Is reconciliation possible in South Sudan?

If impunity is the cost of peace, how can societies recover from violent conflict?

Rebecca Tinsley
11 November 2015

A South Sudanese man holding a Heckler and Koch G3 rifle. Credit: Steve Evans/Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

When diplomats met in Vienna at the end of October to try to break the ongoing stalemate in Syria, they were divided on whether President Assad should stay in power. Garnering less attention but tackling equally unpalatable choices, the African Union has finally published its report on the civil war in South Sudan. In both cases, the victims of conflict will probably be denied the justice they deserve, and it’s doubtful whether sufficient political will exists to deliver the truth-telling mechanisms that are necessary for genuine, long-term peace to take hold.

At the heart of both of these dismal situations is an uncomfortable trade-off: the need to grant immunity to those responsible for the misery in order to achieve a lasting ceasefire. In situations of conflict, the choice is often framed as peace or justice. But even if the guns fall silent, how can a process of testimony, restitution, reparations, peace-making and reconciliation take place when those in power are the ones who are ripping society apart?

In the burgeoning peace-making and conciliation sector it is widely accepted that nations will struggle to recover from civil war unless they pass through several stages following a ceasefire. These include finding a common understanding of their recent history to explain what has happened; allowing people to tell their stories without fear; and establishing a form of justice which has the grass roots credibility to command the respect of the population.

Healing can also depend on the acknowledgement that a terrible wrong has been done to individuals or groups, and therefore requires some form of symbolic memorialization through physical monuments or national days of remembrance. Ideally, a national dialogue can produce a commonly shared determination to punish those responsible and deter similar events in the future.

But how is any of this possible when, to put it bluntly, the ruling elites in both Syria and South Sudan have little interest in allowing the truth to emerge, nor care about stopping the violence?

In South Sudan the feuding rivals, President Salva Kiir Mayardit and former Vice-President Riek Machar have overseen immense human suffering since disagreements between them in December 2013 spiralled into a civil war. Kiir and Machar have bewildered diplomats with their blatant indifference to the plight of their people. Yet, unlike President Assad in Syria, both were democratically elected in 2010. That’s why the ‘international community,’ which has invested so much trust and treasure in the world’s newest nation, treads so warily.

In 2014 the US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed outrage that South Sudan’s leaders showed so little concern for the destruction their rivalry has caused: more than two million displaced people, and as many as 50,000 killed.

The United Nations has considered sanctioning Kiir and Machar, and barring them from involvement in a transitional government. Yet, several local NGOs reject international interference, believing that sanctions and disbarment will hinder peace because of both men’s capacity to prolong the war. In an email sent to me on November 7th 2015, South Sudan commentator Mawan Muortat argued that each community has rallied behind their figurehead (Dinka behind Kiir and Nuer behind Machar) for fear of obliteration or marginalisation. Any solution that excludes either Kiir or Machar from the 30-month transitional government, he says, will be rejected by either community.

"It is extremely important,” Muortat writes, “that mechanisms for smooth and peaceful transfer of power are given the space to develop. Many South Sudanese communities are still entrenched in their belief in collective guilt, so the idea of indicting their leaders (culpable as they may be) will play into the hands of the extremists and will not break the cycle of violence. It is therefore not the most effective way of attaining sustainable peace."

The Africa Union (AU) agrees, although it has a less than inspiring track record in such circumstances, tending to prioritize the legal immunity of African leaders over the needs of the population. Nevertheless, a minority AU report published in October 2015 makes the argument that Kiir and Machar are central to the problem, not part of the solution.

So how does a shattered society heal when 41 per cent of those questioned in a recent survey showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder? The most frequently experienced traumatic event cited in the survey was the killing of a close family member, followed by the destruction of the respondent’s home.

When asked how best their community could move forward, the vast majority of those questioned stressed the importance of rebuilding social relations through restorative justice, including apology and confession. Yet when asked what should happen to the leaders responsible for the conflict, 93 per cent wanted them prosecuted in courts of law, and 35 per cent wanted them executed. In other words, they wanted justice through retribution. How will those who have lost family members, homes and livelihoods feel if the political elite is neither sanctioned nor banned from office?

A joint South Sudan Law Society and UNDP report published in 2015 calls for truth-telling mechanisms to be established in order to examine the decades of long-standing grievances that lie behind the outbreak of current hostilities, rather than focusing only on events since December 2013 when the civil war broke out. This process must also address “a culture of impunity in the political and military class, the silence and denial that accompany mass human rights abuses, and the mental health consequences of decades of trauma.” In addition, the report calls for recognition that the traumatized 41 per cent of the population may require a different process of truth-telling and reconciliation: one size does not fit all.

Civil society groups in South Sudan (often in the form of the church) have consistently called for the nation’s leaders to put the interests of the country’s ten million citizens before their own. Diaspora groups and local NGOs have pressed for community-based reconciliation, yet civil society is often excluded from national or international peace-making processes.

In a new country with low levels of literacy and popular involvement in the political process, civil society represents a way in which otherwise-excluded voices such as women, young people and those who don’t belong to militias can have a stake in peace-building. Grass roots participation would enable local ownership of the peace process. It might take the form of local truth and reconciliation commissions at which people strive to find a common understanding of unresolved grievances going back decades.

These traditional forms of dialogue might be more suited to restitution and apology than a top-down mechanism imposed by national government, or worse, by the international community. A traditional form of disputed settlement called "gacaca" was used with some degree of success in post-genocide Rwanda, enabling more than a million cases to be heard. This would not have been possible using conventional judicial structures in Rwanda because of the huge backlog of cases and the shortage of qualified judges.

International donors could play a role in funding local justice mechanisms like these that were accepted as credible by South Sudan’s citizens. If this sounds expensive, then consider the cost of a continuing war in which nearly five million people face acute hunger and are dependent on international food aid.

Rather than continuing to pour money into the bank accounts of the kleptomaniac elite, other nations could support local civil society efforts to offer culturally appropriate processes of trauma counselling, truth-telling and restorative justice. Anything less postpones the inevitable slide back into conflict where the only losers are the long-suffering citizens of South Sudan.

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