The world’s newest country, South Sudan, has descended into chaos, and there is no court to try the most gruesome war crimes. The jubilation that met its liberation and independence six years ago has turned into disgust as government and opposition forces have systematically butchered their fellow men, women and children.
In a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council this week, the UN Commission on Human Rights has reported that troops are slitting throats, gouging out eyes, castrating and mutilating men, and gang-raping men and women on a massive scale. Harrowing witness testimony and thousands of documents tie more than 40 senior military officers and officials to the crimes, who need to be prosecuted.
The question we need to ask is how the situation could have degenerated to this level of barbarity when the AU was established in 2001 in order to ensure that such war crimes and gross violations of human rights would never happen again.
The horrors of the Rwandan genocide had spurred the continent's leaders to commit themselves to intervene rapidly to halt any future war crimes. But for all the AU’s theorising about rapid reaction forces, we have failed yet again to protect the victims from sheer and systematic brutality.
It is hard to imagine the horror that the civilians of South Sudan have been living through, as it is so far removed from our daily reality. The UN secretary-general has said, “I’ve never seen a political elite with so little interest in the well-being of its own people.” One commissioner has noted that the atrocities and violations are no longer confined to a few parts but are spread across the entire country.
It is not like this happened overnight or that we were oblivious to it. For months, and even years, we have been made fully aware of the travesty of justice that has been taking place. In the more than four years since the violent conflict erupted in 2013, 4 million South Sudanese have been displaced. There has been a plethora of reports that fighters are deliberately targeting civilians on the basis of ethnic identity.
So what exactly has been the response of the new AU Commission chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat? There is no doubt that he fully appreciates the tragedy given that he said at the recent AU Summit, “In South Sudan, we cannot understand the insane violence that the belligerents inflict, with indescribable cruelty, on a population that has suffered too much.”
But his solution hardly measures up to what the AU pledged at its inception. What he has proposed is to impose targeted sanctions on those who are obstructing peace. That is what one would have expected from the chairperson of the Organisation of African Unity, not the AU.
Surely Mahamat can be under no illusion that targeted sanctions are largely symbolic to show the AU is taking action, but they will never stop the carnage. That is because the rationale behind the violence is a fight for the spoils of the state - a desperate race to loot every resource for personal enrichment. No manner of targeted sanctions is going to deter the kleptocrats from their fundamental mission, nor will it end their reign of terror.
As for the UN Security Council, for four years it has been resisting imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan. This is not atypical of the apex body charged with maintaining international peace and security. But at least the council decided in August last year to deploy a Regional Protection Force to secure the capital, which would then allow the UN troops already deployed to be reassigned to different locations across the country to protect civilians, support humanitarian assistance, monitor and report on human rights abuses.
Currently, 200 000 internally displaced people are being protected on UN bases, but the sites only cover a fraction of the civilians in need of protection.
The crisis is clearly of such a magnitude that the AU does not have the resources to respond. But where the AU must be expected to act immediately is in the establishment of a hybrid court to try those responsible for grave human rights abuses. It has procrastinated for two and a half years in establishing a court as provided for in the 2015 peace agreement. The establishment was also recommended by the AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan.
Given all the AU’s criticism of the International Criminal Court, there is no excuse why the AU has not already operationalised such a court, with or without the co-operation of the government of South Sudan.
It is time to give the victims some redress.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor