Renewed fighting between elements of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO), as well as other rebel groups, has erupted throughout South Sudan, particularly in Equatoria and Upper Nile. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the UN Security Council (UNSC) last December that the country was on a "trajectory towards mass atrocities" and denounced the rise in hate speech and ethnic mobilization. The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan stated on 1 December that there is already "ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages." On 7 February the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned that "the risk that mass atrocities will be committed remains ever-present."
According to the UN, civilians who fled renewed fighting during January reported "killing of civilians, destruction of homes, sexual violence, and looting of livestock and property, and cited fear of arrest and torture." During February a confidential UN report warned that the fighting had already reached "catastrophic proportions." Parts of South Sudan are currently experiencing famine, which the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan has called a "man made" situation caused by the government. According to the UN, more than 84,000 people have fled South Sudan since the start of 2017.
The latest violence follows five days of intense fighting from 7-11 July 2016 between elements of the SPLA and armed rebels of the SPLA-IO. Heavy combat, including tanks and helicopter gunships, took place in Juba. 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.
Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were reportedly killed during the July fighting and 42,000 people were displaced in Juba. Some civilians attempting to flee to UN bases were subjected to targeted killings on the basis of ethnicity. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported that widespread sexual violence, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, took place during the July violence.
On 5 August the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) proposed the deployment of a Regional Protection Force (RPF) to support UNMISS. On 12 August the UNSC adopted Resolution 2304, authorizing the deployment of the 4,000-strong RPF. Despite the consent of the Transitional Government of National Unity and President Kiir reconfirming commitment to the regional force, no meaningful progress has been made towards the RPF's deployment.
The fighting in Juba occurred nearly a year after President Kiir and Machar had agreed to end the country's civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan" during 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 atrocities committed during the conflict. Between 2013-2015 parties to the civil war engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, with both sides targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. The government has repeatedly delayed the formation of the HCSS.
The civil war was the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between the SPLA and SPLA-IO. 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, continue to operate in South Sudan. At least 50,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million people fled South Sudan between December 2013 and January 2017. An additional 2.1 million people are still internally displaced.
Political instability and sustained violence have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its five years of independence. The resumption of fighting leaves civilians at direct risk of potential mass atrocity crimes, particularly during the dry season when troops are able to be more mobile.
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. A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities. The UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan has reported that deliberate policies by parties to the conflict have "exacerbated the political, tribal and ethnic drivers of the war."
The government has previously obstructed UNMISS. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is still struggling to protect vulnerable populations.
The government of South Sudan has failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for past mass atrocity crimes.
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. Six senior military figures, three from both the SPLA and SPLA-IO, are currently subject to sanctions.
On 14 December, during a UN Human Rights Council special emergency session on South Sudan, a resolution was adopted, emphasizing that the government of South Sudan has "the primary responsibility to protect all populations in the country from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."
On 15 December the UNSC adopted a resolution extending UNMISS' mandate for an additional year. The resolution also authorized UNMISS to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence in cooperation with the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. On 23 December the UNSC failed to adopt a resolution authorizing an arms embargo and further targeted sanctions when eight members of the Council abstained from voting.
On 29 January during a meeting held on the sidelines of the African Union Summit, the UN, IGAD and African Union (AU) agreed that full implementation of the 2015 peace agreement is the only means of achieving lasting peace in South Sudan. The UN, AU and IGAD issued a joint press statement expressing "deep concerns over the continuing spread of fighting, and risk of inter-communal violence escalating into mass atrocities."
On 10 February the UNSC issued a Press Statement condemning continued fighting across South Sudan, particularly in Equatoria and Upper Nile, as well as all attacks directed against civilians.
The Transitional Government must fully implement all provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement and UNSC Resolution 2304. All political and community leaders should publicly condemn the use of ethnic hate speech. The government, SPLA and SPLA-IO must ensure that UNMISS is able to move freely and without threats to their personnel. The inviolability of UN compounds must be respected.
IGAD, together with the Transitional Government, must expeditiously establish and deploy the RPF. The international community should immediately enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems. UNMISS must be enabled to fully implement its mandate, especially regarding providing adequate protection to vulnerable civilians.
The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and expand targeted sanctions against those deemed to be prolonging, exacerbating or profiting from ongoing conflict.
The AU should 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 international community must hold those responsible for atrocities in South Sudan accountable, regardless of their affiliation or position.
Last Updated: 15 March 2017