Justice in Pibor

Last week, Human Rights Watch reported on abuses by the SPLA in Jonglei’s Pibor county. The report offers important testimony of specific incidents, providing the detail of individual tragedy all too often overlooked in the ongoing conflict in Jonglei:

SPLA soldiers approached a group of civilian men playing a traditional board game and demanded that the men hand over their guns. The men gave the SPLA two rifles. The SPLA then tied up the men into two groups of seven. The soldiers executed the men in one group at the site and took the men in the other group some distance away and shot them. One man, shot in the shoulder and left for dead, survived the shooting and was later found by other community members.

It’s worth reading HRW’s report in conjunction with Challenges of Accountability, written by David Deng, and published earlier this year by the South Sudan Law Society. Deng observes:

There is no statutory court judge or prosecutor based in Pibor. As a result, the customary court system handles the vast majority of disputes, including most instances of homicide. Unlike the statutory system, the customary system is not empowered to handle cases involving the SPLA. Without statutory judges and judge advocates to hold soldiers to account, most crimes committed by the thousands of soldiers stationed in Pibor—whether the crimes are military or civilian in nature—go largely unpunished.

What justice is possible for Pibor? Or needed? HRW asks for further investigation of allegations against SPLA forces and more prosecutions of suspected violators, the transfer of soldiers and commanders accused of abuses in Pibor, and greater consultation between SPLA commanders and community leaders in future.

The SPLA claims it has acted against abuses in Pibor, relieving the general in command of forces in Pibor, Brigadier General James Otong, in August.  There also appears to be some momentum for further prosecutions, now that specific incidents have been more widely publicised.

Sadly, I’m doubtful this will be enough to prevent future incidents.  SPLA reforms and improvements in military discipline and justice are certainly needed.  But until the institutions of law and order, of which the SPLA is at the apex, stops seeing residents of Pibor as ‘bad’ Murle and starts seeing all who live there as citizens of South Sudan, whose communities have more in common than that which divides them, even the basest norms of decency will be all too easy to ignore.

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