Andrew Bogrand is a senior communications and outreach officer at Democracy International.
Charged with raping five foreign aid workers and killing their colleague last summer, soldiers from the South Sudan military are facing their accusers in a closed-door military court this month in Juba. The alleged attack, and the government of South Sudan’s questionable response, received widespread condemnation. Given the high visibility of the case, the soldiers are not the only ones facing trial. In the world’s newest country, the government’s ability to administer justice is also being judged.
Unfortunately, while the fate of the soldiers is unclear, the verdict on the government is all but determined. The rule of law is nonexistent in South Sudan and mass rape remains a tool of war. The high degree of international advocacy that motivated the government of South Sudan to convene the military court, including pressure from Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), has not created a process to ensure justice for South Sudanese victims. There is no serious political will, let alone resources, to resolve their cases. The court is little more than a show trial for Western governments.
But not all endeavors to deliver justice in South Sudan are a “sham,” as the South Sudan Human Rights Observatory has referred to the case of the soldiers. Ironically, one of the more legitimate efforts involves a troupe of South Sudanese playwrights who administer their own mock trials. Their work should be instructive in the search for peace.
The troupe, a Shakespearean theater company that achieved minor fame in London, has transformed itself into a roving citizen forum where participants air grievances, host mock trials and share potential ideas for reparations. The forums are immensely popular, especially in South Sudan’s remote villages. Their efforts are supported by other remarkable grass-roots organizations, including a youth network of 200 trained volunteers, who collect testimonies and provide grief counseling across the country. While the military court has earned more media attention, these playwrights, artists and activists are working behind the scenes to get to the fundamental challenges of life and justice in a failed state.
By most accounts, the strikingly inhumane levels of violence in South Sudan render useless any restorative model of forward-looking reconciliation, such as those employed in South Africa. At this point, justice — or, at least, the hope for an end to the impunity — has become a prerequisite for peace. This is evidenced by the popularity of the mock trials and public forums: There are no formally trained judges in the audience, and participants presumably know that the perpetrators are unlikely to ever face prosecution. Yet, victims still share their stories.
It might be the case that self-expression is more cathartic than any courtroom ritual. This is partly the rationale behind the Russian rights group Memorial, which focuses on recording abuses under the Soviet Union, and the work of a forensics organization collecting testimonies from the Guatemalan genocide. At the very least, some victims in South Sudan are finding a way forward through public testimony that is uniquely South Sudanese, even if the efforts are guided by Shakespearean actors.
Of course, South Sudan’s nascent civil society is woefully unequipped to fully address the scope of abuse or prevent the country’s downward trajectory alone. The pool of victims is essentially endless and efforts to monitor human rights abuses are inhibited by ongoing fighting and an increasingly paranoid government. Public forums are rudimentary and risk dissolving into mob justice.
But the international community could better support these imperfect efforts. While many local activists have fled, those that remain could use better training and more robust protection when they discuss and expose violations. Donor organizations should consider repurposing funds allocated for implementing the stillborn 2015 peace agreement into support for public forums, hearings and domestic human rights research. And the South Sudan “troika” — comprising the U.S., United Kingdom and Norwegian governments — should use their considerable leverage to push for war crimes documentation, including through regional bodies.
It is past time to change course in South Sudan. Instead of the international community’s current approach of heavy-handed idealism, the country needs a rights-based transitional justice strategy informed by South Sudanese citizens. It will eventually require institutional reform, a peace accord and an effective justice system, none of which are currently on the horizon. But for now, any hope for progress involves space for testimonies, hearings and self-expression — even if delivered through trials without consequence.