Populations at Risk Imminent Risk

South Sudan

Renewed fighting in South Sudan's civil war puts civilians at imminent risk of further mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: On 15 August, shortly after the end of a UN Security Council (UNSC) visit, heavy fighting resumed between government and rebel forces around Bentiu, Unity state, and Ayod, Jonglei state, putting civilians at imminent risk of further mass atrocities. At the time of publication, intense fighting was reported around Bentiu, a town that has changed hands several times and where atrocities were committed in April. Civilians in South Sudan continue to be threatened despite three peace agreements signed by President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, the former Vice President. While the onset of the rainy season initially decreased fighting between government and rebel forces, violent clashes continued in Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile states, resulting in large-scale civilian displacement.

Earlier fighting was reported on 20 July when opposition forces launched an attack on Nassir Town, Upper Nile state. Government forces responded with a counter offensive on 23 July and retook the town. Fighting was also reported between the Mabanese Defence Forces (MDF), a community-based self defence militia, and deserting Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers around Bunj, Upper Nile State, on 4 August. The MDF has targeted ethnic Nuers and killed at least six aid workers. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has dispatched troops and evacuated humanitarian workers from the area.

The ongoing civil war is the result of a conflict that started between SPLA soldiers from rival political and ethnic groups. Over 10,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced since 15 December, including 95,500 who have sought refuge in ten designated sites within UNMISS bases across the country. The fighting began after President Kiir accused Machar, 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 the President and former Vice-President, respectively.

Both sides violated a 23 January Cessation of Hostilities (COH) agreement almost immediately after it was signed. Following direct negotiations, President Kiir and Machar signed a subsequent 9 May peace agreement, which called for "an immediate cessation of hostilities within 24 hours." Negotiators from both sides met on 4 August to resume peace negotiations under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The parties failed to meet a 10 August deadline to form a transitional government, shortly before the resumption of large-scale armed hostilities.

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 SPLA either defecting or deserting. Continued fighting despite three peace agreements reveals a lack of commitment to a political solution. The ethnic dimension to the conflict increases the risk to civilians, especially as heavy fighting appears to have resumed around several major towns.

The rainy season has hindered UNMISS' ability to protect civilians since May, but also reduced the capacity of both sides to fight as most roads were flooded. The UN had already warned that both parties to the conflict were mobilizing forces and amassing weapons ahead of the start of the dry season in early October.

The government of South Sudan requires international assistance to reestablish security throughout the country and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes. With resource deficits and challenges to their mobility, UNMISS is struggling to support the government in upholding its Responsibility to Protect.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:On 27 May the UNSC adopted Resolution 2155 extending UNMISS' civilian protection mandate until November 2014 and noting 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." [For responses prior to May 2014, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]

The IGAD Heads of State and Government adopted a Communiqué welcoming the 10 June agreement. The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council adopted a similar Communiqué on 12 June and also threatened targeted sanctions in the event of non-compliance with the COH.

The UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement on 8 July, which condemned repeated violations of the ceasefire and expressed its readiness to use targeted sanctions against those who have undermined peace in South Sudan. The UNSC visited Juba on 12 August where they met with President Kiir and also spoke to Machar via video teleconference.

NECESSARY ACTION:The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose targeted sanctions on all political and military leaders deemed responsible for a resumption of large-scale armed hostilities and for previous mass atrocities.

President Kiir and Machar must abide by the commitments made under the COH and continue to engage with IGAD to resolve the crisis. The UNSC, AU and major international supporters of South Sudan, especially the United States, should establish a Contact Group and ensure both parties cease hostilities and implement the 9 May peace agreement.

UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the rapid provision of additional troops.

UNMISS' Human Rights Division and the AU Commission of Inquiry must continue their investigations of extra-judicial killings and possible mass executions. The government must hold all perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable, regardless of their affiliation or position.

The government of South Sudan must initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at ethnic and political reconciliation.

Last Updated: 15 August 2014