Populations at Risk
The escalation of renewed fighting in South Sudan's civil war puts civilians at imminent risk of further mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Despite the signing of multiple peace agreements, fighting between rebel forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) continues. On 26 November heavy fighting broke out in Fangak county, Jonglei state. By 8 December these clashes had resulted in the displacement of approximately 25,000 civilians. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported troop mobilization and sporadic fighting in other parts of Jonglei state in late November. During December and January rebel forces also launched major attacks on government positions in Unity and Upper Nile states.
The civil war is the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between SPLA soldiers from rival political and ethnic groups. Since then, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and 1.5 million displaced, including over 102,000 who have sought refuge in nine UNMISS bases across the country.
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 aligned with either side are now operating in South Sudan, including the powerful Nuer White Army.
Over the past year civilians have been subjected to horrific attacks perpetrated by both government forces and armed rebels, including extrajudicial killings, ethnic targeting, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. In a special human rights report published on 19 December, UNMISS accused rebel forces of targeted attacks against civilians after temporarily seizing control of Bentiu on 29 October. UNMISS' investigation found that rebel forces committed abuses which "may amount to war crimes."
Both sides of the civil war violated a 23 January 2014 Cessation of Hostilities (COH) agreement almost immediately after it was signed. Following further negotiations, President Kiir and Machar signed a 9 May peace agreement, which called for "an immediate cessation of hostilities within 24 hours." The parties then failed to meet a 10 August deadline to form a transitional government shortly before a temporary resumption of large-scale armed hostilities during August.
Following another lull in major fighting and a 7 November summit, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) announced a deal that included recommitment to the COH and the formation of a transitional government. IGAD threatened to impose regional sanctions and directly intervene to protect civilians if both parties did not consent to the agreement within 15 days. Fighting resumed two days later. The latest round of IGAD-sponsored talks broke down on 22 December. None of the threatened sanctions or other actions have been implemented.
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.
More than a year after the start of the conflict the failure to uphold multiple peace agreements reveals a lack of commitment to a political solution. UNMISS warned in September that both parties to the conflict were mobilizing forces and amassing weapons ahead of the dry season.
Despite evidence of systematic killings, sexual violence and child recruitment, neither the government nor opposition have held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable.
South Sudan requires international assistance to reestablish security throughout the country 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 UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2132 on 24 December 2013, temporarily enlarging UNMISS by an additional 5,500 troops and 440 police. So far only 3,488 additional troops have been deployed. On 22 December China announced that they would be deploying 700 troops by March 2015.
During March 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. The Commission has not yet released its findings. [For responses prior to November 2014, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]
On 25 November the UNSC adopted Resolution 2187, extending UNMISS' mandate until 30 May 2015. The resolution noted 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 UNSC issued a Presidential Statement on 15 December, marking the one-year anniversary of the conflict and calling upon both parties to refrain from further violence. The statement reiterated that the UNSC was considering targeted sanctions against those impeding the peace process.
China mediated talks between the two parties on 12 January in Khartoum, Sudan.
NECESSARY ACTION: President Kiir and Machar must abide by commitments made under the COH and meaningfully engage with IGAD 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 a resumption of armed hostilities or previous mass atrocities.
UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the rapid provision of additional troops and additional 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 extra-judicial killings and 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 January 2015