Today, South Sudan celebrates the fifth anniversary of its independence—its first since warring parties signed the Agreement on Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan last August. The costs of the civil war, which commenced in December 2013, have been staggering for the world’s newest nation: more than 50,000 South Sudanese dead; roughly 1.69 million internally displaced; 720,000  refugees who have spilled across South Sudan’s borders; the recruitment of more than 16,000 child soldiers; and egregious human rights abuses, including ethnically targeted rape and killing. As strong supporters of South Sudan’s independence, we were troubled to see Juba head down a path of violence and division rather than unity and prosperity. Now, we stand ready to help the country put itself back together. And we believe the key to that is justice. 

A key element of the peace agreement that ended South Sudan’s civil war calls for the African Union Commission to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan: an African-led independent hybrid judicial court to investigate and prosecute individuals bearing responsibility for these atrocities. This provision would put South Sudan on the path toward transitional justice that has eluded its citizens in the past. In recent months, however, concerns have arisen that elements within South Sudan’s transitional government  believe that South Sudan needs “truth, not trials.” This position confirms a report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which found little political will between the previously warring parties to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Breaking the cycle of violence and suffering requires breaking the cycle of impunity.  Sadly, evading justice is not new to South Sudan.  The African Union Commission of Inquiry, established after the war started, cited an “intractable culture of impunity” in South Sudan. The South Sudanese who spoke to the Commission want to hear their leaders own up to the wrongs they committed.  The African Union Commission found that justice and reconciliation are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, reconciliation is dependent on justice, and victims are unlikely to embrace reconciliation if those who committed atrocities are not held accountable.  They find it “difficult to envision a stable society where violations of human rights are normalized and impunity reigns.”

We agree. 

The people of South Sudan deserve justice, and their long-awaited peace agreement provides a pathway for them to attain it. But that justice will be out of reach if the African Union Commission is impeded from establishing the Hybrid Court.

Transitional justice measures in South Sudan are the best way to secure justice for the citizens of South Sudan and prevent further human rights violations. As a longtime friend of the South Sudanese people, the United States will continue to support the implementation of the peace agreement. As Members of Congress, we stand with South Sudan’s transitional government as it establishes the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing, and with the African Union Commission as it establishes the Hybrid Court. We hope that those affected by this conflict are able to partake in reconciliation, and that those responsible for horrific crimes during this war face justice. And we hope that, as the country enters its sixth year, South Sudan’s leaders do what’s best for their people and support both justice and reconciliation.

Rep. Engel is Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Smith is Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee, Rep. Bass is Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations Subcommittee, and Reps. Lee and Rooney are Co-Chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Sudan & South Sudan.