Populations at Risk Current Crisis

South Sudan

Renewed fighting in South Sudan's civil war has resulted in mass atrocity crimes against civilian populations.
BACKGROUND: Despite the signing of no less than eight peace agreements since January 2014, 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. On 29 June UNMISS' Human Rights Division reported widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence associated with recent fighting. Over 150,000 people are currently taking refuge in six UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases across the country, the highest number since the start of the conflict. According to UNHCR the conflict has resulted in 1.5 million IDPs and 730,000 refugees in neighboring countries.

In early May the SPLA launched a major offensive against rebel positions in Unity state. The UN and humanitarian organizations have had to withdraw from the area, leaving at least 300,000 people without access to vital assistance. After an estimated 130 children were killed in Unity state over a period of three weeks, the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) issued a statement on 17 June noting that "violence against children in South Sudan has reached a new level of brutality." UNMISS' 29 June report included evidence of children subjected to castration, throat-slitting and being burned alive. UNICEF also estimates that 13,000 children have been forcibly recruited since the start of the conflict.

There has also been a dramatic increase in violence in Upper Nile state, where rebel forces loyal to Major-General Johnson Olonyi attacked SPLA positions in and around Malakal and seized control of the town on 15 May. The SPLA retook the town on 6 July. Fighting has also been reported in Western Equatoria state, where thousands of people have been displaced since 23 May.

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. 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.

Following a February visit to South Sudan, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonovic, noted that atrocities continued to be perpetrated by both parties. UNMISS has similarly accused pro-government forces of attacks on civilians and found that rebels have committed abuses that "may amount to war crimes."

UNMISS has reported 39 violations of the status-of-forces agreement since 18 February, including harassment, assault and detention of UN personnel, mostly by government security forces. SPLA officers have threatened to fire on UNMISS bases, which they claimed were harboring rebel fighters. An artillery shell landed inside the UNMISS base in Bentiu on 17 March, halting humanitarian operations. On 1 July rebel forces attacked an UNMISS base in Malakal, resulting in one death.

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. On 21 January 2015 President Kiir and Machar signed a seventh peace 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, dialogue resumed on 23 February with the goal of reaching a final power-sharing agreement by 5 March, but talks were then extended.

ANALYSIS: Since December 2013 both sides have perpetrated human rights violations that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including ethnic targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings, widespread sexual violence and child recruitment, as well as large-scale destruction of civilian property. Neither the government nor opposition have consistently held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable for atrocities committed during the civil war.

The failure to uphold multiple ceasefire agreements reveals a lack of commitment to a political solution. In the absence of a meaningful peace process, both sides are likely to use the June-November rainy season to rearm and recruit in preparation for renewed military offensives.

UNMISS' Human Rights Division has expressed concern that recent human rights violations indicate increasing ethnic divisions within the conflict, demonstrated by the proliferation of armed militias aligned with specific communities. These poorly trained and largely unaccountable forces are more likely to perpetrate further mass atrocity crimes.

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 uphold its protective mandate.

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.

During March 2014 the AU established a Commission of Inquiry (AU-CoI) to investigate human rights violations committed since December 2013 and make recommendations on appropriate accountability and reconciliation measures. The AU-CoI has not yet released its report. [For responses prior to April 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]

On 3 March the UNSC adopted Resolution 2206, establishing a sanctions regime for South Sudan. On 1 July the Sanctions Committee approved the designation of six senior military figures, three from each side, for sanctions.

On 14 May the UNSC issued a Press Statement condemning violence in Unity and Upper Nile states and demanding "an immediate end to all human rights violations and abuses and violations of international humanitarian law."

On 28 May the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2223, which extended the mandate of UNMISS until 30 November 2015 and emphasized that the "Government of South Sudan bears the primary responsibility to protect civilians within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, including from potential crimes against humanity and war crimes."

The UN Secretary-General issued a statement on 1 June, condemning the government's decision to expel the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan.

The UNSC issued a Press Release on 9 July, marking four years since South Sudan's independence, but expressing "profound disappointment" that President Kiir and Machar put "personal ambitions" ahead of the good of their people and noting that their failure "has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians."

Speaking to the media on 13 July, the UN Secretary-General urged Uganda and Sudan to "use their influence on the parties to help end the conflict."

NECESSARY ACTION: After 18 months of war, IGAD and the UNSC must encourage parties to the conflict to end the cycle of meaningless peace agreements accompanied by ongoing armed hostilities. Both the government and rebels must refrain from attacks on civilians, abide by previous commitments made under the COH and meaningfully engage to resolve the crisis.

The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo and additional targeted sanctions on all political and military leaders, regardless of rank or affiliation, deemed responsible for the continuation of armed hostilities and the perpetration of mass atrocity crimes.

UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should continue to enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the 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 without hindrance or threats to its personnel.

UNMISS' Human Rights Division and the AU-CoI must continue their investigations into mass atrocities and expeditiously publish their findings. The government must hold all perpetrators of atrocities accountable, regardless of affiliation or position. A referral to the ICC or the establishment of a hybrid court should be considered if the government is unable to end impunity. The government of South Sudan should initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at ethnic and political reconciliation.

Last Updated: 15 July 2015