Populations at Risk Current Crisis

South Sudan

Despite a recent peace deal, fighting in South Sudan leaves civilians at risk of ongoing mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Following months of peace talks, President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, leader of the main rebel group in South Sudan, agreed to end the civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan." Machar signed the deal on 17 August and Kiir signed on 26 August. The power-sharing agreement calls for a permanent ceasefire as well as the establishment of an independent judicial body, to be known as the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS), to investigate mass atrocities committed during the conflict.

Since 29 August, both sides have accused the other of breaking the ceasefire, with credible sources reporting ongoing clashes involving SPLA and opposition forces in Unity and Upper Nile states, including around Malakal.

The civil war is the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions. Fighting began after 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 President 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. On 11 August two senior rebel commanders accused of mass atrocities split from Machar's rebel alliance. Neither commander is part of the peace agreement and their forces continue to pose a threat to civilians in Upper Nile and Unity states.

Over 200,000 people are still 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 1.6 million IDPs and 615,000 refugees in neighboring countries.

Prior to signing of the recent peace deal the civil war was 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 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 calls upon all foreign forces, including Uganda, which is a member of IGAD and has militarily intervened in support of the government, to withdraw their troops from South Sudan.

On 29 June the UNMISS Human Rights Division reported widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence associated with the civil war. On 21 August the UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan published a report noting that all parties to the conflict had targeted civilians "as part of their military tactics."

After an estimated 130 children were killed in Unity state, 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 being 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. Following a visit to South Sudan from 22 to 25 July, the UN Under-Secretary- General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator called upon the leaders of the warring parties to take responsibility and stop the "senseless cycle of violence."

UNMISS reported 39 violations of the status-of-forces agreement between February and August, including harassment, assault and detention of UN personnel, mostly by government security forces. On 1 July rebel forces attacked an UNMISS base in Malakal.

ANALYSIS: Despite the signing of the peace agreement, the failure to uphold multiple ceasefires in the past reveals a lack of commitment to a political solution. The defection of major rebel commanders enhances the current risk to civilians and endangers the possibility of a comprehensive resolution of the conflict.

Although both sides have committed human rights violations that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity since December 2013, neither the government nor opposition have consistently held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable for atrocities.

South Sudan requires ongoing 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 still not released its report. [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 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."

On 26 August the UN Secretary-General issued a statement welcoming the signing of the peace agreement. He called upon all parties: "to work in good faith to implement its provisions, beginning with a permanent cease-fire and the granting of unhindered freedom of movement to UNMISS and to humanitarian actors working to reach people in need of urgent assistance."

The UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement on 27 August that welcomed the signing of the peace agreement. It also called upon all parties to adhere to the ceasefire and expressed the UNSC's willingness to address violations of the agreement by imposing an arms embargo and additional sanctions.

NECESSARY ACTION: After 21 months of war, the government and rebels must permanently end armed hostilities and fully implement all provisions of the peace agreement. 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 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 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.

The AU should expeditiously establish the HCSS, which should investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013. UNMISS' Human Rights Division must continue its investigations into violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and publish its findings. The AU should also publish the findings of the 2014 AU-CoI.

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 September 2015