Populations at Risk Serious Concern

South Sudan

Despite the August 2015 peace agreement, civilians in South Sudan remain at serious risk of mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Despite an improvement in the security situation in South Sudan since November, both the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and armed rebels have routinely violated a peace agreement signed in August, with heavy fighting reported in Unity, Upper Nile and Western Bahr el Ghazal states. Most recently, on 11 April the SPLA attacked a cantonment site occupied by opposition forces in Numatina, Western Bahr el Ghazal, in direct contravention of the ceasefire.

On 17 February there was an outbreak of inter-communal violence between armed elements from the Shilluk and Dinka communities inside the UN site in Malakal, which was sheltering 48,000 IDPs. There are allegations that some SPLA soldiers entered the camp and fired upon civilians before being repelled by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The fighting left more than 25 people dead, including 3 humanitarian workers, and displaced over 26,000. On 11 March the UN established a High-Level Board of Inquiry to investigate UNMISS' response. The UN launched a separate Special Investigation on 26 April.

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 Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) to investigate mass atrocities committed during the conflict.

On 24 December President Kiir divided the country's 10 states into 28 new states, complicating the agreed-upon power-sharing formula and aggravating tensions with the former rebels. On 7 January the parties reached an agreement on the division of ministries, but missed a 22 January deadline to establish the Transitional Government of National Unity. On 17 January opposition politicians withdrew from Juba in protest over the re-division of states. Following a number of delays, Machar returned to Juba on 26 April to be sworn in as First Vice President, and the Transitional Government was formed on 29 April.

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 then-former Vice President, of an attempted coup. Over the following 18 months, the worst fighting was between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to 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.

Parties to the civil war engaged in widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, and targeted civilians as part of their military tactics. 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, widespread mass atrocities were perpetrated. It noted that "indiscriminate killings of civilians" were committed by government and rebel forces in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.

OHCHR published a report on 11 March on the human rights situation in South Sudan, noting that all parties to the conflict had committed systematic violations, which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. The report accused the government of pursuing a "scorched earth" policy, deliberately targeting civilians, and highlighted the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war by the SPLA and affiliated militias in Unity state. According to the 22 January report of the Panel of Experts on South Sudan, the dire humanitarian situation in Unity state "reflects the devastating results of the Government's systematic attack against its own citizens."

At least 50,000 people were killed during the civil war and over 186,600 people are still taking refuge in six UNMISS bases across the country. According to UNHCR, the conflict has resulted in nearly 1.7 million IDPs and 706,000 refugees. Other local conflicts, including fighting in Wau County, Western Bahr el Ghazal, in late March resulted in the displacement of thousands. A cattle raid into Ethiopia by men from the Murle community on 15 April resulted in 208 killed and 108 children kidnapped. Ethiopia has vowed to take punitive military action against Murle militias.

ANALYSIS: Ongoing fighting in parts of South Sudan and the failure to uphold past ceasefires highlights the difficulty in achieving a sustainable peace process. While violence has not reached the same levels as before the August agreement, civilians remain at risk. The defection of several rebel commanders, some of whom have previously perpetrated mass atrocities, increases the threat to vulnerable civilians.

A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of violence and mass atrocities in South Sudan. Due to the breakdown of fighting along ethnic lines during the civil war, there is an ongoing risk of revenge killings during the transition. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is struggling to protect populations.

The Transitional Government of National Unity requires international assistance to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes.

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

On 15 December the UNSC adopted Resolution 2252, which extended UNMISS' mandate until 31 July 2016. The resolution emphasized that the government of South Sudan "bears the primary responsibility to protect its populations from crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide."

On 18 February the UN Secretary-General condemned the violence in Malakal and called upon all parties to refrain from "stoking ethnic disputes." The following day the UNSC issued a Press Statement, stressing that "attacks against civilians and United Nations premises may constitute war crimes."

Following a meeting with President Kiir in Juba on 25 February, the UN Secretary-General emphasized the importance of fully implementing the peace agreement and urged the government to allow unfettered humanitarian access.

On 17 March 2016 the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement expressing concern over delays in implementation of the peace agreement and calling upon the government to "uphold its responsibility for the protection of civilians."

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

On 7 April the UNSC adopted Resolution 2280 extending the sanctions regime until 1 June and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 1 July. Six senior military figures, three from each side, are currently subject to sanctions.

On 4 May the UNSC issued a Press Statement welcoming the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity and underscoring "the pressing need for accountability for violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law in South Sudan." It also condemned a 25 April attack on the UNMISS compound in Bentiu, noting that such attacks may constitute war crimes.

NECESSARY ACTION: After two years of civil war, the government and rebels must swiftly establish transitional institutions and fully implement all provisions of the peace agreement. The UNSC and Intergovernmental Authority on Development should immediately impose targeted sanctions against any 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 and respect the inviolability of UN compounds.

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 to investigate violations of IHL and expeditiously publish its findings. The findings of the high-level board of inquiry should be made public.

The government must hold all perpetrators of atrocities accountable, regardless of affiliation or position, and initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at strengthening the peace process, particularly the establishment of the Commission for Truth, Healing and Reconciliation.


Last Updated: 15 May 2016