(Opinion in New York Times)
By SALVA KIIR and RIEK MACHAR
JUNE 7, 2016
JUBA, South Sudan — Building a nation is not an easy task. We know this because it is our life’s work.
We once fought together as brothers to win independence for South Sudan from the north. When our new country was born in 2011, we were full of hope. We believed we could move forward as one nation. Yet we then realized that what bonded our people in their quest for freedom was the struggle itself; what held us together in combat could not be so easily sustained in peace.
South Sudan descended into a conflict lasting over two years. By its end, tens of thousands of people had died and over a million and a half were displaced. We are committed to ensuring that our country never again goes through a civil war. After a peace agreement signed in August 2015, we have come together as brothers once more in government, as president and first vice president. Even with our differences — in fact, because of them — we are determined to reconcile our communities and create unity.
But bringing South Sudan together can be truly guaranteed only through one route: an organized peace and reconciliation process with international backing. In such a process, everyone in South Sudan might engage in the act of remembering through dialogue, and by so doing affirm the truth of what happened during our bloody civil war.
We intend to create a national truth and reconciliation commission modeled on those of South Africa and Northern Ireland. This commission would have wide-ranging powers to investigate and interview the people of South Sudan — from the poorest farmer to the most powerful politician — to compile a true account of events during the war. Those who tell the truth about what they saw or did would be granted amnesty from prosecution — even if they did not express remorse.
The purpose of such a process is not to seek forgiveness, but to prepare the people of South Sudan for the immense task ahead: building a nation alongside those who committed crimes against them, their families and communities.
We realize this path is not straightforward, but it will do more than any other to guarantee lasting peace. It would also lessen the risk that one side perceives itself compromised, or held more responsible than the other for the events that occurred.
In contrast to reconciliation, disciplinary justice — even if delivered under international law — would destabilize efforts to unite our nation by keeping alive anger and hatred among the people of South Sudan.
That is why we call on the international community, and the United States and Britain in particular, to reconsider one element of the peace agreement to which they are cosignatories: support for a planned international tribunal, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. We call on them instead to commit to global backing for a mediated peace, truth and reconciliation process.
The international community must consider the current state of our country. Years of war have left South Sudan with one of the highest levels of military spending by gross domestic product in the world. The army and its former opponents now need to be integrated. Over time, tens of thousands of soldiers must be decommissioned and introduced into civilian life.
We fear that this task could be put in jeopardy if members of once opposing forces — from officers to privates — find themselves targeted with legal action. It is easy to see how some people, having known nothing but war, may prefer to return to the battlefield than stand trial in a foreign country.
By taking this path we understand the consequences. We know that it could mean that some South Sudanese guilty of crimes may be included in government, and that they may never face justice in a courtroom. However, there are recent precedents that demonstrate that this route is the most certain guarantee of stability. In Northern Ireland, a peace process brought bitter enemies to the negotiating table under a pledge of legal amnesty, and then into high office. Now, the country has guaranteed peace. The same is possible in South Sudan.
We do not wish to forget what happened during our civil conflict. Indeed, the recollection of the catastrophe unleashed during those terrible months must remain in our memories as a warning. Neither side won our war. But both sides, together, must now win the peace. That is all that matters. In that quest, it is why anything that might divide our nation is against our people’s best interests.
Salva Kiir and Riek Machar are the president and first vice president of the Republic of South Sudan, respectively.