Populations at Risk Imminent Risk

South Sudan

Ongoing fighting in South Sudan's civil war puts civilians at imminent risk of further mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Despite the signing of no less than eight peace agreements since January 2014, including most recently on 2 February, fighting in South Sudan between rebel forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) continues. The breakdown of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-sponsored peace talks on 6 March has emboldened both parties as they continue to pursue a military solution to the conflict. Major clashes were reported in Nassir, Upper Nile state, between 5 and 17 March, while heavy shelling was reported around Bentiu, Unity state, on 16 March. Fighting was also reported in early April around Ayod in Jonglei state, Rumbek in Lakes state as well as Longochuk and Nasir counties in Upper Nile state. While the death toll from the recent violence is unclear, the UN has reported large-scale civilian displacement.

The civil war is the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions.
Since then, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and 1.5 million displaced. Over 115,000 people have sought refuge in seven UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases across the country, the highest number since the start of the civil war. Renewed violence around Malakal led to approximately 4,500 people fleeing to the local UNMISS base on 7 April.

The civil war began after President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, the former Vice President who was removed from office during July 2013, of an attempted coup. The worst fighting continues to be between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to President Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least two dozen armed militias loosely aligned with either side are also operating in South Sudan, including the powerful Nuer White Army.

Civilians have been subjected to horrific attacks perpetrated by government forces and armed rebels, including extrajudicial killings. UNMISS has accused rebel forces of targeted attacks against civilians after temporarily seizing control of Bentiu on 29 October and found that rebels committed abuses that "may amount to war crimes." According to IGAD, the SPLA admitted on 12 March to have deployed anti-personnel mines around Nassir, Upper Nile state, in clear breach of international law and posing direct threat to civilians.

Following a February visit to South Sudan, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonovic, noted that atrocities, including widespread sexual violence, continued to be perpetrated by both parties. It is estimated that 12,000 children have been forcibly recruited by both sides since the start of the conflict. On 26 January, following an agreement with UNICEF, an armed militia known as the South Sudan Democratic Army-Cobra Faction began a process of demobilizing 3,000 child soldiers.

UNMISS has reported 39 violations of the UNMISS status-of-forces agreement since 18 February, including harassment, assault and detention of UN personnel, mostly by government security forces. On 12 March SPLA officers threatened to fire on UNMISS bases which they claim to be harboring rebel fighters. An artillery shell landed in the UNMISS base in Bentiu on 17 March temporarily halting humanitarian operations.

The civil war has been characterized by repeated failed peace agreements. Both sides violated the 23 January 2014 Cessation of Hostilities (COH) agreement almost immediately after it was signed. President Kiir and Machar then signed a 9 May agreement, which called for "an immediate cessation of hostilities within 24 hours." The parties failed to meet the 10 August deadline to form a transitional government shortly before resumption of large-scale armed hostilities during August. Following another lull in fighting and a 7 November summit, IGAD announced another peace deal that included the formation of a transitional government. Fighting resumed two days later.

On 21 January the warring parties signed yet another agreement in Arusha, Tanzania. Despite recommitment to the COH, fighting continued in several parts of the country. Another ceasefire agreement was signed on 2 February under the auspices of IGAD. Amid ongoing fighting talks resumed on 23 February with the goal of reaching a final power-sharing agreement by 5 March, but talks were then extended. Nevertheless, armed hostilities continue as both sides continue to battle for territorial gains before resuming negotiations.

ANALYSIS: The rapid descent into civil war in late 2013 highlights the fragility of South Sudan's government as well as the SPLA's political and ethnic divisions, which have allegedly resulted in 70 percent of the army either defecting or deserting. The proliferation of armed militias increases the risk to civilians.

Since December 2013, both sides have perpetrated human rights violations that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including ethnic targeting of civilians, extra-judicial killings, widespread sexual violence and child recruitment, as well as large-scale destruction of civilian property. The repeated failure to uphold multiple peace agreements reveals a lack of commitment to a political solution. Neither the government nor opposition have held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable for atrocities committed during the civil war.

South Sudan requires international assistance to end the civil war and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is struggling to support the government in upholding its Responsibility to Protect.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: In order to support UNMISS' efforts to implement its protection of civilians mandate, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2132 on 24 December 2013, temporarily enlarging UNMISS by an additional 5,500 troops and 440 police. On 7 April China completed the deployment of their 700-strong battalion, China's first infantry contribution to a peacekeeping operation with a civilian protection mandate.

During March 2014 the AU established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations committed since December 2013 and make recommendations on appropriate accountability and reconciliation measures. [For responses prior to January 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]

On 29 January the AU Peace and Security Council decided to withhold the release of the AU Commission of Inquiry's report. In his 17 February report on South Sudan the UN Secretary-General urged "the parties to the conflict, in particular the Government, which has the primary responsibility to protect civilians, to establish a secure environment for civilians and create the conditions necessary for the voluntary return of [IDPs]."

In November 2014 IGAD threatened to impose sanctions and intervene to protect civilians if both parties failed to adhere to the COH, but these actions were not implemented. On 3 March the UNSC adopted Resolution 2206, establishing a sanctions regime for South Sudan. The resolution emphasized the government's primary responsibility to protect its population and stressed the need to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UNSC has yet to designate any individuals for sanctions.

On 16 March, the AU issued a statement which noted that the report of the AU Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan had not been released and expressed concern over the circulation of a document purporting to be a leaked version.

Following the recent breakdown in peace talks, the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement on 24 March expressing its disappointment that the parties had failed to form a transitional government. The UNSC also emphasized the need for accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

NECESSARY ACTION: Both the government and rebels must refrain from attacks on the civilian population, abide by commitments made under the COH and meaningfully engage with IGAD to resolve the crisis. The UNSC and IGAD should impose an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on all political and military leaders, regardless of rank or affiliation, deemed responsible for a resumption of armed hostilities or previous mass atrocities.

UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should continue to enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the rapid provision of additional troops and aviation assets. The government must ensure that UNMISS has the ability to move freely to all parts of the country.

UNMISS' Human Rights Division and the AU Commission of Inquiry must continue their investigations of mass atrocities and expeditiously publish their findings. The government must hold all perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable, regardless of affiliation or position. The government of South Sudan should initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at ethnic and political reconciliation.

Last Updated: 15 April 2015