As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, I visited South Sudan in May 2012, less than a year after its people voted for a better future as an independent nation state.
There were human rights issues to address but also a great optimism. I returned in April 2014, and found my hopes shattered.
Then, I was made hopeful by discussions with South Sudan’s leaders on discrimination and violence against women. The president and senior officials seemed committed to supporting girls’ empowerment and education.
I had returned in April, four months after tensions within the county’s ruling party Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) boiled over into armed conflict in the capital, Juba. Violence spread rapidly among security forces, with civilians targeted based on their ethnicity or assumed political affiliation.
Armed thugs roamed the countryside, raping women and children and taking them as sex slaves. My hopes were shattered.
The ruthlessness of sexual violence in South Sudan brings back memories of Rwanda. In 1998, while serving as a judge on the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, my colleagues and I heard horrendous stories of mass rapes and other sexual crimes.
In our judgment in the case of The Prosecutor vs. Jean Paul Akayesu, we held that sexual violence in war could constitute genocide and crimes against humanity as well as torture.
We found that sexual violence was used as an instrument of war aimed at the systematic destruction of Tutsi women and the Tutsi group as a whole.
While South Sudan is not experiencing genocide, the levels of sexual violence are no less shocking. Zainab Bangura, the UN’s envoy for sexual violence in conflict, recently said she has not witnessed a situation worse than South Sudan in her 30 years’ experience.
One of the main reasons we are seeing such extreme sexual violence in South Sudan is the country’s pervasive culture of impunity. The perpetrators — including members of the police, army, and armed militias — know that there is no rigorous justice system and almost no risk of consequences. Unless this changes, the frequency and brutality of sexual violence will rise as one cycle of violence fuels the next.
For those seeking justice, accountability, and an end to the country’s longstanding culture of impunity, the African Union’s commission of inquiry on South Sudan is a beacon of light.
Under the leadership of former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, the commission’s final report is expected to be a damning document that details countless human rights violations and even lists names of those recommended for trial. This is what the beginnings of accountability should look like.
Ms Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, is to be commended for her leadership in forming the first-ever African Union investigation of mass human rights violations on our continent.
Now she faces an even bigger challenge to see life breathed into the commission’s recommendations. It is critical that the African Union Peace and Security Council make Mr Obasanjo’s report public and act upon its recommendation to establish a credible accountability mechanism for South Sudan.
We need accountability and justice to stem the tide of human rights abuses spreading across much of South Sudan. The threat of criminal prosecution can act as a powerful deterrent and may even help convince the warring parties that they have more gain by laying down their guns and committing to the (more difficult) task of making peace and rebuilding their country.
There have been tremendous advances in tackling impunity for serious crimes over the past 20 years, in particular through the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the International Criminal Court.
While international and national accountability processes have contributed immensely to challenging impunity for violations of international law, such efforts on their own cannot stop the cycle completely. Political will on the part of governments is essential and usually constitutes the biggest obstacle.
If the government of South Sudan is not willing or able to put a stop to this insidious form of violence that targets women and girls, the international community has a responsibility to step in.
As African heads of state and AU officials convene in Addis Ababa for the 24th AU Summit, they must do all they can to ensure that the report from Mr Obasanjo’s commission of inquiry represents the beginning of the end of impunity in South Sudan.
Ms Pillay was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014.