granted amnesty from prosecution — even if they did not express remorse.”
They said although this process might not be straight forward, it would lessen the risk that one side might perceive itself compromised, or held more responsible than the other for the events that occurred.
“That is why we call on the international community, and the United States and Britain in particular, to reconsider one element of the peace agreement to which they are cosignatories: support for a planned international tribunal, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. We call on them instead to commit to global backing for a mediated peace, truth and reconciliation process,” they argued in the purportedly joint article.
The two erstwhile rivals turned peace partners warned that “it is easy to see how some people, having known nothing but war, may prefer to return to the battlefield than stand trial in a foreign country”.
The United States, however, hasn’t responded in the best way the two leaders might have expected.
“We’re disappointed,” said Mark Toner, the deputy spokesman of the US Department of State.
“We firmly support the African Union’s efforts to establish this hybrid court, which is called for by the peace agreement … and we expect the parties to fulfill their responsibilities,” he told a press briefing in Washington DC.
“Reconciliation and justice are not mutually exclusive, which is why the peace agreement includes both elements and why the United States will make every effort to support the formation of both as critical steps in – towards peace and reconciliation and stability in South Sudan.”
The civil society also gave a different opinion from that of the proposal.
“This backpedaling by the TGONU comes amid growing calls for justice and accountability from populations in South Sudan,” said the Transitional Justice Working Group, a consortium of seven civil society organizations.
Although the office of President Salva Kiir has confirmed the authenticity of the article and the intention for the new proposal, that of Dr Riek did the contrary.
“The intention is that [the] President and the First Vice President wanted to inform the international community that you know they have now come back to cooperation and they are [listening] to each other,” Ateny Wek Ateny told the Eye.
“You know they have actually built mutual trust between themselves and they are now for full implementation of the peace [agreement] on the resolution of the conflict in the Republic of South Sudan and they are appealing to [the] international community to help in building [the] nation and reconcile the people of South Sudan in as much as they can,” he said.
But Nyarji Roman, the deputy spokesperson in the office of Dr Riek, sought to distance his boss from the authorship of the proposal.
“Accountability is the only way to peace and reconciliation and healing among the people of South Sudan; accountability will not destabilize efforts to unite our nation,” Mr Nyarji said in a statement.
“The absence of accountability can keep alive the anger and hatred among the families of the victims and the people of South Sudan in general,” he stated.
So, was there no consensus on the proposal before it was published?
“This piece came to us through representatives of the government of South Sudan with assurances that they were working on behalf of both President Kiir and Vice President Machar,” Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in response to enquiry from Eye Radio.
“We learned that Vice President Machar does not agree with the content of the op-ed,” she said, adding: “We should have sought direct confirmation of the argument of the piece from both parties.”
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