The New York Times South Sudan Op-Ed That Wasn’t

The newspaper of record published an essay ostensibly co-written by South Sudan’s warring leaders. The problem is that one of them denies having any part in it.

First Vice President of South Sudan and former rebel leader, Riek Machar (L), and President Salva Kiir (R), sit for an official photo with the 30 members of the new cabinet of the Transitional Government at the Cabinet Affairs Ministry, in Juba on April 29, 2016. 
The new cabinet of the Transitional Government includes former rebels and members of the opposition, a step forward in a drawn-out peace process aimed at ending more than two years of conflict.  / AFP / ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN        (Photo credit should read ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
First Vice President of South Sudan and former rebel leader, Riek Machar (L), and President Salva Kiir (R), sit for an official photo with the 30 members of the new cabinet of the Transitional Government at the Cabinet Affairs Ministry, in Juba on April 29, 2016. The new cabinet of the Transitional Government includes former rebels and members of the opposition, a step forward in a drawn-out peace process aimed at ending more than two years of conflict. / AFP / ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN (Photo credit should read ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
First Vice President of South Sudan and former rebel leader, Riek Machar (L), and President Salva Kiir (R), sit for an official photo with the 30 members of the new cabinet of the Transitional Government at the Cabinet Affairs Ministry, in Juba on April 29, 2016. The new cabinet of the Transitional Government includes former rebels and members of the opposition, a step forward in a drawn-out peace process aimed at ending more than two years of conflict. / AFP / ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN (Photo credit should read ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the New York Times published an op-ed purportedly written by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, who was recently reinstated as first vice president after leading a bloody two-year insurgency. The article called on the international community -- “and the United States and Britain in particular” -- to reconsider a key component of South Sudan’s peace deal: a hybrid international court tasked with trying alleged war criminals. Instead of punitive justice, they argued, South Sudan needs a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission that will unify the country and “guarantee lasting peace.”

The op-ed was surprising for a number of reasons, not least because Machar struck a very different tone on the matter of international justice in an interview with Foreign Policy just last month. After accusing Kiir’s government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, the former rebel leader said he would have no qualms about facing international prosecutors and would show up if he were called before the International Criminal Court. “I’m not intimidated by the ICC,” he said.

But we at FP weren’t the only ones surprised to see Machar reverse course and join Kiir in calling for “truth, not trials”: The vice president himself evidently was, too. In a pair of statements posted to Facebook on Wednesday, Machar spokesman James Gatdet Dak referred to the Times op-ed as “irresponsible and falsified” and denied that the vice president had been a co-author. “Somebody must have written it without the knowledge and agreement of the SPLM-IO leadership,” he wrote, referring to the faction of the ruling party that sided with the rebels during the war.

This week, the New York Times published an op-ed purportedly written by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, who was recently reinstated as first vice president after leading a bloody two-year insurgency. The article called on the international community — “and the United States and Britain in particular” — to reconsider a key component of South Sudan’s peace deal: a hybrid international court tasked with trying alleged war criminals. Instead of punitive justice, they argued, South Sudan needs a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission that will unify the country and “guarantee lasting peace.”

The op-ed was surprising for a number of reasons, not least because Machar struck a very different tone on the matter of international justice in an interview with Foreign Policy just last month. After accusing Kiir’s government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, the former rebel leader said he would have no qualms about facing international prosecutors and would show up if he were called before the International Criminal Court. “I’m not intimidated by the ICC,” he said.

But we at FP weren’t the only ones surprised to see Machar reverse course and join Kiir in calling for “truth, not trials”: The vice president himself evidently was, too. In a pair of statements posted to Facebook on Wednesday, Machar spokesman James Gatdet Dak referred to the Times op-ed as “irresponsible and falsified” and denied that the vice president had been a co-author. “Somebody must have written it without the knowledge and agreement of the SPLM-IO leadership,” he wrote, referring to the faction of the ruling party that sided with the rebels during the war.

Reath Muoch Tang, another top advisor to Machar, also denied that the vice president had written the article or had even seen it before publication. “He didn’t see it,” he told FP in a phone call from Washington. “It is really something that surprised him and everybody in the circle of the leadership of the SPLM-IO. They never saw that before, and they didn’t know where it came from.”

Presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny fired back Thursday by denying Machar’s denial. “The opinion article was from the president and the first vice president about the issue of transitional justice and truth and reconciliation,” he told the local media outlet Radio Tamazuj. But even as he affirmed the article’s authenticity, Ateny added a layer of doubt, saying that he is the spokesman for the “whole presidency” and admitting that the op-ed “was written from my office.”

Ateny did not respond to an email Thursday asking how exactly Machar had been involved in the drafting process. But in an interview with journalist Jason Patinkin, Ateny all but admitted that the piece had been produced in conjunction with a Washington-based public relations firm, though he did not say which one. “It’s the right of anybody to employ [a] consultancy,” he said.

Tang, meanwhile, said Machar would have been the last person to pen such an article, claiming his camp was the one to insist on a justice process as part of the August deal. “He is the one pushing for accountability. He is not the one saying it should be avoided,” Tang said. “This is why we are trying to find out who has done this.”

When reached for comment, Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said, “This piece came to us through representatives of the government of South Sudan with assurances that they were working on behalf of both President Kiir and Vice President Machar. Today, we learned that Vice President Machar does not agree with the content of the op-ed.”

“We should have sought direct confirmation of the argument of the piece from both parties,” Murphy added. 

Photo credit: ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN/AFP/Getty Images

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