US court affirms South Sudan's sovereignty in landmark case

South Sudan President Salva Kiir. [Standard, file]

A US court has affirmed South Sudan’s sovereignty in a landmark ruling that is set to redefine how the two countries interact.

This is after the District Court of Columbia dismissed a suit filed against the Republic of South Sudan by international aid workers seeking damages of $123 million (Sh30.4 billion) for assault carried out against them in South Sudan.

The court instead concurred with South Sudan’s government defence that it was immune from any suit filed against it in the US under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

“Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiffs’ (international aid workers) complaint for lack of subject matter and personal jurisdiction, contending that South Sudan and its political subdivisions are immune to suit in the US under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). For the reasons detailed below, the Court grants the defendants’ (South Sudan Government) motion to dismiss,” said the ruling by US District Judge Rudolph Contreras.

The case, which was filed in the US court in 2021, stems from the breaking out of the Civil War in South Sudan in July 2016.

At that time, some members of the South Sudanese army, which included soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), carried out an attack at a hotel known as Terrain Hotel.

The property of the hotel was said to be damaged and some international aid workers (employees of an American NGO) who were based at the Terrain Hotel, were also alleged to be assaulted.

Once the Civil War ended, the South Sudan Investigation Committee together with the United Nations Independent Special Investigation concluded that it was government soldiers, who had committed the attack against the hotel, and the international aid workers.

The SPLA General Court-martial convicted 10 SPLA soldiers for the attack.

Terrain Hotel was compensated $2.25 million (Sh307 million) for the property damage and lost earnings. The international aid workers who were five in total were each awarded $4,000 (Sh546,000).

However, the international aid workers were dissatisfied and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court of South Sudan which is yet to be determined. 

The plaintiffs told the US district court that the Supreme Court of South Sudan has yet to hear the appeal because the case file “has gone missing” prompting them to seek reprieve in a US court.

The court heard that they had served the government of South Sudan through an advocate in the Ministry of Justice of South Sudan and through the legal advisor to President Salva Kirr.

The South Sudanese lawyers had allegedly been served through WhatsApp, and according to the international aid workers’ lawyers, the fact that the two South Sudanese lawyers had acknowledged receipt of the documents, amounted to a waiver of the immunity granted to the government of South Sudan against any suits being filed against it.

 The judge in the US District Court of Columbia disagreed with their argument saying that a waiver of immunity needed to be expressly set out in writing by a sovereign state, or if it was by implication, there needed to be some contractual agreement entered into by a country, allowing US law to apply in the event of a dispute.