Populations at Risk Imminent Risk

South Sudan

Despite a recent peace deal, civilians in South Sudan remain at imminent risk of mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Heavy fighting continues to be reported between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and opposition forces in Unity and Upper Nile states despite the signing of a peace agreement in August. Armed hostilities were reported in Leer, Unity state, between 4 and 22 October, which left over 80 civilians dead, including at least 57 children. The International Committee of the Red Cross was also forced to halt operations in Leer because of intense fighting. On 30 October Médecins Sans Frontières stated it was receiving daily reports of "extortions, abductions, mass rapes, and killings," as well as villages burnt to the ground and crops looted and destroyed."

This comes after President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, leader of the main rebel group, agreed in August to end the country's two-year civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan." The power-sharing agreement calls for a permanent ceasefire as well as the establishment of an independent judicial body, the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS), to investigate mass atrocities committed during the conflict. On 2 October President Kiir announced plans to divide the country's existing 10 states into 28 new states, thereby complicating the agreed-upon power-sharing formula. The former President of Bostwana, Festus Gontebanya Mogae, was appointed on 19 October to chair the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, which will track implementation of the peace agreement. Following negotiations from 21 October to 3 November, both parties agreed on security arrangements during the transitional period.

The civil war was the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions. Fighting began after President Kiir accused Machar, the former Vice President who was removed from office during July 2013, of an attempted coup. The worst fighting has been between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least two-dozen armed militias loosely aligned with either side have also been operating in South Sudan, including the powerful Nuer White Army. Since August some rebel commanders have split from Machar and are not part of the peace agreement.

Tens of thousands of people were killed during the civil war and over 175,000 people are still taking refuge in six UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) bases across the country. According to UNHCR the conflict has resulted in 1.6 million IDPs and 615,000 refugees in neighboring countries.

The recent peace deal is the latest in a civil war characterized by repeated failed agreements, including the 23 January 2014 Cessation of Hostilities (COH), which both sides violated almost immediately after it was signed. The current peace agreement was proposed on 24 July by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-PLUS, an expanded mediation group which includes the AU, UN, EU, China, United States, United Kingdom, Norway and the IGAD Partners Forum. The plan also calls upon all foreign forces, including Uganda, which has militarily intervened in support of the government, to withdraw their troops from South Sudan.

Parties to the conflict have engaged in widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence and have, according to the UN, targeted civilians as part of their military tactics. UNMISS has reported that some children have been subjected to castration, throat-slitting and being burned alive while the UN International Children's Emergency Fund estimates that more than 13,000 children have been forcibly recruited since the start of the conflict. Following a trip to South Sudan, the Head of Operations at OCHA stated on 29 October that more than 1,300 women and girls had been raped and thousands of children recruited since May in Unity state alone.

During March 2014 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 report was finally released on 27 October and concluded that widespread and systematic atrocities were committed against civilians in a coordinated manner and pursuant to a state policy. It also noted that "indiscriminate killings of civilians as a war crime" were committed in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.

ANALYSIS: Ongoing fighting in several parts of South Sudan and the failure to uphold past ceasefires, reveals a lack of commitment to a political solution. While violence has not reached the same levels as before the August peace agreement, civilians remain at imminent risk of attack from government and rebel forces. The withdrawal of humanitarian organizations from Unity state reflects the fragile security situation. The defection of major rebel commanders, some of whom have previously perpetrated mass atrocities, also increases the risk to civilians.

Although both sides have committed human rights violations that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, neither the government nor armed opposition have consistently held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable for atrocities. A culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of violence in South Sudan.

South Sudan requires ongoing international assistance to uphold its Responsibility to Protect 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, expeditiously enlarging UNMISS by an additional 5,500 troops and 440 police. [For responses prior to May 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 23 September the UN Human Rights Council requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights report on the human rights situation in South Sudan. An assessment team began deploying to South Sudan on 26 October.

On 6 October the United States, United Kingdom and Norway issued a joint statement urging President Kiir to delay plans to expand the number of states, noting that the announcement "directly contradicts the government of South Sudan's commitment to implement the peace agreement."

On 9 October the UNSC adopted Resolution 2241, which extended the mandate of UNMISS until 15 December 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."

On 2 November the SPLA announced that all Ugandan troops had been withdrawn from South Sudan.

NECESSARY ACTION: After almost two years of civil war, the government and rebels must end armed hostilities and fully implement all provisions of the peace agreement. The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose targeted sanctions against all political and military leaders deemed responsible for violating the agreement.
UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should continue to enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems. The government must ensure that UNMISS has the ability to move freely to all parts of the country without threats to its personnel.

The AU should expeditiously establish the HCSS, and ensure it has the resources necessary to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013. UNMISS' Human Rights Division must continue its investigations into violations of IHL and international human rights law and publish its findings.

The government must hold all perpetrators of atrocities accountable, regardless of affiliation or position, and initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at ethnic and political reconciliation and strengthening the peace process.

Last Updated: 15 November 2015