February 24, 2014 – Although there is no specific agenda for the planned South Sudan peace talks in Addis Ababa, most discussions will likely revolve around power sharing, the status of each side’s armed forces and negotiations on a transition of power. But there is one missing ingredient: justice and accountability. For a lasting peace, South Sudanese must be given a chance to take a look at the social dimension of this conflict and push for honest accountability for crimes committed by either side during the past two months. South Sudanese have already been vocal on the importance of accountability. Now, regional and international stakeholders must mount pressure on the two parties to consider issues of justice and accountability as a component of these talks and push for a hybrid court to deal with these crimes.

It is absolutely undeniable that serious human rights crimes have been committed in South Sudan. There has been continuous call by the African Union, the U.N., and many other organizations that those accused of such crimes should be held accountable. Now that the cessation of hostilities has been signed, it is time to properly collect and document these crimes so that this evidence is available for future reference. In light of the weakness of national legal institutions in South Sudan to bring influential persons to book, we will need external support to make this happen. The African Union has already set up its own Commission of Inquiry, but that is not enough.

After his last visit to Bor town, the U.N. assistant secretary general for human rights, Mr. Ivan Simonovi?, confirmed that grave human rights atrocities might have been committed during this conflict by both sides. “Bor is empty and Bentiu does not exist anymore; it has been wiped out. It has not been only looted, it has been burned,” Mr Simonovic told the BBC.  Those responsible must be held to account for these acts. U.N. World Food Programme and many other humanitarian organizations operating in areas affected by this conflict confirmed that their assets and warehouses were looted or destroyed. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) condemned the looting of its facility in Bentiu. Other human rights violations such as forced disappearance, targeting along ethnic lines, summary execution, rape and other forms of violations have been widely reported. U.N. and other sources including the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) produced imagery reports confirming intentional razing of dwellings belonging to civilians in Bor,  Malakal, and numerous locations across Unity state including Riek Machar’s hometown Leer.  Everyday, more victims and survivors share the stories of unbearable inhumane experiences they have endured during this conflict.

Last year, African leaders pleaded to defer International Criminal Court cases against African leaders until they leave office. This undermines the goal of justice and accountability. Deferring prosecution both encourages current African leaders to commit more crimes while in office and assists them to resist peaceful transitioning of power to avoid prosecution. In a new country like South Sudan, which is finding its way towards political stability, allowing impunity to prevail could be incredibly damaging. To combat this trend, hybrid or mixed courts should be established, allowing South Sudan to retain its sovereignty over the process while increasing the effort’s credibility. A hybrid or mixed court should have a clear mandate to fully investigate and prosecute individuals charged with heinous crimes during this conflict and perhaps for crimes committed during the past two years in South Sudan.  This will help in incorporating grievances of helpless civilians who were indiscriminately victimized, with no other option for redress.

Supreme legal institutions in the country have intentionally silenced crimes committed under the umbrella of political conflicts over the past few years. Under the theme of “high” national security interests, authorities in South Sudan have ignored accountability. Peace and justice must work in parallel. However, in South Sudan, our government has warmly and wholeheartedly welcomed potential war criminals without any procedures to hold them responsible for their criminal acts.

Aside from “government-baked” community organizations, there is a need for engaging organizations that present different voices of South Sudanese communities. Countries and institutions that have leverage on African countries need to be sensitized and mobilized to support the case for accountability. They can engage in constructive and objective dialogue with members of the AU. Worth noting here is the important role that key international stakeholders could play in this situation. The US, UK and Norway – being the biggest supporters of South Sudan in terms of humanitarian and non-humanitarian assistance – could use their leverage to mount more pressure on the two parties to ensure the inclusion of justice and accountability on the agenda of the peace process. This will not only furnish the credibility of these countries in the eyes of civil society organizations, but it will also contribute to the achievement of overall development goals that are needed to help establish a stable legal system and justice in South Sudan.

Despite the gravity of the current political and security situation, this crisis is an opportunity for an honest and bold debate on whether rule of law should persist. It is also a chance to support South Sudan in developing a credible and robust legal system in the world’s newest country.