The search for truth, reconciliation, and healing in South Sudan

May 6, 2024

Search for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing Community Gatherings


In 2021, Ms. Assumpta (not real name) reported at a survivor meeting how she was raped at night by four men in front of her six children infecting her with diseases and leaving her traumatized with unbearable pain and fear. Assumpta now lives with a sense of shame and worries about the enduring effect the assault may have on her children!

Given the devastating impact of this experience, Ms. Assumpta and her children relocated to Uganda where they live in a refugee camp. Her children dropped out of school. Her livelihood collapsed. This deprivation and economic anguish in a foreign land has heightened psychological distress on Ms. Assumpta and her family.

Yet Assumpta is not alone. Many people in South Sudan especially women and girls have endured similar and other injustices during the protracted conflict. With UNDP support and funding of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Peacebuilding Fund, a total of 82 Victim Support Groups were established across the country in 2022 and 2023 to provide safe spaces for 4,098 victims of past abuses to receive health services, therapeutic counseling and healing, and redress support from courts and the anticipated Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, Compensation and Reparations Authority and the Hybrid Court.

Ending Decades of abuses

For more than two decades, South Sudan experienced a protracted conflict that caused suffering, widespread abuses, including murders, disappearances, sexual violence, confiscation of land and destruction of properties.

After the signing of the Revitalized Peace Agreement in 2018, the new government of national unity committed to undertaking a transitional justice process to address the large-scale human rights violations of the past. 

Community gatherings in search of Truth, Reconciliation and Healing


Search for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing

In 2020, UNDP, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Mission in South Sudan were requested to support the government to set up the processes to uncover the truth, promote reconciliation and accountability, and put the country on the path to sustainable peace and development. Through this support, nationwide public consultations were launched in April 2022 during which 4,543 people (1,463 women) in all 10 States, three Administrative Areas and refugees living in Ethiopia were consulted and gave views on the design of the Commission for Truth Reconciliation and Healing, and the law establishing it.

The consultations were a defining point of the South Sudan government’s resolve to break with a past of systematic abuses and recommit to justice and accountability. Since then, the Government has also drafted the Bill in line with the views of the people as well as another Bill to establish the Compensation and Reparations Authority which will be an essential mechanism to compensate affected victims.

Once established, the Commission for Truth Reconciliation and Healing will hear the testimonies of victims like Ms. Assumpta. This process should acknowledge the abuses inflicted on victims and their families and help the truth to be known publicly, enabling justice to be done and supporting victims and the society to move beyond the painful past. In turn, it should signal the way forward to ensure ordinary citizens are protected from future violations and that impunity will no longer be tolerated.

This is only one example of how UNDP is assisting victims of massive abuses and violence to seek redress. As part of our broader global engagement on transitional justice, UNDP is also helping countries establish other judicial and non-judicial processes and mechanisms including prosecution initiatives, reparations programmes, memorialization, institutional reform, or an appropriate combination, depending on the context. In South Sudan, UNDP is already supporting the permanent constitution making process and reforms in the judiciary and security sectors. 

Ending Decades of abuses


The Challenges of Transitional Justice in Africa 

There are many challenges facing transitional justice. Policy makers and practitioners grapple with whether it is suited for circumstances like most of today’s cyclical and violent conflicts where it is not just the state responsible for human rights abuses but a multiplicity of armed actors and if it can provide results on issues that matter most to victims. Another policy puzzle is whether transitional justice can be applied in a conflict-affected and semi-authoritarian country that is not transitioning from one constitutional or political order to another.

More recently, discussions have also questioned the underlying reasons for local political support for transitional justice efforts pointing to cosmetic and opportunistic reasons aimed at evading rather than ensuring accountability. In addition, more results are needed to demonstrate how these initiatives can bridge the justice gap and bring sustainable peace in unstable communities.

That said, UNDP remains committed working with the rest of the UN system, the Government of South Sudan, regional bodies, NGOs, the media and victims in maintaining transitional justice as a legitimate response to massive violations despite real constraints of scale and societal fragility. Key to this will be ensuring that both transitional justice policy and practice are informed by people’s lived experiences, such as Ms. Assumpta’s.