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South Sudan Inches Closer to Hybrid Court on Conflict’s Four-year Anniversary

FILE - Rebel fighters hold up their rifles as they walk in front of a bushfire in a rebel-controlled territory in Upper Nile State, South Sudan February 13, 2014.
FILE - Rebel fighters hold up their rifles as they walk in front of a bushfire in a rebel-controlled territory in Upper Nile State, South Sudan February 13, 2014.

A court to try alleged war criminals in South Sudan's conflict was one step closer to reality Friday, the fourth anniversary of the day hostilities began.

South Sudan’s Council of Ministers and the African Union agreed last week to the contents of a document that defines the roles of the so-called "hybrid" court, according to Elizabeth Deng, a Nairobi-based researcher for Amnesty International.

“This is the document that would specify the criminal jurisdiction of the court, that would define the crimes that the court has the competency to investigate and prosecute. The statute would describe the structure and the composition of the court and the appointment procedure for the courts staff,” Deng told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.

A 2015 peace deal between South Sudan's government and rebel groups called on the AU Commission to establish the court to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of violating international or applicable South Sudanese law since the conflict erupted in the capital, Juba. Progress has been excruciatingly slow.

“Over the past two years, the feeling of Amnesty International has been that the government of South Sudan has been a significant factor in delaying the court's establishment. They have been dragging their feet and reluctant ... to ensure it is established quickly,” Deng said.

Parliament is expected to deliberate on the hybrid court statute next. It is not clear when a vote will take place.

Jehanne Henry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the step by the Council of Ministers appears to be progress, but the parliament must act next and act quickly.

“Sending the document to parliament is a step, but it is not necessarily a step that moves this thing forward unless it is followed up by a lot of other steps,” Henry told South Sudan in Focus.

'We must learn lessons'

A policy analyst at the Juba-based Sudd Institute said the conflict has dragged on far too long and cannot continue.

Zachariah Diing Akol said all South Sudanese must stop and reflect on what the nation has gone through and learn from it.

“If it was just the individuals -- two, four or 100 -- we would not be where we are today. What is the power of a few individuals? All of us have fought in one way or the other. All of us must learn lessons,” Akol said.

Akol said the suffering caused by the war has robbed South Sudanese of their livelihoods and dignity.

“Lives have been lost and they continue to be lost. Sources of livelihood of people are destroyed, people don’t do what they used to do; they are relying on others and that is not a comfortable position to be in," Akol said.

Calls for peace from refugees

Meanwhile, hundreds of South Sudanese living in Uganda gathered Friday in Kampala to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the fighting and called on the warring parties to end the conflict.

Martha Nyayiey Gatluak, 22, said she fled to a camp run by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) when war erupted in December 2013. Gatluak spent a year in the camp and later fled to Uganda with her family.

“I am calling on our leaders to bring us back together,” Gatluak said. "From 2013, we don’t party together, we sit in our separate ways. There is a lot of hatred in us, we don’t love each other the way we used to. We should have peace in our country so we can go back as South Sudanese, not as tribes."

The fighting that erupted in Juba in late 2013 quickly spread to other parts of the country and took on ethnic overtones. The International Crisis Group said at least 100,000 people were killed during the first weeks of fighting.

The conflict led to a humanitarian crisis that has forced more than 4 million South Sudanese to flee their homes, with many relocating to Uganda, Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Peaceful dialogue urged

Elizabeth Nyakui Yien, 44, one of those who gathered in Kampala, urged South Sudan’s leaders to end the war through peaceful dialogue.

“My message to the government or the [rebel] IO is that they should think twice because our life is at stake, we are not able to get the basic needs. My children do not go to school and there is not enough food that we get from the U.N.,” Yien told South Sudan in Focus.

And as the country’s leaders gather next week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to try to revive the peace deal, South Sudanese refugees at Uganda’s Morobi settlement say they want their leaders to hear the cries of the more than one million South Sudanese refugees and work towards genuine and lasting peace.

Modi Charles Sekwatoloko, a refugee leader at the settlement, said the refugees want peace more than anything else. He said the country’s leaders must cast aside their differences and be prepared to make concessions.

“They [the refugees] have experienced the suffering here, so they feel if our leaders could really come down and reconcile themselves, then they give us that peace, we shall rejoice,” Sekwatoloko said.

Mugume Davis Rwakaringi, Simon Peter Apiku contributed to this report.

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    John Tanza

    John Tanza works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is the managing editor and host of the South Sudan In Focus radio program.