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. Over 130,000 people are currently taking refuge in seven UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases across the country, the highest number since the start of the conflict.

In early May the SPLA launched a major offensive against rebel positions in Unity state. Since May the UN has received consistent reports of towns and villages being burned, extrajudicial killings, child recruitment, sexual violence and the displacement of over 100,000 people. As a result of the violence the UN and humanitarian organizations have had to withdraw from the area, leaving at least 300,000 people without access to vital assistance.

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. Rebel forces then advanced to Melut and engaged in sustained fighting with the SPLA between 19 and 21 May. Fighting has also been reported in 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 and 1.5 million displaced. 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 atrocities perpetrated by government forces and armed rebels. 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 on 12 March an SPLA officer admitted to having deployed anti-personnel mines around Nassir, Upper Nile state, in clear breach of international law, but the government later denied this.

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 13,000 children have been forcibly recruited since the start of the conflict. On 26 January, following an agreement with the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), an armed militia known as the South Sudan Democratic Army-Cobra Faction began a process of demobilizing 3,000 child soldiers, with more than 1,700 released by the end of April.

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. On 12 March SPLA officers threatened to fire on UNMISS bases which they claim were harboring rebel fighters. An artillery shell landed inside the UNMISS base in Bentiu on 17 March, 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. 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 talks resumed on 23 February with the goal of reaching a final power-sharing agreement by 5 March, but talks were then extended. Armed hostilities continued.

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. There has already been an intensification of fighting as both sides seek to gain more territory before the onset of the rainy season.

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. The 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.

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. [For responses prior to April 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]

On 14 May the UNSC on 14 May issued a Press Statement condemning the violence in Unity and Upper Nile states and reiterated their demand for "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 which condemned the government's decision to expel the UN's Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan and called for the decision to be reversed.

NECESSARY ACTION: After 18 months of war, IGAD and the UNSC must 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 targeted sanctions on all political and military leaders, regardless of rank or affiliation, deemed responsible for the continuation of armed hostilities and mass atrocity crimes.

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 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 June 2015