Last week, a verdict handed down by a South Sudanese military court sparked international media buzz. Rightly so: amidst protracted armed conflict, in which thousands of women have reported being raped by government soldiers, it was a rare moment of accountability for atrocities in South Sudan. Judges sentenced 10 government soldiers for crimes including raping foreign aid workers and murdering a South Sudanese journalist at Juba’s Terrain Hotel in July 2016.
This verdict should stoke international pressure on South Sudan to support the hybrid court and other mechanisms for war crimes justice, not temper it.
The attack on the Terrain hotel was a brutal event that occurred within the context of South Sudan’s armed conflict, and justice in isolation could shore up impunity, not combat it. The defendants sentenced last week were low-ranking soldiers. According to some of our interviews with South Sudanese rape survivors, the investigation and prosecution protected higher-ranking officers who should face justice for their roles in the attacks. Punishing only direct, low-ranking perpetrators would be seen as scapegoating, some said. Such limited judgments also risk sending a message that rape by government soldiers is a rogue act, not orchestrated or overseen by higher-ranking superiors, when statistics and testimony demonstrate that sexual violence is being used as a strategic weapon of war.
Currently, high-ranking military commanders remain free of scrutiny for widespread, unspeakable violence that often disproportionately affects women. The Terrain verdict on its own sends a message that impunity remains in tact for them.
The military court’s order also included compensation for victims, which is an essential component of justice for atrocities that is often left out of criminal trials. But the reparations order was perverse: the judges ruled that each of the rape victims should receive $4,000, while compensation to the hotel owner for damage done to his property in the course of the attack should be $2.2 million.
Last week South Sudanese army spokesperson Colonel Domic Chol Santo told the Associated Press that the army hopes the trial “would act as a deterrent to other soldiers,” and added, “‘This is important because the army has been accused of a great deal of rape, sexual harassment and all forms of violations and its not part of our doctrine.’”
These sentiments are difficult to reconcile with the deliberate maintenance of impunity for atrocities in South Sudan. For years now, the South Sudanese government has failed to make good on its commitment to establish a hybrid court to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. If deterrence and justice for rape by government soldiers were truly a priority, the government would sign an existing memorandum of understanding with the African Union to make progress on the court, and engage in a range of prevention and punishment measures for troops currently deployed in areas where civilians have reported sexual violence and other grave abuses. They would develop a real strategy of prosecution for the thousands of reported army rapes against their own citizens, not prioritize one case in isolation that punishes only foot soldiers, while simultaneously maintaining the broader structures of impunity.
The Terrain verdict shows, in fact, that South Sudanese army is capable of pursuing justice measures, but has deliberately chosen not to do so in the vast majority of rape cases, particularly when the victims are South Sudanese. For these reasons, the international community should ramp up pressure, not back off.