UNITED NATIONS — The leader of South Sudan’s armed opposition, Riek Machar, said he bears responsibility for the eruption of violence in his country and welcomed the formation of a hybrid court to try those responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes during the 21-month civil war.
He said in an interview with Al Jazeera that the creation of a hybrid court and a truth and reconciliation commission are “important aspects of the peace agreement” and would apply to his forces in the event of any investigation. “We don’t protect perpetrators. They must face the law,” he said.
Speaking after a meeting of world leaders on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, Machar said took responsibility for the eruption of violence but that he had “no choice.”
“We made a decision to fight, to resist the onslaught of government on us, and therefore I have responsibility,” he said.
“It takes two to tango, you know? It takes two people to fight, to go to war. Since we made the initial decision that there is no other way — to resist the government by force of arms — we take the responsibility that there will be displacement, there will be death and all that,” he said.
South Sudan erupted into war in December 2013 between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Riek Machar, his former vice president and an ethnic Nuer. Kiir has long blamed Machar for attempting a coup, which Machar denies. The United Nations estimates that tens of thousands of people have died and at least 2 million people have been displaced since the fighting began.
Much of the violence has taken on an ethnic dimension. Jan Eliasson, the United Nations deputy secretary-general, said reports of violence were “some of the worst he has ever seen.” On Monday, Agence France-Presse reported on “rape camps,” where government-allied forces allegedly hold thousands of abducted women and subject them to rape and slavelike working conditions.
The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council — the AU’s equivalent of the U.N. Security Council — on Tuesday called for creation of a special court to try war crime suspects in South Sudan. In a statement, the AU said a commission of inquiry formed last year found evidence that both sides commit murder, looting, rape, torture and other abuses. The inquiry findings have not yet been made public.
World leaders gathered on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly meetings to build support for an Aug. 26 cease-fire. Amid reports of continued fighting, many called on Machar and Kiir to abide by the peace agreement. “South Sudan’s leaders have a chance to correct their grave mistakes and focus on the well-being of those who entrusted them with this role,” said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Kiir did not attend the summit in person. In a speech by videoconference from the capital, Juba, he blamed Machar’s forces for violations of the cease-fire and said he remains committed to the peace deal despite his “reservations.”
“I know that there are people who doubt my commitment to honor the agreement,” said Kiir. “Let me assure you that since I signed the agreement, my commitment to its implementation is unwavering and I will prove the doubting Thomases wrong.”
Machar, who was the penultimate speaker at the two-hour meeting, said that he was disappointed Kiir was not in the room and that his absence sent a message against peace to citizens of South Sudan. “This would have been an opportunity for me and him to work out certain aspects of what public message we would be giving to the country,” Machar said after the meeting.
Despite sporadic fighting, the two sides appear to be moving forward with certain aspects of the deal. The government recently announced that it began preparations to demilitarize Juba — one the cease-fire’s most controversial items. Also, both sides attended a conference on security arrangements in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Under the deal, opposition fighters would be integrated into a unified army. Machar said many security arrangements still need to be worked out, including how many government and opposition soldiers will be allowed to remain near the cities of Bor, Malakal, Bentiu and Juba and how to undertake cantonment, as stipulated in the peace deal. He hoped to be able to return to Juba by the end of December, he said, when he would take up his post as first vice president, as stipulated in the agreement.
Machar called on the international community to send more money to support the peace process. The money would be used to disseminate copies of the peace agreement and to buy food and tents for soldiers during the the transitional period, he said.
He also called on Kiir to adhere to conditions of the deal in good faith, even while acknowledging his role in the war. Referring to Kiir’s open resentment of him and his forces, he said, "These are issues that are bygones. Because if you open them up, you open up Pandora’s box."