The peace process that formally ended the 2013-2015 civil war remains on the brink of collapse as a result of ongoing violence in several parts of South Sudan. On 30 September the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a statement expressing concern for the safety of 100,000 people trapped in Yei, Central Equatoria state, due to armed clashes between elements of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) taking place in the surrounding area. In early October fighting resumed in Unity state with the UN receiving reports of civilians being raped, abducted, and killed, as well as the forced recruitment of children.
The latest violence follows five days of intense fighting from 7 to 11 July between elements of the SPLA and the SPLA-IO. Heavy fighting, including tanks and helicopter gunships, took place in Juba, particularly in the Jebel area near a UN base protecting thousands of civilians. Following an 11 July ceasefire, First Vice President Riek Machar fled Juba and was replaced on 24 July by Taban Deng Gai, whose nomination by the fractured opposition was accepted by President Salva Kiir. The UN warned the appointment was a violation of the August 2015 peace agreement. On 18 August the UN reported that Machar had been "extracted" by the UN's stabilization mission in the DRC on "humanitarian grounds" before traveling to Sudan to receive medical attention. On 24 September Riek Machar issued a statement calling on his supporters to wage armed resistance against the government.
Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were reportedly killed during the July fighting. Two UN compounds were hit by mortar and artillery fire, killing at least eight people. Approximately 42,000 people were displaced in Juba. Many civilians attempting to flee to UN bases were reportedly prevented from doing so and some were subjected to targeted killings.
Government forces perpetrated sexual violence against women and girls, especially ethnic Nuer, in Juba. Several rapes of foreign humanitarian workers took place near a UN base where peacekeepers were reportedly aware of the attacks but failed to act. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 217 incidents of sexual violence between 8 and 25 July. On 1 August the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) condemned the sexual violence and noted that such acts may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In response to the violence, on 5 August the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) proposed the deployment of a Regional Protection Force (RPF) to support UNMISS. On 12 August the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2304, authorizing the deployment of the 4,000-strong RPF. After initially rejecting the force, the Transitional Government of National Unity issued a joint communiqué with the UNSC on 4 September consenting to its deployment. Following a UNSC meeting on 14 September, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, said that despite assurances given during a recent UNSC visit to South Sudan, the Transitional Government had made no progress towards fulfilling its commitments regarding the RPF.
The fighting in Juba occurred nearly a year after President Kiir and Machar agreed to end the country's 2013-2015 civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan" in August 2015. The power-sharing agreement called for a permanent ceasefire, as well as the establishment of an independent Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) to investigate mass atrocities committed during the conflict. Despite some progress, including the formation of the Transitional Government on 29 April, President Kiir and Machar were criticized for their half-hearted implementation of the peace agreement.
The civil war was the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions. Over the following 18 months, the worst fighting was between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to President Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least 24 armed militias loosely aligned with either side, including the powerful Nuer White Army, have been operating in South Sudan.
Between 2013 and 2015 parties to the civil war engaged in widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. OHCHR published a report on 11 March 2016, noting that all parties to the conflict had committed systematic violations that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. The UN Children's Fund estimates that more than 16,000 children were forcibly recruited during the civil war.
At least 50,000 people were killed during the civil war, which resulted in nearly 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 900,000 refugees, according to UNHCR. Prior to the recent violence in Juba and Wau, over 160,000 people were still taking refuge in six UNMISS bases across the country. Since the July fighting more civilians have sought UN protection, which UNMISS lacks the capacity to adequately provide.
Political instability, endemic corruption and sustained violence have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its five years of independence. The resumption of fighting in Juba and the split in the SPLA-IO leaves civilians at ongoing risk of further fighting and potential mass atrocity crimes. Frequent attacks on civilians sheltering at UN protection sites demonstrate a clear disregard for international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) by all parties to the conflict.
Despite the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity, the peace agreement was never fully implemented and the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed. A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities in South Sudan. Ethnic tensions also continue to be exacerbated by officials using hate speech to incite violence.
The government has previously obstructed UNMISS, hampering its ability to uphold its mandate. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is still struggling to protect vulnerable populations.
The Transitional Government of National Unity has failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes. UNMISS requires urgent international assistance in order to uphold its civilian protection mandate.
[For responses prior to December 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]
On 22 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing a commission to investigate human rights abuses in South Sudan.
On 31 May the UNSC adopted Resolution 2290 extending the sanctions regime until 31 May 2017 and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 1 July 2017. Six senior military figures, three from each side, are currently subject to sanctions.
UNSC Resolution 2304 of 12 August extended UNMISS' mandate until 15 December and emphasized that the Transitional Government of National Unity bears the primary responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities. The resolution threatened an arms embargo if the government continues to obstruct UNMISS from fulfilling its mandate.
A UNSC delegation visited South Sudan from 2 to 5 September to discuss full implementation of the peace agreement as well as how UNMISS can improve the security and humanitarian situation in the country.
On 19 September the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan released a report which concluded that deliberate policies by parties to the conflict have "exacerbated the political, tribal and ethnic drivers of the war." The panel also noted that violence has been fueled by the "arming of communities by parties on the basis of tribal affiliation."
The Transitional Government of National Unity must abide by the cessation of hostilities and fully implement all provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement and UNSC Resolution 2304. The government, SPLA and SPLA-IO must ensure that UNMISS and the RPF are able to move freely and without threats to their personnel. The inviolability of UN compounds must be respected.
IGAD must expeditiously establish and deploy the RPF. UNMISS and the RPF must robustly implement their civilian protection mandate. The international community should immediately enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems.
In keeping with Resolution 2304, if the government continues to obstruct UNMISS, the UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo and extend targeted sanctions.
The AU should expeditiously establish the HCSS and ensure it has the resources to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013, including commissioning a special investigation into the July violence in Juba. The government, AU and international community must hold those responsible for atrocities in South Sudan accountable, regardless of affiliation or position.
Last Updated: 14 October 2016