Fighting between elements of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO), as well as other rebel militias, has been escalating in various parts of South Sudan since the beginning of 2017. The SPLA is currently reinforcing its positions in Upper Nile and Jonglei states ahead of the rainy season, resulting in civilian displacement. An SPLA offensive that started on 25 April in the Upper Nile region resulted in 35,000-50,000 displaced civilians fleeing to Aburoc, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. This includes 25,000 people who fled from clashes in Kodok on 25 April. The SPLA also continues to engage in low-intensity battles in Unity State. In addition, tensions between various ethnic groups have also risen as a result of border disputes and cattle raids, resulting in sporadic clashes and civilian deaths throughout the country. Inter-communal violence and insecurity during May also forced thousands of people to flee the town of Terekeka, Central Equatoria.
According to the UN, those who have fled recent violence reported "killing of civilians, destruction of homes, sexual violence, and looting of livestock and property." During February a confidential UN report warned that the fighting had already reached "catastrophic proportions." Parts of South Sudan are currently experiencing famine, which the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan has called a "man made" situation caused by the government. During April UN experts and humanitarian organizations also accused the government of intentionally denying aid to civilians in rebel-held areas. Of the 875,000 South Sudanese refugees currently in Uganda, about 630,000 have arrived since July 2016. A total of 137,000 South Sudanese refugees have crossed into Sudan since the beginning of 2017, of which over 28,000 have arrived during the first half of May alone.
In addition to the latest fighting, there are constant rumors of dangerous power struggles within the government of South Sudan. On 9 May President Salva Kiir fired controversial army chief Paul Malong. On 13 May seven opposition groups, including the SPLA-IO and several former government ministers, signed an agreement vowing to combine their efforts to oust President Kiir from government. On 22 May President Kiir declared a unilateral ceasefire and launched a National Dialogue. Former Vice President and previous leader of the SPLA-IO, Riek Machar, is excluded from participation in the dialogue.
The latest violence follows five days of intense fighting from 7-11 July 2016 between elements of the SPLA and SPLA-IO. Heavy combat, including tanks and helicopter gunships, took place in Juba. 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 Kiir. Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were killed during the fighting and 42,000 people were displaced. Some civilians attempting to flee to UN bases were subjected to targeted killings on the basis of ethnicity. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported that widespread sexual violence, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, also took place. Another UN report, published on 19 May, describes the killing of at least 114 civilians around Yei between July and January.
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 multiple delays imposed by the government, the first RPF troops arrived in Juba at the end of April, with additional forces expected during June and July.
The fighting in Juba occurred nearly a year after President Kiir and Machar had agreed to end the country's civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan" (ARCSS) during 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 atrocities committed during the conflict.
Between 2013-2015 parties to the civil war engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, with both sides targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. The government has repeatedly delayed the formation of the HCSS. On 4 June SPLA-IO Yei River State, a rebel group loyal to Machar, and government representatives of Yei signed a peace agreement. Both parties also agreed to a permanent ceasefire.
Political instability and sustained violence have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its almost six years of independence. The resumption of widespread fighting leaves civilians at risk of further mass atrocity crimes. UNHCR has expressed concern that displaced civilians in Upper Nile are at imminent risk of gross human rights violations, inter-ethnic violence and further displacement.
The 2015 ARCSS was never fully implemented and the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed. The Transitional Government of National Unity, established by the agreement, exists in name only. A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities in South Sudan.
The UN Panel of Experts has reported that deliberate policies by both sides of the conflict have "exacerbated the political, tribal and ethnic drivers of the war." Since December 2016, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan have all acknowledged that conditions exist that could lead to the commission of mass atrocity crimes. Despite providing ample early warning to the UNSC regarding these risks, little action has been taken to protect vulnerable populations and hold perpetrators accountable.
Despite the UN listing South Sudan among only four places in the world with famine conditions, the government continues to obstruct UNMISS and humanitarian organizations while spending a large part of its national budget on arms. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is still struggling to protect vulnerable populations. South Sudan is also the deadliest country in the world for humanitarian workers, with more than 80 killed since December 2013. The rainy season will further deteriorate the humanitarian situation in the country, leaving 60 percent of the territory inaccessible.
Not only is the government of South Sudan manifestly failing to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for past atrocities, it is directly responsible for ongoing attacks on civilian populations.
During May 2017 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2253 extending the sanctions regime until 31 May 2018 and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 30 June 2018. Six senior military figures, three from both the SPLA and SPLA-IO, are currently subject to sanctions.
On 15 December the UNSC adopted a resolution extending UNMISS' mandate for an additional year. The resolution also authorized UNMISS to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence in cooperation with the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. On 23 December the UNSC failed to adopt a resolution authorizing an arms embargo and further targeted sanctions when eight members of the Council abstained from voting.
On 20 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution extending the Commission on Human Rights' mandate for an additional year and authorizing it to preserve evidence and clarify responsibility for alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights. The resolution also recalled "that the Government of South Sudan has the primary responsibility to protect all populations in the country."
On 23 March the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement, calling upon parties to adhere to the permanent ceasefire, enhance humanitarian access, and remove obstacles to UNMISS carrying out its mandate. During a briefing on 25 April the UNSC concluded that none of the benchmarks have been met.
On 12 June the IGAD Assembly of Heads of State and Government decided to urgently convene a High-Level Revitalization Forum of the parties to the ARCSS, to discuss ways to revitalize its implementation.
The government must fully implement all provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement and UNSC Resolution 2304. The government, SPLA, SPLA-IO and affiliated militias must ensure that UNMISS is able to move freely and without threats to their personnel. The inviolability of UN compounds must be respected. The international community should immediately enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems. UNMISS must be enabled to fully implement its mandate, especially with regards to providing adequate protection to vulnerable civilians.
The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and expand targeted sanctions against senior military commanders deemed to be exacerbating or profiting from the ongoing conflict.
The African Union (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 2016 violence in Juba. The government, AU and international community must hold those responsible for atrocities in South Sudan accountable, regardless of their affiliation or position.
Last Updated: 15 June 2017