Populations at Risk Imminent Risk

South Sudan

The possible resumption of civil war in South Sudan poses an imminent threat to populations who may be targeted on the basis of ethnicity and presumed political loyalties.
BACKGROUND: Political turmoil in South Sudan continues following five days of intense fighting in Juba from 7 to 11 July between elements of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO). Heavy fighting, including tanks and helicopter gunships, was reported in Juba, particularly in the Jebel area near a UN base protecting thousands of civilians. Following an 11 July ceasefire, First Vice President Riek Machar fled Juba and was replaced on 24 July by Taban Deng Gai, whose nomination by the fractured opposition was accepted by President Salva Kiir. The UN warned the appointment was a violation of the August 2015 peace agreement.

Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were reportedly killed during the five days of fighting. Two UN compounds were hit by mortar and artillery fire, killing at least eight people. Approximately 42,000 people were displaced in Juba. Many civilians attempting to flee to UN bases were reportedly prevented from doing so and some were subjected to targeted killings. Government forces perpetrated sexual violence against women and girls, especially ethnic Nuer, in Juba. Several rapes took place near a UN base where peacekeepers reportedly witnessed the attacks but failed to act. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded 217 incidences of sexual violence between 8 and 25 July. On 1 August UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) condemned the sexual violence and noted that such acts may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In response to the violence, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) proposed on 5 August the deployment of a Regional Protection Force to support UNMISS. On 12 August the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2304 which authorized the deployment of the 4000-strong Regional Protection Force.

The fighting in Juba comes nearly a year after President Kiir and Machar agreed to end the country's 2013-2015 civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan" in August 2015. The power-sharing agreement called for a permanent ceasefire, as well as the establishment of an independent Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) to investigate mass atrocities committed during the conflict. Machar returned to Juba on 26 April to be sworn in as First Vice President, and the Transitional Government was formed on 29 April. Despite some progress, President Kiir and Machar were criticized for their half-hearted implementation of the peace agreement.

The civil war was the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions. Over the following 18 months, the worst fighting was between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to President Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least 24 armed militias loosely aligned with either side, including the powerful Nuer White Army, have been operating in South Sudan.

Between 2013 and 2015 parties to the civil war engaged in widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. OHCHR published a report on 11 March, noting that all parties to the conflict had committed systematic violations which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. UNICEF estimates that more than 16,000 children were forcibly recruited during the civil war. The AU's Commission of Inquiry reported that between December 2013 and September 2014 government and rebel forces committed "indiscriminate killings of civilians" in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.

On 17 February there was an outbreak of inter-communal violence inside the UN site in Malakal, which was sheltering 48,000 IDPs. There are allegations that SPLA soldiers entered the camp and fired upon civilians before being repelled by UNMISS peacekeepers. The fighting left 25 people dead and displaced over 26,000. On 11 March the UN established a High-Level Board of Inquiry to investigate UNMISS' response and subsequently accepted responsibility for failing to adequately protect civilians. The inquiry also concluded that it was "highly likely that the attack was planned, or at a minimum supported by SPLA and/or affiliated militia to facilitate the ethnic reconfiguration of Malakal."

At least 50,000 people were killed during the 2013 to 2015 civil war, which has resulted in nearly 1.7 million IDPs and 900,000 refugees, according to UNHCR. Prior to the recent violence in Juba and Wau over 160,000 people were still taking refuge in six UNMISS bases across the country, which have been frequently targeted for attack. Since the July fighting more civilians have sought UN protection, which UNMISS lacks the capacity to adequately provide.

ANALYSIS: Political instability, endemic corruption and sustained violence have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its five years of independence. The resumption of fighting in Juba and the split in the SPLA-IO puts civilians at grave risk of mass atrocity crimes. Attacks on populations sheltering at UN protection sites demonstrates a clear disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

Despite the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity, the peace agreement was never fully implemented and the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed. The rapid descent into large-scale fighting in Juba during July highlights the difficulty of achieving a sustainable peace process under the current political leadership. Ethnic tensions also continue to be exacerbated by officials using hate speech to incite violence. The government initially publicly rejected the Regional Protection Force, but has since indicated its willingness to consider the proposed force. The government has routinely obstructed UNMISS, hampering its ability to uphold its mandate.

A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities in South Sudan. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is still struggling to protect vulnerable populations.

The Transitional Government of National Unity has failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes. UNMISS requires urgent international assistance in order to uphold its civilian protection mandate.

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

On 22 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing a commission to investigate human rights abuses in South Sudan.

On 31 May the UNSC adopted Resolution 2290 extending the sanctions regime until 31 May 2017 and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 1 July 2017. The resolution also emphasized that the "Transitional Government of National Unity bears the primary responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity." Six senior military figures, three from each side, are currently subject to sanctions.

The UN Secretary-General, IGAD, AU and other key international partners all condemned the renewed violence in Juba and urged all parties to cease armed hostilities. On 10 July the UNSC held an emergency meeting and issued a Press Statement condemning attacks against civilians and demanding that President Kiir and First Vice President Machar urgently end the fighting.

UNSC Resolution 2304 of 12 August extended UNMISS' mandate until 15 December and emphasized that the Transitional Government of National Unity bears the primary responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities. The resolution authorized the Regional Protection Force and threatened the imposition of an arms embargo if the government continues to obstruct UNMISS from fulfilling its mandate.

NECESSARY ACTION: The Transitional Government of National Unity must abide by the cessation of hostilities and fully implement all provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement and UNSC Resolution 2304. The government, SPLA and SPLA-IO must ensure that UNMISS and the Regional Protection Force are able to move freely and without threats to their personnel. The inviolability of UN compounds must be respected.

IGAD must expeditiously establish and deploy the Regional Protection Force authorized in Resolution 2304. UNMISS and the Regional Protection Force must robustly implement their civilian protection mandate. The international community should immediately enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems.

If the government continues to obstruct UNMISS, the UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo and extend targeted sanctions in keeping with Resolution 2304.

The AU should expeditiously establish the HCSS and ensure it has the resources to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013, including commissioning a special investigation into the July violence in Juba. The government, AU and the international community must hold those responsible for atrocities in South Sudan accountable, regardless of affiliation or position.

Last Updated: 15 August 2016