BACKGROUND: Violent clashes between Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers from rival political and ethnic groups has left several thousand people dead and displaced over 400,000 civilians since 15 December. The heavy fighting began in Juba after President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, the former Vice-President who was removed from office in July 2013, of an attempted coup.
The fighting has largely been between ethnic Dinka and Nuer SPLA soldiers politically aligned to the President and former Vice-President, respectively. Both sides have been accused of targeting civilians based upon their ethnicity. On 31 December the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) stated that, "extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers have occurred in various parts of the country, as evidenced by the discovery of large numbers of bodies in Juba, as well as the Upper Nile and Jonglei state capitals of Malakal and Bor." In order to support UNMISS' efforts to implement its protection of civilians mandate, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2132 on 24 December, temporarily enlarging UNMISS by an additional 5,500 troops and 440 police.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, stated that UN human rights officers had reported the existence of a mass grave in Bentiu, Unity state, containing the bodies of at least 34 SPLA soldiers believed to be of Dinka ethnicity. Two other mass graves were allegedly discovered in Jebel-Kujar and Newside in Juba. UNMISS is currently investigating these reports and will publish their findings in April.
A division of the SPLA, commanded by General Peter Gadet, defected on 18 December and captured Bor. The government subsequently deployed thousands of soldiers to retake the town. Heavy fighting has also taken place in oil-rich Unity state where Machar's forces occupied Bentiu before being pushed back by government forces on 10 January.
As a result of the fighting and ethnic targeting, approximately 80,100 people have sought refuge in eight UNMISS bases across the country, including nearly 43,000 people in two sites in Juba. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has noted that maintaining law and order within some of the internally displaced persons camps is becoming challenging with reports of violence increasing.
The ethnic dimension to the conflict has fueled inter-communal violence elsewhere in the country. On 18 December an estimated 2,000 Lou Nuer youth attacked Dinka civilians sheltering at an UNMISS base in Akobo, Jonglei state, resulting in the death of 11 civilians and 2 UN peacekeepers. In late December, over 25,000 Lou Nuer fighters, known as the "White Army," marched towards Bor, Jonglei state, although most disbanded following mediation efforts. However, on 30 December approximately 5,000 White Army members joined Machar's forces fighting government troops outside Bor.
The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) held a summit on 27 December to discuss the crisis in South Sudan. Prior to the summit President Kiir expressed his willingness to engage in negotiations while also declaring that he will hold accountable anyone involved in committing atrocities. Delegations from both sides met with IGAD mediators in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 3 January with direct negotiations starting two days later.
Despite acting as a mediator during the peace talks being held in Ethiopia, the Ugandan government has militarily intervened in South Sudan in support of President Kiir. Ugandan People's Defence Force troops were initially deployed to help secure Juba airport, but later engaged in major combat operations alongside the SPLA, including the recapture of Bor on 18 January.
After five weeks of fighting an Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) was signed on 23 January. An advance team of the IGAD Joint Technical Committee arrived in Juba on 2 February to establish the Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (MVM) for the ceasefire. Both the government and Machar's forces have since accused each other of violating the CoH as fighting continued in Jonglei, Unity and Lakes states. Thousands of civilians and hundreds of humanitarian workers in Leer, Unity state, were forced to flee into the bush on 31 January due to ongoing insecurity. The UN provided Satellite imagery on 2 February that detected widespread destruction in Leer including at least 1,556 burned residential structures. On 11 February talks between the government and opposition forces resumed, focusing on political dialogue and national reconciliation.
Due to ongoing security concerns and a lack of personnel UNMISS has been unable to patrol frequently outside of their bases. The UNSC-approved UNMISS reinforcements have been slow to arrive. UNMISS began delivering humanitarian assistance to 10,000 civilians living around the UN base in Malakal on 7 February.
ANALYSIS: The high number of casualties and large-scale displacement since 15 December illustrates the severity of the crisis confronting South Sudan. The rapid descent into civil war highlights the fragility of South Sudan's government as well as the SPLA's deep political and ethnic divisions. Both pro and anti-government forces from the SPLA have been directly implicated in atrocities. Despite the signing of the CoH, the risk to civilians remains high due to reports of continued fighting. UNMISS and humanitarian agencies continue to face constraints in accessing key areas.
The ethnic dimension to the conflict dramatically heightens the risk to civilians. Civilians in Bor have been subjected to atrocities in the past, including a 1991 massacre of Dinka by Nuer fighters loyal to Machar. The absence of accountability for individuals implicated in previous atrocities perpetuates recurring ethnic mobilization and targeted violence. The attack on the UN compound in Akobo demonstrates a complete disregard for international humanitarian law by ethnic Nuer forces associated with Machar's rebellion.
The government of South Sudan and UNMISS require immediate international assistance to ensure security throughout the country and uphold their Responsibility to Protect.
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: UNMISS has approximately 7,000 troops in South Sudan with a civilian protection mandate. UNSC Resolution 2109, which extended UNMISS' mandate until July 2014, called upon the government of South Sudan to "take greater responsibility for the protection of its civilians."
Following the UNSC's authorization of increased UNMISS troop levels, on 24 December the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect issued a statement in which they recalled that "targeted attacks against civilians and against UN personnel, such as those that have occurred in Juba and Jonglei state, could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity."
The UNSC issued Press Statements on 17 December and 10 January, calling upon the government of South Sudan to protect all civilians, regardless of ethnicity, and to engage in peaceful dialogue.
The UN Secretary-General issued a media message to the people of South Sudan on 25 December, stressing that all parties had a responsibility to protect civilians and warning that they will be held accountable for their failure to do so.
Following a visit to Juba, Bor and Bentiu on 14-17 January, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonivic, noted that mass atrocities had been committed by both sides.
On 23 January the UN Secretary-General welcomed the signing of the CoH and called upon the parties to continue the process of national political dialogue to reach a comprehensive peace agreement.
The AU issued a Communiqué on 29 January, which condemned the targeting of ethnic targeting of civilians and noted that all perpetrators must be held accountable. To this end it welcomed steps taken by the AU Commission to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations and other abuses.
NECESSARY ACTION: All parties to the current conflict must uphold their Responsibility to Protect. President Kiir and Machar must fully abide by their commitments under the CoH and continue to engage with the IGAD negotiations to resolve the crisis. The UNSC, AU and major international supporters of South Sudan, including the United States, should assist in these mediation efforts and to assist IGAD in facilitating the operationalization of the MVM.
UNMISS must assume a more robust role in order to uphold its protective mandate. The international community should enhance UNMISS' protective capabilities through the rapid provision of additional troops and resources, including level-two field hospitals and additional aviation assets. The supply of tactical and utility helicopters will assist surveillance efforts aimed at detecting and deterring potential attacks upon vulnerable communities. The government of South Sudan must ensure that UNMISS has the ability to move freely to all parts of the country.
The government must break the culture of impunity and hold all perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable, regardless of their affiliation, position or ethnicity. The UNMISS Human Rights Division must investigate reports of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions and mass graves. In addition to government efforts, the UN should support the African Union efforts to establish an independent commission of inquiry into crimes perpetrated since 15 December by providing technical expertise and financial resources.
The government of South Sudan must initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at ethnic and political reconciliation. This must include justice for victims of past conflicts, including those targeted during inter-communal violence in Jonglei state and elsewhere. It is critical that members of civil society partake in the processes as well as the peace negotiations in Addis Ababa.
Last Updated: 14 February 2014