We, the People of South Sudan... Dedicated to a genuine national healing process and the building of trust and confidence in our society through dialogue...

Terrible things have been done in South Sudan, by South Sudanese to South Sudanese, during the war. There has been no closure for many people. They see the perpetrators still benefiting; there is impunity. There is no sense of justice (or, since the word “justice” is perceived as somewhat devalued in Africa recently due to the International Criminal Court, perhaps “fairness” is a better term.). There has been no compensation for people who have suffered.

Nevertheless, we need to recognise the need for transition. The concepts of transitional justice and transitional democracy are gaining acceptance in the world. Kenya and Zimbabwe are both examples of the latter. Their makeshift coalitions are not perfect by any means, but they stopped the killing and provided a space for attempts to resolve the issues peacefully. It will not serve any purpose simply to start arresting people in South Sudan for their part in the atrocities. Indeed you could end up arresting most of the adult male population, including virtually the whole government, as almost nobody has clean hands in decades of bloody wars. Clumsy premature attempts could cause a government collapse, which would certainly not bring peace and stability, nor healing. Indeed old wounds could be reopened and new ones started in a further cycle of violence.

So we might ask what level of reconciliation do we want? Full-scale reconciliation, with the implication that all issues have been satisfactorily resolved? That is certainly an ideal to work towards. But in the short term, we might need to look at a more limited goal. Perhaps “the least we can live with without killing each other” would be worthwhile? If we could stop the hate speech and stereotyping, stop the cycle of revenge, it could at least present a window of opportunity for the new nation to begin healing itself. I call it “transitional reconciliation”. I don’t know if that term has been used elsewhere; maybe I have just invented it!

Let us look briefly at a false dichotomy which is often presented between peace and justice. There is a perception that justice is sometimes being sacrificed in order to bring about peace. But this is based on a consideration of only one model of justice: retributive justice. There are also others, including restorative justice.

Retributive justice recognises that a crime has been committed and concentrates on finding and punishing the guilty party. It is done by state actors (particularly the police and the courts) and in many ways it marginalises and disempowers the victims. Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognises that something has gone wrong and needs to be put right in a way that benefits the most people and rights the wrong that was done. It might involve punishment but not necessarily. Both victim and perpetrator are involved in the process. Relationships are important in Africa and restorative justice appears to fit well with African tradition: restoring the relationships which were broken by the wrong actions.

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