The African Union’s long-awaited report on the crisis in South Sudan strongly makes the case that sustainable peace must not only address justice for victims of atrocities but also tackle the underlying economic sources of the conflict, which Enough argues include the pursuit by individuals of their own economic interests at the expense of the South Sudanese people.
The AU report’s substantive focus on human rights abuses committed by the government and rebels, including their affiliate militias, in various locations in the country, is commendable and important for both understanding the human toll of the conflict and also for devising strategies for healing. The report’s emphasis on reconciliation, peace, justice, and institutional reforms holds the potential for a new beginning for South Sudanese leaders.
The report sheds light on events leading up to the massacre in Juba in December 2013, and the AU Commission of Inquiry deduces that the killing of Nuer people at that time were “crimes committed pursuant to or in furtherance of a State policy.”
Likewise, the report’s documentation of targeted killings based on ethnicity perpetrated by the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement-In Opposition (SPLM-IO) in towns such as Malakal, Bor, and Bentiu provide important information for understanding the culpability of the rebels.
The focus on recruitment of children into government and rebel armies and the extensive sexual and gender-based violence committed by both sides exposes the diversity of the atrocity crimes in the conflict. In concluding that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that these crimes were committed in a wide spread or systematic manner, and that evidence points to the existence of a state or organizational policy to launch attacks against civilians based on their ethnicity or political affiliation,” the report is a powerful reminder of the need to bring the perpetrators to account for their actions.
Of important note is the report’s identification of the underlying sources of conflict in South Sudan. The report identifies crippling capacity shortfalls in almost all of the country’s institutions and exposes how these issues helped fuel dissent, anger, resentment, and friction among communities in South Sudan. With regard to the genesis of the ongoing conflict, the report notes that significant weaknesses in the internal institutions of the ruling SPLM party were instrumental in triggering the country’s descent into civil war.
Most significantly, however, the report highlights how economic factors played a key role in contributing to the outbreak of war. Specifically, the report draws attention to pervasive weaknesses in the management, allocation, and distribution of the country’s natural resources. The report underscores that factors such as corruption and the unequal distribution of oil proceeds greatly compromised the government’s capacity to deliver services, thus fueling anger and resentment within the population.
The factors described above served as the key ingredients that fueled the war in South Sudan, and these findings shape the substance of key recommendations in the report.
In addition to calling for institutional reforms, the report’s recommendations on human rights hit the right notes and point toward ratification of all international pacts on human rights by the government, strengthening of national institutions for protection of human rights, and building a cogent disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program to transform the security forces.
The report notes that there is support for holding the two principals in this conflict—President Salva Kiir and SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar—accountable for the atrocities. The report’s heavier emphasis, however, on truth-telling, reconciliation, traditional justice, reparations, and institutional reforms risks overshadowing and underestimating the South Sudanese public’s appetite for the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of violence according to international standards as part of a process for achieving holistic justice in South Sudan.
In light of the fact that international law was broken and the fact that the report identifies reasonable grounds to believe that the atrocities amount to crimes against humanity, recommending that “those with the greatest responsibility for the atrocities at the highest level” be held accountable, it is our contention that this is a crucial aspect for justice and that emphasis on prosecution should be prioritized.
With regard to the economic factors of the conflict, the report underscores that the “struggle for political power and control of natural resources revenue, corruption and nepotism” were key factors behind the outbreak of conflict. Consequently, the report notes that the mismanagement of oil revenues caused frustration among different groups in the country. The report adds that the resources of the country, including oil revenues, have largely come under the purview of “top politicians and their families” at the expense of the general populace.
To address this situation, the report recommends sound measures in resource governance: the strengthening of legal frameworks and equitable distribution of natural resource revenues.
It is important to observe, however, that the recommendations are notably silent on prosecuting economic crimes, despite the direct relevance of economic factors in contributing to war.
We contend that economic crimes constitute a major reason for the outbreak of conflict in South Sudan. In this respect, we support the role of the proposed hybrid court spelled out in the August 2015 peace agreement, which includes the prosecution of economic crimes. In this light, steps must be taken to ensure that the court has the necessary funding and the legal and technical resources to enable it to investigate and prosecute economic crimes, including pillage and grand corruption.
The signed peace agreement also gives the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) a significant role in resource and financial oversight. Nevertheless, given the commission’s vast mandate, it is important that JMEC identify and prioritize specific financial accountability and transparency interventions that have the greatest potential for stabilizing the economy and ending impunity for economic crimes, such as closing all non-official oil accounts.
In addition, support for civil society referenced in the commission’s report should focus on strengthening South Sudanese-led efforts to press for the full implementation of South Sudan’s own beneficial ownership and public disclosure rules.
The looting of South Sudan’s natural resource wealth by a clique of high-level elites reflects the practices of a kleptocracy that must be dismantled. In addition to strong support for JMEC and the hybrid court, the international community should also invest in global efforts to trace, seize, freeze, and return the proceeds of corruption back to the people of South Sudan. Finally, the U.S. and other partners should maintain the threat of targeted sanctions by continuing their efforts to identify the assets of politically exposed elites who threaten the implementation of the peace agreement for their own political or economic gain.